1. Jenna Brennan
2. Cole Zamora
3. Jenna Brennan
4. Cole Zamora
5. Jenna Brennan
6. Cole Zamora
7. Jenna Brennan
8. Cole Zamora
9. Jenna Brennan
10. Cole Zamora
11. Jenna Brennan
12. Cole Zamora
13. Jenna Brennan
14. Cole Zamora
15. Jenna Brennan
About Jo Noelle
Copyright © 2017 by Jo Noelle
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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The loud-speakers crackle over the noise in the concourse. “Flight number 211 from Anchorage to Seattle has been delayed for approximately two hours. Please watch the flight monitors for updates.”
A collective moan permeates the air as travelers at our gate realize they’ll miss all their connections. Apparently, our plane has been grounded, which does not inspire confidence in air travel since that same plane just landed an hour ago, and we will either board a different plane being sent here, or we’ll have to wait while a new part is installed. New plane, please.
The woman next to me pulls out an iPad as I take out my phone to text Cole. [_You’ll have to miss me for a couple more hours. _]Something niggles my brain—I hope he’s missed me, but I have some doubt. I wonder how he feels about me working there this summer—we’ll be around each other a lot. He’s probably fine, and I’m worrying over nothing.
And really, I’m only going because Uncle Walter called me every day for a week suggesting, then asking, then begging me to come out and work one more year.
Each time, I could see Uncle Walter in my head. When I first met him, he was tall and strong, his hair salted with gray. Over the years, he’s aged when I’ve returned. His wrinkles deepened and multiplied. The gray overtook the brown, and his thick hair receded at the temples. The features of his face are still there in his square jawline and classic nose. His smile is large, but his lips are thin, matching his dry sense of humor. I wonder how he’s aged this time. That’s why I couldn’t say no—I want to be around him before I can’t anymore.
I finish my text to Cole and send it.[_ The plane broke. I’ll send you the new arrival time when I know._]
My phone pings right away with Cole’s reply: Better late than dead. See you soon. The lighthearted response calms my nerves about being around him again.
I start scrolling through Facebook, but there’s nothing really new to look at since I checked it five minutes ago. Out of the corner of my eye, I glance at the iPad. That’s Gwyneth Paltrow. I love Emma! I should have downloaded movies. Maybe I have a new email. Nope.
My fingers drum on the back of my phone. I toss it in my bag, deciding to make a new friend, then tap the woman on the shoulder. “Can I watch with you?” I try to give her my most sincere I’m-not-a-crazy-person smile.
She pulls the earbuds from the speaker jack. “Oh, sure, honey. Scoot close.” She turns up the sound surprisingly loud, holding the device between us.
Near the end of the movie, they announce that our flight will be boarding in twenty minutes. We’ll have just enough time to finish, and I return my eyes to the small screen to watch as one of my favorite scenes comes on.
Emma is praying that if she cannot have her Mr. Knightley, then he should remain single all his life and never marry, and neither would she. Their friendship would last forever.
The woman whispers loudly, “How can she not see that she’s in love with him? They’ve been friends forever. But she’s in love.” Then she covers her mouth. “I’m not spoiling this for you, am I?”
“No. I’ve seen this one a few times.” It makes me laugh how crazy things were in Regency times.
The credits roll, and boarding is called for my section. “Thanks for letting me watch. That movie never gets old.”
“Nice to have company. Enjoy your trip.” She gathers her bags and joins the line for first-class passengers as I move to the general boarding line. She must have stayed past her call to let me watch the end of the movie.
The plane is almost full when I approach my aisle, marked by a balding mid-forties man sporting a slick black comb-over. One of my mom’s so-called proverbs jumps forward in my mind: Never judge a man’s looks until you’ve weighed his wallet.
My own thought is quick to snap back. But I can judge him by his lecherous eyes roving over me top to bottom. She would have noted that his clothes were casual but not wearing out on the knees or hem, that his shoes were new, that he wore an expensive watch. She would have given him a chance to be my next dad. Eww.
I’m glad he’s sitting on the aisle. Apparently, no one told him that you shouldn’t eat onions before you board a flight—the odor hovers around him as I scoot past the middle chair and drop into my window seat.
A few minutes later, a woman hobbles toward us with a crutch under one arm, checking and rechecking her boarding pass. “I think you’re in my seat,” she says to the man.
He looks down at her right leg in a knee brace. “Looks like you won’t want to switch seats with me,” he says, but still sounds like he wants her to.
She shakes her head, and he moves to the middle. “Doesn’t hurt to sit between two attractive women.” In the process, he flips up the armrest between his seat and mine. “That’ll give us a little more room,” he adds with a wink.
Only if he plans to sit on my seat. “No, thanks.” Suppressing a shiver, I pull it back down. I’m not a thigh-touch kind of person. I give him a bright smile so he doesn’t take offense. Even if the flight from Anchorage to SeaTac is less than four hours, we still have to be neighbors for that long.
“Want a mint?” he asks, holding a small box toward me, where there are only three mints left. If his breath were animated, there would be gray and brown worms slithering through decaying roadkill. He’s going to need them all.
“No.” I squeeze out the word and reach above me to twist open the air jet to dilute the smell before I have to inhale. It’s either freeze or gag—I’ll take the Arctic air.
When the pilot announces that we’re ready for departure, I pull out my phone and send a text to Cole before the cabin door is shut: Already had a border dispute. My flight lands at two twenty this afternoon. See you. I hit send, then set the phone to airplane mode.
I miss Cole. We’ve spent every summer together since we were ten, when I began visiting Uncle Walter at the cottages. His nutmeg-brown hair never quite short enough to stay out of his eyes, Cole was there doing odd jobs while his mom cleaned the cabins. He was all knees and elbows, running through the trees and cabins or racing me to the beach. Cole always had a scab somewhere, and a harrowing story to go with it.
We made forts out of the clean sheets—more than once, even though Walter yelled every time—and wandered around in the forest for hours.
Near the end, a week before we said good-bye, Cole gave me a story he wrote about a beautiful (aww) seagull named Jenna (me) who married an otter named (yup) Cole.
His mom and Uncle Walter got a kick out of teasing us about that. I tried to shrug it off, but when I got home, I put the papers in my wooden treasure box.
The year we were thirteen, we made plans to have a fishing business, harvesting clams and oysters until we had enough money to buy a boat and shrimp cages. We’d make a fortune, and it would cost us nothing. We sat on a boulder and wrote out ideas in a notebook.
With our heads bent together and our arms or legs brushing against each other’s, I noticed that Cole was a guy, and dreamed of getting my first kiss on this beach from him.
The next summer when I came back, he’d noticed girls. His friends from school came down to the cottages often, and if I wanted to be around Cole, I had to go with the group.
The day of the bonfire broke my heart. After eating hot dogs, throwing fries, and shaking soda cans so they’d explode, he’d slipped off with one of the girls, but not far enough away that I couldn’t watch them kiss. My heart shriveled while they stood on our beach lip to lip.
Who falls in love when they’re fourteen, anyway?
I thought I had.
I ran across the seagull story the other day, and homesickness for my best friend kicked in. I hope that’s what he still is. Two summers ago, we were dating, but after last summer, I wouldn’t blame him if he shifts my status to coworker.
Last year, I didn’t go to Washington because of an internship in Colorado I needed to complete my hospitality degree. I’m lying to myself, and I know it. I wasn’t ready emotionally, but he was, so I ran. While it’s true that I had an internship, the reason I arranged it was to stay away from Washington, and away from him. Before I can consider those thoughts too deeply, I tuck the feelings away—far, far away.
And now that we’ve both finished college, this will be the last summer we spend together. I’ve taken a job managing a lodge in Idaho, starting in September.
The plane pushes back from the gate, and soon we’re rumbling down the runway to take off. The lecher beside me pretends to be looking out the window, but he’s clearly eyeing my shirt. I slam the window shade down, so he doesn’t have the excuse to look this way, and fold my arms across my chest tightly to reduce the jiggle.
“Bumpy takeoff, huh?” Lecher-guy gives a creepy laugh.
Ugh, I hate that. My mom’s voice interrupts again.[_ Let a man appreciate your body—it’s your most powerful weapon. _]That might be some of the worse advice my mother ever gave. I turn away and stare out the widow by the seat in front of me.
The minutes pass slowly, but I’m learning some life lessons. Always download enough movies to keep you looking busy for the entire length of the flight. Earbuds don’t completely mute unwelcome flirting from the guy next door. Generosity is not expected—no, I don’t want your mints, magazine, peanuts, overpriced cheese snack, or the rant that goes with the airline gouging you for said snacks.
From the air, the Cascade Range resembles a green shag carpet sculpted in an indecipherable pattern instead of the valleys and towering peaks I’ve spent my summers exploring.
Maybe if I keep staring out this window, the guy in the next seat will take a hint and stop flirting, although now I feel sorry for the woman in the aisle seat. When he’s not trying to get my attention, he tries to get hers. Apparently, he doesn’t like to fly and has kept a steady stream of drinks coming his way.
Suddenly, a completely new pungent odor assaults me. Of course it’s the guy—he’s kicked his shoes off.
The flight attendant responds to my call light. “May I help you?” he asks as he pushes the signal off.
“Is there a vacant seat where I could move?” I smile sweetly. Is it appropriate to slip him a twenty?
“Hey, you can’t leave. We were just getting to know each other,” Dirty-sock Lush says.
I recoil at his comment and try again. “Anywhere? I’ll even sit by the bathrooms.” Oh, please, please, please.
“I’m sorry. Every seat is full.” The flight attendant gives me an understanding look, then moves away.
“See there—ith’s a sign. Maybe you should—maybe you should give me—your number, and we could spend a little time together in Seattle. How long are you staying?”
Ew, no! “I won’t be seeing you after this flight.”
The woman seated on the other side of him adds, “And put on your shoes. You stink.”
A flash of shock crosses his face, but thankfully, the speaker crackles to life with the pilot’s voice. “We’re making our final approach to SeaTac International. We’ll be landing at two seventeen p.m. local time. The temperature is fifty-eight degrees. Flight crew, please make your final check of the cabin and prepare for landing.”
Yay! Home stretch.
Puget Sound sparkles like diamonds out my window, but there are too many low clouds to see my beach farther west on Hood Canal. There’s no green like here, and I’ve missed it. What I love about Washington in the summer is that the part of the earth that isn’t covered with water, is covered with trees and grass.
Alaska has this for a couple of months were everything goes crazy before it gets cold again.
I can hardly wait to take my first breath outside—the air is fresh with a hint of salt. I lean back against the headrest to gaze out the window. Peace. Home. That’s what this place brings me, and I haven’t felt it for two years.
When people ask me where I grew up, well, that’s not an easy question to answer. Before college, I lived in California with my mother. During college, I lived in Anchorage while attending the University of Alaska. Soon I’ll be moving to Idaho—I imagine I’ll do some growing up there too.
When they ask me where’s home, that’s easy—my heart answers, Washington, and Misty Harbor Cottages specifically. The first time I saw them, I thought they all looked like dollhouses. Of course they’re bigger than that.
Each one had a unique personality. One oldest one had a log cabin look and another was dressed up with frilly gingerbread adornments along the roof and porch. Since they stood near each other on the property, I thought they must be married. The smallest cottage was covered in steel blue shingles—it, of course, was their baby. The other three were trimmed with bright colors—green, blue, red. I imagined the six of them to be great friends. Each year as I drove up to Misty Harbor, the cottages were first to welcome me home.
I knew Uncle Walter and Aunt Belle had a special love. My mom spoke of it. She always looked a little confused about it when she did. There was something at Misty Harbor to think about, maybe learn from because Uncle Walter loved me from our first meeting. He just decided to and has kept it up all these years.
I think it was Thomas Wolfe who said you can’t go home again—I hope he’s wrong.
It was thirty-nine degrees when I left Anchorage this morning, which felt like spring, and I considered not bringing my coat at all. Glad I did. As we make our descent, I pull it out from under the seat in front of me and wrap it across my chest to make a lecher blind. I’m hoping for a smooth landing, but take precautions anyway.
As soon as I turn my phone back on, it dings with a message from Cole. I’ll be there in case you’re early.
I send one more text as we taxi to a stop at the gangway. Meet me at the baggage claim.
Since Comb-over is the middle seat, he’s supposed to go out before me, but instead, he steps back in the aisle and motions me to exit first. When I leave the gate and head to baggage claim, he’s a half-step behind me.
He taps the small of my back and says, “Let’s get a bite to eat before we leave the airport.”
“No.” I shiver with an inner cringe and take longer strides, hoping to outpace him.
He catches up at the corner and stands behind me on the escalator, right behind me—like the very next tread. “You wanna share a cab?” he slurs over my shoulder.
If he weren’t so drunk, he’d know I’m avoiding him. “No.” Who says you can’t walk down the down escalator? Since there’s no one in front of me, I do.
Near the bottom, I see Cole standing by a luggage carousel, his camera raised, and his lips in a wide grin behind it. When the camera drops, he gives a small wave, and his smile is still huge as he walks toward me.
Am I forgiven for last summer? My heart surges, and I can barely breathe—oh, I’ve missed him. Cole’s wearing his hair shorter than before, making his dark eyes stand out. I must be an eyes girl. His wiry frame has been replaced by lean muscle. Oh, maybe I’m an arms-girl.
When my feet hit the tile floor, I’m practically speed walking toward him.
The man’s voice behind me sounds shrill. “I’m staying at the Sheraton. Downtown.”
I fall into Cole’s arms. Safe. His face is buried in my hair. When my chin lifts, his firm lips capture mine. His hands move to my cheeks, and I can’t help but tighten my arms around his neck. Home.
The first crushing kiss has melted into a slow dance of his lips with mine. Then with a low growl I’m not positive I hear, he breaks the kiss, but thankfully doesn’t move away. I doubt I could stand with the dizzying spin in my head.
Oh, that should never have happened. I swallow back confusion dipped in embarrassment. What was I thinking? It’s just that we’re so familiar with each other. And I was trying to get away from the creep. If I were interested in loving one man for a lifetime, that kiss would have me considering marriage. But I’m not. And… how do I… just pretend it’s no big deal.
His musky scent invites me to draw closer. I’m tempted to go with it, but knowing we have history that could jump right back into place, I’m afraid I’d end up running away from him again.
I can still appreciate the kiss. I so did not know Cole well enough all these years. Ten minutes ago, Cole was just a boy I’ve known forever. Now, I can only think of him as a man. I’m sure he’s been that for years, but he’s a new person to me—and wow! I want to stand in his arms and feel him holding me to him. A part of me—not the rational part—wants us to give it another try.
“Welcome back.” With a chuckle and an impish smile that looks so much like twelve-year-old Cole. He sounds as breathless as I feel. “I guess I missed my best friend more than I thought.” His words blow lightly across my cheek.
Slight pink tinges his neck, but his arms relax, and I realize my fingers are twined in the hair at the base of his neck as he takes a step back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” Cole’s voice trails off.
It’s been two whole minutes, and I’ve already kissed him. I can’t start up a relationship and then leave. Focus, Jenna. “Yeah.” I give a slight shake to my head as my pulse thunders. His kiss is complete pleasure, but with a memory of pain. “Me neither.” Unless I did.
I stamp down the emotion from two years ago that’s threatening to break the surface as I turn toward the luggage carousel. Immediately, another one of the proverbs my mother lives by slithers into my thoughts. Never fall in love, only in like-a-lot, because one day, you’ll leave. “Let’s grab my bag and head out.”
“I already got it.” Cole lifts it from behind him and beams toward me.
Don’t look at his lips. I accidently just kissed those lips. “We literally landed five minutes ago, and I practically ran off the plane. “How did you get my bag?” Oh, I looked at his lips. “The luggage isn’t even on the carousel yet.”
He shrugs casually. “I know a guy.” His voice sounds confident, but he’s still got a little blush to his ears.
I probably still look pink too. “A guy can’t give you my bag. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
“He did. I win. Again.” He laughs and seems like a kid. Except in a hot twenty-three-year-old body.
“We weren’t competing.” A powerful relief fills me. He’s still my friend.
“I was. You owe me a drink.”
We can both use one of those.
I’m a coward. As soon as we drove into Misty Harbor Cottages and dropped Jenna’s bag at Walter’s place, I ditched out to do work, meaning, I hid by the farthest cottage, raking and gathering trash that blew in with last night’s storm. Then I straightened the rock barriers around the paths and raked any wayward pebbles back in before I rearranged the tool shed.
These were projects on my to-do list anyway. Glad I had the time to get to them. At least that’s what I tell myself. I only came in to Walter’s place right before dinner.
The whole time, I thought about Jenna. The change in her expression when our eyes met and how her smile teased a dimple in her right cheek. How perfect she felt in my arms. Her lips, so soft. Her hair, like flowing chocolate, smelling of coconut.
And even now as we’re finishing dinner in Walter’s kitchen, my mind is swirling with contradictory thoughts. Are we just friends? That kiss didn’t feel like it. In fact, I’ve never felt anything like it. All I can think about is we that should do it again, soon. My whole world shrank down to just us. Did it feel that way to Jenna?
Maybe my plans for winning her over this summer will work. It’s not such a big jump from attraction to admitting we’re good together. I have a hunch she left last time and stayed away because she was afraid of commitment. Her heart seemed all in, but then she’d back off without an explanation. In the end, she left and didn’t come back. Until now.
Right after the kiss, Jenna pulled back—not just from my arms, but she seemed to close off a little. Is she still afraid of love? But she’s here, so maybe not enough to completely stay away. I’ve got one summer—I’m going to have to play this just right.
Worried that one of these questions could easily tumble out of my mouth, I don’t think I’ve said ten words this whole meal.
Walter eyeballs us both as he finishes, an incredulous look on his face, then moves to the front room to watch the evening news while Jenna and I push food around on our plates. He yells over a commercial, “When you kids are done cleaning up, come in here. I have some important news.”
Doing the dishes should help take my mind off Jenna, but it doesn’t. I’m hyper-aware of where she is, wiping the table and stove, putting away leftovers.
I try to decide why she flew into my arms and why I reacted to her that way. It’s exactly what I would have dreamed of, but honestly, I never thought it would happen. Maybe it was the genuine smile she wore when she saw me in the crowd. Her eyes slid over me and then returned as her smile grew. Or maybe when she ran to me, like she was choosing me, not just visiting for the summer.
The surprise of holding her in my arms didn’t fully register until her demanding, sweet lips opened under mine. Again, my gut takes a quick tumble at the memory. Hopefully, I’m not just fooling myself, but it felt like there was more than friendship behind her kiss. Real passion—for me. I’m not going to get her out of my head easily tonight.
The dishwasher is full, and I add soap to the tray. While I push it shut and press start, I ask over my shoulder, “Do we need to talk about—?”
“No.” Jenna blushes and walks into the front room.
“Yeah, okay. But I just saw you blush.”
A moment later, I toss the hot pads and tablecloth into the laundry basket and walk into the front room. Jenna is on the loveseat and quickly swings her legs up onto the cushions. Hint taken—I sit in the other rocking chair, opposite Walter.
What’s so important that Walter waits for a formal sit-down instead of talking to us in the kitchen? Or even over dinner?
He clicks off the TV and is silent for a long moment. It’s not like Walter to be silent—ever—except this whole evening he has been. Jenna has a worried look, and I panic a little, wondering how bad the news is. Walter’s like a father to me. He’s been the only constant in my life for more than a decade.
“This is going to be my last season owning Misty Harbor Cottages. Fact is, I’m moving to San Diego to live with my sister after Labor Day.”
Jenna’s head snaps up in surprise.
“Not your mom, Jenna—our oldest sister.”
I slide to the edge of the seat and wait for an explanation, confusion tumbling through my head. Maybe this is one of his jokes.
“I turn sixty-two this August, so I’m retiring, and I want one of you to buy this place from me. The terms are going to be real reasonable. In fact, one of you is going to rob me blind, but I don’t need to make a fortune. You’ll get the place on payments over thirty years. Those payments will give me extra retirement income with none of the leaky roofs, wiring updates, tax filings, noisy tourists, or other necessary business headaches—those will be all yours.” He laughs like he’s pulling a prank and says, “You’re welcome. And if I die before the thirty years is up—” He shrugs.
This escalated fast. His death is not something I want to think about now, maybe ever. “You’re not going to die anytime soon.” I can’t imagine this place without Walter puttering around.
Jenna pipes up, “Besides, you can’t sell your home.”
He holds up his hand. “Home isn’t a place—it’s people. Now, let me say my piece. If I die earlier, the owner gets it all without the expectation of paying out the contract. I think both of you love the place, so I’m not considering any other offers unless I’m wrong and neither of you want it. I may be old, but I know a thing,” he looks at Jenna and then at me, “or two. I’d like the place to stay in the family. Do either of you want it on my terms?”
“I want it.” Jenna jumps from the couch at the same time I say, “I do.”
I pull out a coin and toss it into the air. Jenna plays along with a game we started years ago and calls, “Heads.” She always calls heads. I catch it and flip it onto the back of my hand. When I uncover it, it’s heads. I lean to show it to her and she yells, “I win. That’s good enough for me.”
“Now, none of that. It’s my place and my rules so I’ll decide the next owner.” Walter waves off the coin toss. “Okay, I figured you’d both want it, so I’ve decided we’ll have a little competition, a friendly competition.”
Friendly, Jenna mouths toward me.
“Jenna, your uncle said it has to be friendly.”
“You too,” she replies.
I draw a halo over my head. It feels good to spar with Jenna. Last year, the place was crawling with tourists, but it felt empty without her. I’ve got one summer to make her want to stay—not just here, but with me.
There’s an almost physical need to win the cottages, to follow in Walter’s path, and to prove myself to Jenna. I’m not like the other men her mom has brought into her life. I’m here to stay, and I want a chance to show her that.
I thought I’d have more time to work out the purchase with Walter, not to be in a matchup against Jenna. But I always like competing with her. That’ll kick a little excitement into this summer.
“I’m family. Blood is thicker than water.” She pins me with a teasing look. “You can back out now.”
“If Walter thought that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” I turn to him. “I’m in.” The plus side is that this will be even more affordable than an outright purchase. I face Jenna and say, “And I intend to own this place.”
“You’ll compete against each other, and whoever wins becomes the owner of Misty Harbor Cottages.”
Jenna points at me, then points down. I shake my head in reply.
Walter continues to explain. “There are three rounds, and the last round counts for more than the first two, making for a real interesting finish.” He gets out of his chair. “Follow me,” he says and returns to the kitchen.
He opens the pantry door where he’s tacked a sign inside with the three rounds listed. How did we not notice that earlier?
“Round one is all about customer service. The customers will rate each of you. This one will be our May contest. Round two—create a marketing idea that brings in the most net income between now and the end of June. Round three—this is the big one. You’ll each have twenty thousand dollars to renovate one of the cottages. I’ll announce the winner on July thirty-first.”
“If we can pick the cottage, I want Willow.” I’ve thought about what kind of changes I could make to that cottage every time I’ve gone in for a repair. It’s one of the smaller cabins, without distinguishing features or style. I can imagine the new windows and the addition I’d make.
In fact, over the years, I’ve remodeled every cabin in Misty Harbor time and again in my mind. This is the first time I’ve imagined it would be something Jenna and I did together. I like where this is going.
“Fine.” Walter looks at Jenna. “Which one for you?”
“I guess the game starts now.” He shuts the pantry door, walks back to the front room, and flips on the TV with Jenna and I still leaning against the counters.
“So, about this morning—” I begin. I anticipate Jenna’s move and step in front of her to block her exit from the kitchen.
Her eyes flash, then dim and become as unreadable as stone. “It was nothing.” Her voice doesn’t sound like it’s nothing. It sounds like she is whispering to herself when she says, “Maybe I shouldn’t have come.”
No. This is perfect. In fact, Uncle Walter couldn’t have provided a more seductive proposition to make her stay for the summer. She loves competition, and she loves Misty Harbor. This might be my best chance for winning both this summer too.
Jenna continues in a snippy tone. “I think you forgot who you were meeting at the airport. We’ve been friends long enough for me to meet the kind of girls you date. I’ve seen you in action more summers than you can deny.” Her hands fly around over her head. “Claire with the hair. Jessica, who wore bikini tops instead of shirts.”
“I was in high school.” We shouldn’t be talking about past kisses. I’d rather talk about kissing her.
“Karen. Sara. Margo.”
She did not just go there. Fine. “Dave. Tim. Adam. You’ve kissed a few toads yourself. And those twins who pretended to be the same guy.” Jenna winces at the mention of them. “That’s right. You kissed them both.”
“Fine. You’ve made your point. A kiss is not a big deal.” She shoves her hand toward me. “Still friends.”
I’m reluctant to take it. A kiss is not a big deal—usually. Friends for now, and maybe more later. I shake her hand. “Definitely friends.”
Before I leave, I look into her eyes, then lean very close to her ear. “Oh, Jenna?” My voice is rough with emotion. Aiming my breath below her earlobe I say, “The kiss—it was a big deal.” Little goose bumps cover her shoulder and arm. Before she can say anything, I leave, and the screen door squeaks behind me.
The next morning, Cole walks into the kitchen with a smirk on his face. I’d never say it aloud, but he’s changed in an excellent way. He was always tall, but a little on the stringy side. That’s all been replaced with solid muscle over. It’s no wonder that I spent the night dreaming about him ambushing me in various locations and reliving that kiss. I have to get a grip here, stop being shallow, stop checking out his butt.
To keep him from seeing a blush that feels warm on my cheeks, I pick up my fork and plate to take them to the sink.
“Morning, Jenna. I was thinking about this contest.” Cole pulls a plate from the cabinet.
“Me too.” A complete lie. I was thinking about how solid his chest felt. “You should quit now so you don’t embarrass yourself.”
“Funny. I came over to say that same thing.” Cole’s shoulder and arm brush against mine, and tingles spread through me as he says, “Walter said there’re pancakes for breakfast. Did you leave me any?”
“Of course. I only ate three. There’s a big stack over there.” I gesture with my fork.
He grabs silverware and sits at the table, then places three pancakes on his plate. “I think I’ll eat four.” With a wink toward me, he puts one more on top.
My stomach flips. Oh, he grew up sexy. “I could eat more.” Glad I didn’t drop my plate yet, I sit next to him as he loads a fifth pancake on his plate. I choose two more and drench them with syrup.
“Speaking of me winning—” He grabs a few grapes.
He tosses one in the air and catches it in his mouth. “I always win our competitions.”
“No. You don’t.”
“Do you want to toss a coin to see who wins?” For the briefest pause, one of Mom’s rules intrudes. [_Never win a game against a man or you’ll never win his heart. _]I hate that rule. She said “heart,” but I know she only meant it temporarily, and that winning alimony was always her long-term goal. She’s never believed in marriage, or true love, or even family. And I guess neither do I.
That’s not true—I believe in those. But thinking I could be part of them or have them in my life makes me nervous. Based on the only example I’ve ever had, I could really mess things up. I clip that thought short and remind myself that I believe in hard work and taking care of myself. And I’m not following Mom’s rule. I won’t be trying to win Cole’s heart this summer—just Walter’s business. I’m going to make it on my own.
Cole digs into his pancakes, and I push mine around my plate. When he finishes, he snags another handful of grapes.
“These are mine, and you know I don’t share them.” I snatch the bowl of grapes away. “I have a degree in hospitality management. This contest is almost too easy.”
“Ooh, that scares me. Oh wait—no, it doesn’t. My major’s business management. I’ve got this.” With a smirk, he adds, “You didn’t finish your pancakes. I win, plus I ate a donut on the way down.” Cole throws another grape, but I rise from my seat and bat it out of the air, then step on it as I leave the kitchen.
My heart feels lighter. It’s fun to spar with Cole. I guess this was our common ground. We made everything a game, and the work became fun.
Before the screen shuts, I hear him yell, “Five-second rule.”
One more step and I trip over something, barely managing to stay on my feet. When it moves, I scream. The dog sniffs my shin, his tail thumping against the decking of the porch. “Is this—Oh. It is!” With a soft sigh, I reach behind Seal’s ears and scratch. “You are such a sweetheart.”
When I drop to my knees, he slouches to the floor and army crawls to me. His pink tongue licks my wrist. By Seal’s reaction, I think he remembers me from sleeping on my bed.
Cole, standing in the doorway, calls, “Seal, come.” The dog immediately perks up and walks to his side. Then Cole lifts his attention to me. “Yeah. He grew up into a little troublemaker while you were gone.”
We found him almost two years ago right before I left. He was such a cute little guy. We were walking along the beach and saw what we thought was a baby seal nestled in the rocks. It’s against the law to approach the seals, but when Cole pointed his camera that way and zoomed in, we could see it was a puppy instead—a Blue Heeler, all dark eyes and speckled fluff.
The screen door slams, shutting Cole and Seal in the kitchen while I turn the corner and enter the laundry and supply room. I check the calendar on the wall to see which cottages need to be cleaned today.
Grabbing the wagon and filling it with supplies, I wonder if this is what I want to do. Yes, I love the hospitality industry, obviously, and if I stay here, I would do it all instead of only having a desk job. Maid. Front desk. Activities for the guests. Canoes. Hiking trails. The variety adds its own appeal. Another bonus—I’d be my own boss.
The resort for my internship was in a beautiful location in Colorado, but it was also remote, where shopping in a town with more than two choices was an hour’s drive away. Misty Harbor is close to a city, actually two—Seattle and Olympia—but far enough away too. I know Uncle Walter thought I’d do my internship here, but he probably guessed why I didn’t.
The job I have lined up in Idaho is remote as well. I thought I wanted to work for a corporation with resorts around the world—transfer every few years, travel around each location to see the sights. The Idaho job is exactly that, but it wouldn’t be home.
Home. That’s what I felt for a brief moment in Cole’s arms at the airport. It felt right. A shiver of longing skips though me.
Uncle Walter comes in just as I turn the little red wagon toward the door. I try for a nonchalant tone and ask, “I noticed that Cole has marked out every Tuesday and Thursday night. Those must be his date nights.”
He looks toward the calendar. “No, he hasn’t been much into dating for quite some time. But you two will have that conversation when you’re both good and ready, I suppose.” He holds the door open for me to leave, then mutters behind my back, “But neither of you are good or ready.”
I have to admit, I feel a little relief that Cole’s not dating. My heart fills with tender feelings I thought were in our past. The idea that Cole was waiting for me to come back clicks in my brain. Just as quickly, I tuck that thought away. That’s not what I want—he probably doesn’t either. He’s probably just legitimately busy.
As my supply wagon bumps along the gravel path leading to the Sunshine cabin, I look out over Hood Canal to the east. The water is calm today but steel gray. Behind me, snow-capped peaks cut into a clear blue sky. A need to be from a place overwhelms me. This place.
I already know the ins and outs of Misty Harbor, though maybe not as well as Cole. Would he stay and continue the maintenance even if I win? I can’t imagine the cottages without him. A squeeze in my chest confirms that I can’t imagine a future where he lives somewhere else, and I would only see updates about him on social media. I did that last year. It doesn’t work.
It’s almost two hours before I’ve finished the inspection list and can pronounce the cottage ready for new guests. I pull the door open and tug the wagon outside, overflowing with supplies and soiled linens.
Cole’s replacing the porch lights, his polo shirt rising above the waistband of his jeans, showing a hint of his ripped stomach. I feel as if I’ve been caught gaping at him and pick a safe subject, quick. “You won’t be hurt when Uncle Walter chooses me, right? I mean, it’s not like the cottages have been in your family for decades.” It’s way easier to banter with him than to decide what my feelings about him really are.
“The cottages may have been in your family, but they’ve been in my life. It’s what I’ve known every day since I was ten. You’ve been here, what—ninety days a year?” The teasing look in his eyes falters. “And some years, ninety days less than that.”
Although the last sentence was barely whispered, more with regret than guilt, I’m not ready to go there. I know we’ll have to talk about it … sometime.
His backpack slips from his shoulder as he steps down the ladder. I grab it to keep it from falling. As I move the bag into place, my hand brushes over Cole’s arm and back, and awareness crackles over my palm and straight up my arm. He pivots toward me, his eyes dark, and his lips much too close to my face.
“Jenna—” His hand slides into mine as I turn. He looks at me intently.
Wanting to change the mood, I quickly cut him off. “You’re welcome, and I had an internship.” I stick my tongue out at him and turn away, pulling the wagon back toward the laundry. Seriously? What am I, eleven?
For ten years, I’ve been working here and saving money with the hope that when Walter wanted to sell Misty Harbor, I’d be ready. Eighteen months ago, I would have been in a great place to make an offer, but twelve months ago, I spent all that hope in less than sixty days, but it was money well spent. I’ve started saving again, but it’s not enough.
Forcing my eyes to open wide, I give my head a shake and select “print.” It’s just after six o’clock, and the sun’s been up for an hour already. But I’ve been up for three, reworking a seventeen-page paper of a business plan for my entrepreneurship class. Because of Walter’s announcement, I deleted the fictitious business description and statistics, replacing them with information and ideas based on Misty Harbor Cottages.
I tuck the pages into a portfolio, email the assignment to my professor, and head out of Walter’s office, mentally checking off the assignment and, more importantly, feeling pumped to have a solid plan for running the cottages when I win.
Walter stacks repair orders on a clipboard and passes them to me. “You or Jenna gonna win this thing?”
“Yeah. Me or Jenna.” I smile up at him to say, I know, lame joke—he just shakes his head. Me and Jenna, hopefully, if my plan works.
We move to the table, and he begins to list the work for today. “Run through every cottage with the prep list. Then after lunch, we’ll look at the hot tub. The itinerary for this week is on the board. We’ve got a family reunion coming in this afternoon, and they’re using the four cottages that aren’t being renovated. They’ve signed up for everything we offer—fishing, shrimping, combing the beach for oysters, barbecue, hiking in the national forest. One day, a few of them are going on over to Forks—hoping to get bit by vampires, I guess.”
“Who was bit by a vampire?” Jenna asks as she enters the kitchen, a curly ponytail bouncing from the gap at the back of her Mariners baseball cap.
I want to vault over the table and take her in my arms, taste her lips again, feel her touch on my face, and hold her every day of our lives. But if she ever suspected that I had a plan to win her heart this summer, she’d leave. It’s going to be rough—she has a way of kicking me out of her life whenever we get too close. I have one summer to see if our broken pieces fit together or fall apart. For better or worse.
Walter hands her a clipboard too. “We’ve got three cottages on a quick flip today. You’re going to be busy,” he says as Jenna pulls up a chair. He turns his attention back to me. “What time are you meeting with the planning department for your permit?”
Jenna’s eyes snap toward me. “You need a building permit?”
Do I hear worry in her voice? I just nod, then answer Walter. “I’ll pick up the plans at eleven and drop them off with the county. I don’t have to meet with them, so it’ll take thirty minutes, tops. I’ll be back right after lunch. We can still fix the hot tub.”
Walter scans his notes and opens a calendar, but doesn’t look at us as he says, “You and Jenna will need to try it out tonight before we open it up for guests.”
There’s a little panic in Jenna’s eyes that she covers with a skeptical look. I don’t want her to push me away. I remind myself of my plan to win her over—take down her defensive walls, remind her of the good times we’ve had, help her see me as the Cole she’s known forever, give her someone to trust. If I do this, I might stand a chance.
This situation definitely falls into step number one—defensive walls. I tell Walter, “Can’t do that today. I need to finish my homework and the applications for the safety permits.”
Walter harrumphs and mumbles something about a gift horse, then takes a gulp of his water.
“What are you doing to the cottage that you need plans and a permit for?” Jenna asks while pouring juice into a glass.
I shrug dismissively, not needing to give her any other hint about my plans for renovating Willow. She’ll see us break ground soon enough. “You got enough juice yet?” I ask as the cup overflows.
She jerks her hand up as Walter scrambles to rescue all the papers, and I throw a towel on the puddle.
At three o’clock sharp, the families for the reunion arrive, filling the parking spots like an Olympic synchronized driving team. After checking in, the grandfather, with a long blast on a whistle, lines everyone up with military precision and calls out their cottage assignments. Two young teen girls are the only ones breaking ranks, whispering and giggling as they stare at me.
Seal sits by the golf cart where I’m loading the luggage. The girls sit on the log, eating licorice. They slap their legs and whisper loudly, “Here, puppy, puppy.”
I notice Seal’s head perk up. “Stay,” I command. If he gets friendly with the children, he’ll think up all kinds of mischief. Seal’s ears droop. He really does stay, which surprises me. I wouldn’t accuse him of being an obedient dog.
The girls continue to call him, kneeling down to tempt him over. Seal drops down too and starts army crawling toward them. The girls squeal and call louder.
I try to hurry away with him, but the load tips, and I have to balance it again and pack the remaining bags in the trailer I’m pulling. The girls have Seal at their knees now. He’s rolled over and they’re rubbing his tummy, but he can’t stay. “Seal, come.”
If dogs could swear, I think he would. He turns toward me and walks mechanically with his tail between his legs.
Later in the afternoon, Jenna and I hit the canal to gather some oysters for dinner. We walk along our pebbled beach out to the line of oysters left from high tide. Jenna sets the bucket between us and asks, “What size, chef?”
“Size of your hand. We’re having a barbecue.” After a few minutes of gathering, we walk back up the hill to the picnic table.
Walter pulls up to the pavilion in his golf cart with all the barbecue supplies just as we bring the oysters.
“I want a rematch,” Jenna says. “I think I’ve got a system that will win this year. Same rules—whoever shucks the most oysters in five minutes wins. The loser cooks dinner for a week.”
“Let’s change one thing. Instead of removing the oyster completely from the shell, it has to be on the half shell, loosened, and ready to barbecue.” I grab two corners of the plastic table cloth, throw the other side to Jenna, and pull it down over the tabletop.
“Walter’s the judge. And I want the good knife,” Jenna says, throwing her hand out to seal the deal.
Nope, I have a better idea. “You want to hug on that?”
“Sure.” She wraps her arm around my shoulder and hits me with a side hug.
Walter stops setting out the equipment and says, “Ah, you got the friendship hug. Tough luck, that.”
Thanks, Walter, for mentioning it. “Fine, we’ll flip.” I pull a coin from my pocket and toss it in the air, hearing Jenna say, “Heads.”
Of course she chooses heads. I peek beneath my hand, and there it is. “The knife’s yours.”
During several frenzied minutes, we seem to be setting oysters aside at about the same time.
Walter begins counting down from thirty seconds. “Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven. Twenty-s—”
Jenna screams and drops her knife. She’s holding an oyster in front of her, and her face looks pale. There must be blood. I toss my oyster down and grab a clean towel, pressing it into her hand. After a moment, I remove it to see a deep slice across her palm, still gushing blood.
Worry twists my gut. “Better keep this over it. Let’s go. You might need stitches. Where’s your towel?”
“I dropped it, but I didn’t have time to pick it up—I’d lose.” Jenna’s words hiss between clenched teeth, her eyebrows furrowed.
Walter calls out and tosses me the key to the golf cart and calls out. “Get her to the house and take her to the hospital.”
“Count them. I got twenty-four,” she calls over her shoulder.
Moving up the path to the cart with one arm around Jenna’s waist and my other hand holding her wrist, I reply, “I got twenty-four too. You can’t count the one you got blood on. I win.”
Walter stands next to the pavilion. “I’d have to agree with that. Cole wins.”
I’d be excited, but rushing Jenna to urgent care takes the glory away. Once there, she’s moved to the top of the list, ahead of the kid with a rash and the woman who threw up into a trashcan across the lobby from us.
For the third time, Jenna relates the story of what happened, first to the receptionist, then the nurse and now the doctor. It wasn’t a knife cut, like I had originally thought, but instead the jagged edge of the oyster shell slipped across her palm after she dropped her towel.
“You’re going to need a few stitches.”
Jenna immediately turns toward me and pats the side of the bed. “Please!” Her voice is a little shrill and her eyes pleading. The only thing she might hate worse than the sight of blood is the sight of a needle.
I slip up onto the right side of the bed while the doctor rolls up to her left. The nurse moves a small table next to Jenna to rest her forearm on and another next to the doctor with a suture kit on top. He starts prepping the area with blue drapes then antiseptic across her skin.
“You’re going to feel a little prick and a bee sting,” the doctor says.
Jenna leans onto my chest, and I hold her right hand with mine. She gives a tight squeeze, and I whisper to her to close her eyes. When I see the doctor getting ready to tie off the first stitch, I say, “You’re doing great. Just relax,” hoping she won’t pay attention to the tug against her skin as it lifts.
After he finishes and gives us final instructions, we head back home.
“Thanks for being with me, Cole.” She examines her bandaged hand. “I really hate that kind of thing.”
“I know—glad to help.” I’d like to add “always,” but I’m not going to push it. “I’m sorry, Jenna. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”
“Don’t you dare think this was your fault. I was trying to win.” She leans her head back on the seat. “I hope Walter enjoyed the oysters.”
“Yeah, me too.”
It took almost three hours to make the round trip to get stitches for Jenna. When we arrive back at the cottages, there’s mysterious pink poop squirted all over the yard. Walter taped a note to the front door that Seal must have eaten something that didn’t agree with him, and that I owe the little girls who checked in with their families today a big bag of red licorice, ending the note with a comment. Bet you can put those two together. Clean the grass.
The next week, Cole and I set out early, driving to SeaTac to retrieve some lost luggage for guests who checked in last night. Before we head back home, we stop at an IHOP near the airport. When the server approaches for our order, I say, “He’ll have sirloin tips and eggs, sunny-side up.”
Without missing a beat, Cole says, “And she’ll have dessert for breakfast—banana and Nutella crepes with a side of strawberries.”
Our server leaves with our order, and I ask, “What if I’ve changed and don’t eat dessert for breakfast anymore?”
“We eat breakfast every morning together at Walter’s—pancakes. Pan. Cakes. You eat cake every day. What if I’ve changed?” he mockingly defends.
We pass several minutes looking around, but not talking much until Cole asks, “Why didn’t you come back last year?” His tone is light—he sounds genuinely curious.
But this is the start of the conversation I didn’t want to have yet. I try to give the obvious answer. Maybe he won’t dig any deeper. “I told you. I had an internship.” Then I lift my mug and take a drink like that’s all there is to say.
“Was it because of what I said the summer before—that I love you?”
“No.” Yes. He said it, and I believed it.
I take another long drink from my mug. I don’t want him to see that I’m terrified that I’d follow my mother into her family business. That I’d be incapable of love—that could destroy Cole.
“Maybe. We never even had a real date, and you tell me you love me. I guess I freaked out a little. It seemed like you were with a lot of women, but just for the summer. I didn’t want to be one of them.”
The airport kiss shattered the wall around my heart. All I had to do was see him, and I jumped into his arms. I’m not immune to Cole, and I don’t really know what to do about it yet.
It makes me a little nervous that he said “I love you” instead of “I loved you.” I expected my reaction to be much worse. Maybe I’m ready to consider that.
“You wouldn’t have been one of them. You’re not my summer. You’re my every year,” Cole says with a slanted smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “I know you don’t want to hear it, but I’ve loved you since we were ten.”
My heart races. That’s more than half our lives. But I know it’s true. Cole has always been true to me. The server returns with our plates. We both start eating and let Cole’s words hang in the air. We’re super quiet. I literally hear our silverware hit the plates each time either of us takes a bite.
Turns out we aren’t as hungry as we thought and leave the restaurant quickly after that. Cole walks to the driver’s side. Usually, since he drove here, I’d drive back—that’s the deal—but with eight stitches in my palm, he’s been doing the driving for the past few days. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but it’s sore, and I don’t want to risk doing something to cause more pain.
Heavy silence fills the cab all the way home, neither of us knowing what to say next. The only sounds are the engine and the wet slosh of our tires on the road.
As the highway turns toward the cottages, I break the silence. “No matter where I’ve been, I love coming here. I love the tall, dense forests. I love the rocky beaches around Hood Canal. I even love the rain and look forward to it washing everything clean. You’re lucky you’ve always lived here—I’ve never had a real home.”
Cole gives me a smirk that shows he thinks I’m a little crazy, and with a chuckle, he says, “I’ve had the same zip code all my life, but I wouldn’t call living in apartments and motels having a home. No, I’m not lucky. My childhood was lame, and I can prove it. I caught my mom shooting up in the bathroom during my ninth birthday party.”
“No, no. You don’t win that easily. I had a pathetic life too. Technically, I guess I have a home. Mom bought a house using embezzled money from my college account and her nest egg from settlements for the down payment. She’d been squirreling money away to pay for it with her alimony settlements so future divorces can’t touch it. It’s in a trust in my name, and I can’t live there. That college fund was the only thing I had from my real father.”
I’ve been so embarrassed about all this, I’ve never told anyone, but Cole is safe. He’s probably the only person I could tell.
With a faint glimmer of sadness in his eyes, he counters, “I never knew my father.” He pulls into the carport, switching off the engine. I reach for his hand, placing mine carefully on his, although the stitches have dissolved, it’s still a little sore.
“I knew all seven of mine.” A wry chuckle slips out with the words. “In fact, at my mom’s sixth wedding, she met her seventh husband.” I shake my head. “Really, who does that?”
Cole leans back against the headrest. “Here’s one. Right before my mom moved away to Montana, I had to pick her up from a bar. What she was wearing—well, it was skimpy, so I wrapped her in a tablecloth and tossed her over my shoulder. They wouldn’t let us leave until I threw a fifty on the bar to pay her tab.” He cringes at the memory.
“Oh, my gosh, that’s terrible!” We pop open the doors and get out. “My mom swears this husband is different, and she isn’t getting divorced again.” I lean over the hood and finish, “And they’re moving to Belize.” I walk around and stand beside him, leaning against the fender. “I doubt I’ll see her again.” The truthfulness is too real. I tip my head over and lean on Cole’s shoulder.
“I won’t see mine either.” His head lays against mine too. “She died.” His arm wraps me tightly to his side.
Shock flies through me and I gasp. I pull back to look at his face. My heart aches for him. Although I’ve never thought they were close, she was still his mom. Am I supposed to ask about that, or am I [_not _]supposed to?
“Oh, Cole. I’m so sorry. I wish I had been a better friend and not so focused on myself so you could have told me about it.” It seems too late to be a comfort to him, but I still want to. I reach for him with my good hand and lace our fingers together. “This might be the most awkward and depressing competition we’ve ever had. Did I lose, or did you?”
“I think we both did. No one deserves the moronic parents we’ve had.”
We’ve known each other for years, and if someone had asked, I’d have said I knew everything about Cole. I knew his life was hard. I even knew some things I doubt he told anyone except me. But I didn’t know any of this. “Do you mind if I ask what happened with your mom?”
“She came here last year in March.” He swallows deeply, his eyes lowered.
I wait patiently, trying to give him the time he needs. His mom left him when he was fifteen. She met someone, and they were moving to Montana. Not only did Cole not want to leave, but she didn’t want him to go with her.
Uncle Walter stepped in, becoming his legal guardian while Cole was a minor. It seemed to me that Cole had a stronger connection to Walter than to his mom even before that. Still, there was a lot of pain in that separation for Cole.
“She had pancreatic cancer, and the doctors gave her only weeks to live.” His voice breaks, and his eyes glance into mine. Then he looks back down at the ground.
I wrap my arms around his waist and give him a hug. Almost reluctantly, he hugs my shoulders and lays his cheek on top of my head.
“Her husband put her on a bus and sent her back to me.” His words are hard. “I guess it was too much trouble to have a sick wife. She was only here seven weeks before she died—a year ago last week.” Cole rakes a hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here.” My hands stretch up his back, and I hug him tightly.
“Thanks,” he responds, pulling me to him. “I missed you,” His hand touches my face and traces from my cheekbone to my chin, sending tingles straight to my heart. When my eyes meet his, the longing is apparent.
My pulse pounds like a drum, though I’m barely breathing. When I rise to my tiptoes, his lips meet mine, gently brushing back and forth. One hand presses on the small of my back, and the other cradles my neck.
I love him. The harder I try to ignore this truth, the more it persists. I can no longer deny it. At this realization, heat climbs up my chest, and I press my lips firmly to his. The kiss becomes air to us—each of us taking the lead or allowing the other to explore in turn. His lips slant across mine and mine part, longing and sorrow and comfort all mix together.
When he breaks the embrace, he kisses my cheek and my forehead. “I should get back to work.” His voice is rough and low. He clears his throat and says, “I’ve got a ton of homework waiting for me.”
My knees feel weak as we walk across the lawn to the porch. I’m a little disappointed we only kissed once—tonight, anyway. I wish I knew exactly what to think about Cole, but I hardly think at all when he’s that close.
Before we go in, I ask, “You’re going to class on Tuesday and Thursday nights, aren’t you? Didn’t you graduate in April?” I feel guilty knowing we’ve been so out of touch with each other for more than a year.
He nods, then answers, “Yes, I have class. No, I haven’t graduated yet. You win that one.” He shoots an easy smile my direction. That’s the old Cole. “I’ll graduate in August, if I finish all my projects at the same time I renovate a cottage, work full time, and win Walter’s contest.”
Cole has become an amazing man. He’s strong and caring and easy to be with. “Why didn’t you already graduate?” Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that.
“I took fall semester off last year to earn enough money for tuition.” Unspoken pain fills his voice. “My mom’s care and funeral expenses wiped out my savings.” His expression softens. When I squeeze his hand, he continues, “I don’t regret it. We both got closure.”
Cole had always been a sensitive kid. It’s nice to see that he’s grown that quality into being a compassionate man. He takes care of those he loves. He lets go of the past—he’s forgiving. I hug him once more before we go back to work, and feel a little longing to be someone he takes care of and someone who takes care of him.
&Three days later&, I wake up with a bowling ball sitting on my face. Well, not literally, but it feels like it. Every muscle in my body aches, and the light is ten times brighter today than it’s ever been. All I want to do is stand in a hot shower to breathe the steam and then snuggle my pillow in the dark.
Seal’s nose peeks over the edge of my mattress, his eyes watching me. Soon his whole snout rests near my elbow, then his paws sneak up, and finally, he licks my arm. I scoot over next to the wall and let him up to lie beside me.
When I don’t make it downstairs for breakfast, Walter comes up to check on me. He takes my temperature, one-oh-one, and pronounces me sick. “Stay in bed and don’t worry about us. It’s a slow week. We’ll get it all done just fine.”
Cole checks in with me at lunchtime. My mother’s voice blasts through my foggy brain. If a man sees you without your hair done and your makeup on, the only kiss you’ll get is a kiss good-bye. I pull the covers up to my chin, wondering how bad I look. He doesn’t seem to notice or care. His eyes are filled with concern.
I try to shove my mother’s words out of my thoughts.
“I brought cold medicine,” He lifts a shopping bag up to show me. “And delivered your gift baskets to the guests checking out. What else do you need?”
The small baskets are part of my plan to win the second contest for customer service contest. I set a goal to have three contacts with each guest—by name whenever possible. It had been going great, I thought, but now I’m out of it. I hope I had enough votes before getting sick.
My heart tugs a bit, and I consider that Cole is more concerned about me than he is about winning the contest. He had to know that the gift baskets were part of my customer service plan. He did it anyway. If my eyes weren’t watering already because of the cold, they would be now from Cole’s kindness.
He sits on the edge of the bed. Seal reluctantly scoots to the foot of the bed to give Cole room.
After dinner and again at bedtime, Cole plays nurse—filling my water bottle, dropping off a coloring book, adjusting my pillows and blankets, bringing a humidifier into my room, and replacing the hotel-issue tissues for the kind with lotion. My nose now owes him a life debt.
This is the second time in two weeks that Cole has taken care of me. This seems a pathetic excuse to keep him close to me. I realize that my best friend has turned into a compassionate, caring man.
By the end of the second day, I feel well enough to go back to work—that same morning, Cole is down in bed. I climb the stairs above the laundry facilities into his room. It had been the maids’ quarters when they worked here, but was converted to his room when Walter became his guardian. I filled the bowl too high and have to concentrate not to spill the chicken soup. I enter his room, and he gives me a look.
“What?” I ask. “I’m pampering you.”
“Yes, but it’s your fault I’m sick.”
“Fine. I’ll never kiss you again.” My stomach sparkles as I say it. I’m being flippant, but I know I want to do exactly that.
“No. Don’t say something we’ll both regret. I’m happy to take the risk.” He sneezes, then blows his nose. “Just not today.”
Saturday is the last day of the customer service contest. Cole is back among the living and joins us at breakfast. Walter announces that I’ve won the first contest.
“I’ve still got another day. You can’t announce it yet.”
Walter shakes his head. “You may have another day, but we don’t have enough guests to close the gap even if they all voted for you. Jenna wins.”
Cole nods, and an impish look comes over his face. “Well, I had a fever of one-oh-two. So I won being sick.”
“Cole, you’ve got to be kidding!” Jenna throws her hands in the air as I try out a rocking chair covered in burnt-orange fabric in the furniture warehouse clearance section. “You’re making this too easy for me to win.”
“What? It’s comfortable.” I jump out of the seat and move Jenna over to try it out. “See?”
Jenna shakes her head as she flops down into the chair. “Yeah, it is. It’s the kind of chair I would put near a window by a bookcase,” she concedes. “It’s a curl-up-and-take-a-nap chair, but you need to think more of putting elements together that complement each other and the decorating theme. This orange rocker will clash with the bright pink bedspreads you picked out this morning. Which I go on record as saying are hideous. No one wants simulated fur on their bed.”
I turn to the salesman who’s been following me around the warehouse. “Do you have this in another color?” I ask. He points to a mossy green chair behind me. I pretend to consider the merits of both chairs, looking back and forth between them. “Nah. Orange it is.” That green one would actually look great in the room. I’ll have to come back for it later.
“What exactly is your theme?” Jenna asks with frustration in her voice—courteous, but patronizing.
What would be a good theme for the mess I’ve been choosing? With mock confidence, I say, “The cottages are almost a hundred years old, built in the twenties. I want it to look like there’s something from every decade since then in this cottage.”
“That might make it come out looking like a garage sale without any of the cool kitschy-ness that could make the theme work.” Now she sounds exasperated.
This is working. I’ve always enjoyed teasing her, but I’m hoping to throw her off. I really want everything to be a surprise during the reveal.
“I think you’re right.” But not what you think you’re right about. How is she not suspicious about all of this yet?
Jenna sighs, relief lining her face. “About the theme? Or the color of the chair?”
“No. That I need a bookcase by the rocker.” Her eyes enlarge with disbelief again as the salesman leads me to that area. I choose a simple framed bookcase. It’s narrow, but just right for the size of the cottage.
“At least get a nice neutral black or that soft gray one,” she suggests.
“I’ll take the blue.” I smile and say to the salesman, “Put that on the list.” His lips press in a straight line, and I know he’s holding back a smile as he jots notes in the book he’s pulled from his shirt pocket.
Earlier, when Jenna was looking at light fixtures, I clued him in that I wouldn’t be purchasing the hideous choices I talked about, but to keep a list of the things I really wanted. I’ve had to signal him when Jenna isn’t looking.
Jenna spins away from me, shaking her head and mumbling, “Of course you will, because it’s the worst possible choice. Can you even imagine that blue next to the orange across the room from the hot pink?” She turns back momentarily. “I can’t take this. I’m going next door to look at the paint selection.”
“Oh, I’ll come with you.” Maybe I should rein it in a little before she steals the truck and leaves me here. On the other hand… “You look a little frazzled, Jenna. Shopping is hard—so many decisions.”
“Maybe you should bring Walter with you next time. He might talk some sense into you.”
“Have a little faith—it will all come together. You thought the way I connected the cottage with the storage shed nearby was genius. I think I can pull off this decorating stuff too.”
“It was brilliant. You’re going to get another bedroom to kick up the price. It’s a great business move,” she concedes.
“So it might give me the edge over your decorating style if you think mine is so bad.”
While Jenna pores over the paint samples, I go to the “mis-tinted” table. Cans are labeled with paint dots to show what’s inside. As Jenna approaches, I choose one with a lavender smudge. “Hey, we can save a little money by choosing paint from this table instead of having them mix new ones for us.”
She looks at me without saying anything, but I can see the effort it’s taking for her to bite her tongue.
I try to egg her on. “I’m going to get this one for an accent wall behind the headboard.”
“Okay. When I win, I’ll change the name of your rental to the Rainbow Bright cottage.”
Jenna sits at a table and opens her binder. All her decorating ideas are inside, complete with project sheets for each room showing furniture placement, fabric swatches, and estimated budgets. She matches the paint chips in her hands to the rooms and calculates the amount she needs for each color before making an order at the paint desk. While they’re figuring it up, she tapes the paint cards onto the corresponding pages.
Something I admire about Jenna is that everything she does is carefully considered. I can see it in the way she’s organized her ideas for the renovation project. Her supplies, when she’s flipping a cabin, are tucked into the wagon in the order she’ll use them as she cleans the cottage. It’s not obsessive—it’s efficient. She’s even the fridge at Walter’s. But hey, I find the ketchup now so I have no complaints.
As we pay for our paint, I say, “I’ll have to make a second trip to get everything we ordered today. I’ll drop you off with the stuff you bought and come back for mine.”
We walk to my truck hand in hand. This isn’t the first time she’s held my hand, and it seems like she’s more comfortable doing it. It’s a baby step—I’ll take it.
We’re halfway into the competition. At this point, I’m feeling encouraged. It can’t help but get better between us. It feels right.
Since we started with her not wanting to be near me, I’d say the plan is starting to work. We’ve shared secrets that neither of us felt comfortable telling before. I think it was hard for both of us to be open, but it helped us trust each other again. She’s playful instead of wary around me too. I have my best friend back. And the last time when she kissed me, it felt real, unlike the awkward one at the airport. I could see happiness shining in her eyes.
If we keep moving in this direction, being together past this summer seems like a doable goal.
“You have absolutely the worst taste. Except in best friends, of course.”
Oh, burn. She rises to her tiptoes and kisses the bottom of my jaw. Really? We’re just friends, huh? If she thinks she can kiss me to get her way, she’s nearly right, but I can’t let my plan peak too early.
I know she likes me. She might even know she likes me, but she’s still standing in her own way. She’ll have to work it out before we can move forward. It just takes patience. I’ve got all summer to bring her around.
“Let me help you, because when you lose—and looking at the choices you’re making, you will lose—I’ll at least have a cottage to rent out that I won’t have to redecorate first.”
During the drive home, I look at her portfolio, getting a sense of the styles and colors she likes. “Sometimes I think there’s an old lady hiding inside you, Jenna. Everything in this book is old-fashioned.”
“It’s French country, so yes, that’s an older style, but beautiful. My favorite style is shabby chic, but French country seems to work better for the Apple Blossom cottage.”
After dropping Jenna off and unloading her purchases, I return to the warehouse to pick up my new selections. When I get back, I turn off my lights as I’m pulling up to my cottage. I don’t want Jenna to come out and see what I’m taking in—that would ruin the surprise.
The next morning, Jenna finds me behind the Huckleberry cottage. “I would have helped you get your stuff in last night. What time did you get back?” Her attention is distracted by Seal trotting by with a doll in his mouth. She points at him. “Are you going to stop hi…”
“Not yet.” But I watch where Seal is going. “I got home after ten, and thanks, but it wasn’t hard to get it in.” Except for the rocker. And the loveseat. And the table. Ugh. Sneaking around is hard work.
Seal stops by a towering Sitka spruce between here and the pavilion, sniffing around.
“What[_ is _]that?” she asks, pointing to the project in front of me.
At first, I think she’s talking about the dog or the tree, but she’s pointing at the oar in my hand. “Decoupage.”
“I know that, but what are you putting on the oars?”
“I’m wrapping them in maps. Since the cottages sit right on the beach, I thought it would be good to put maps of water on the oars before I hang them over the headboard.”
“On the purple wall?” Jenna turns to check on Seal. “He’s burying the doll now.”
“Yeah. Lavender, not purple. And good—I’ve been wondering where his new stash is.” Dirt is flying between Seal’s legs, and the doll’s body is mostly covered when he walks away. It has the eerie look of a crime scene.
Jenna’s attention is back on my project. “Is that a map of Hood Canal or Puget Sound? Or even Washington?” She leans closer. “That looks like Lake Michigan.”
“Well,[_ you_] know that, and I know that, but no one else will notice. It’s got water.” I lay the oar aside and walk to Seal’s stash. I pull out the doll and scoot more loose dirt away, finding a screwdriver, a pair of ladies’ sunglasses, some baby’s binkie, and a box of Chinese takeout. That one can stay.
Jenna grabs the screwdriver. “I lost this a week ago. I thought you stole it.”
I shake dirt off the other items as we return to Willow. When we step onto the front porch, I point to the project I did a couple of hours ago. “I finished some frames.”
She’s going to love those! I saved the half shells from our oyster-shucking contest and hot-glued them onto wooden frames—a kindergartener could have done a better job—then spray-painted them fire-engine red.
Just before Jenna buries her face in her hands, I hear, “Oh, for the love.”
I get up extra early. The sky is light enough to see easily, but the sun isn’t up yet. I slip into some comfy jeans and shoes and sneak down to Willow cottage. Cole has been so tight-lipped about the design of his project that I’m dying to see what it looks like. I’m seriously so confused by seeing the various items he’s chosen or made for it.
The doors are locked. As I approach the windows, I see that there’s still newspaper taped inside them. I thought it might have been there because he was painting, but now I think it’s going to stay to the end. It’s there so I can’t peek inside. I’m a little offended that he thinks I would.
It’s not like I’d steal his ideas—they’ve all looked dreadful.
After breakfast, we meet at his truck.
“It’s a Hood Canal oyster.” I stare at the foam sandwich-board costumes Cole slides behind the seats in the cab of his truck. When he makes no comment on them, I ask the obvious question. “Why?”
“We’re going to the Tehuya Day Celebration across the canal. Small town—big on celebrating. Have you been there before?” He beams a cheesy grin at me and continues packing the truck.
Man, that’s a sexy smile, but not a helpful answer. “No. That doesn’t tell me why we need to take them with us—or have them at all.” I hesitate, waiting for details. Nothing. So I ask, “How far is Tehuya?”
“Probably not even ten miles from here if you were a seagull, but we’ll drive almost fifty to get there. And they always celebrate the Fourth of July on the first Saturday. There are art booths, great food, homemade lemonade—you’ll love it.”
“You’re not going to tell me why you have costumes, are you? You’re always so secretive.” Cole shakes his head in answer, but a mischievous smile brightens his eyes, causing my stomach to cartwheel.
Never trust a man with a million-dollar smile and a thousand-dollar car. I mentally stomp Mom’s words into the dirt. That’s her issue, not mine. Everything Cole has and does is because he’s worked hard to make it happen. No one gave it to him.
We drive south and around the bottom edge of Hood Canal then back up the other side, across the bridge, and along the North Shore Road.
When we reach the town, we wander around the booths first. Now and again, Cole stops to take pictures of people or abstracts of the carnival ride machinery. What he hasn’t noticed yet is that I threw away my empty lemonade cup long ago and am now drinking his. He’s right—the lemonade is enough of a reason to make the trip today. I sip it slowly as we wait in line for face painting.
Watching Cole today, seeing the way we are together, I wonder how my mother ended up so completely clueless. If she had ever married her best friend, she might have been happy and stayed with him.
I wonder if I can stay with Cole. I’ve always avoided relationships while dating—the part where I’d have to put my heart out there and be emotionally vulnerable. Dating was for companionship and fun—that’s all. With Cole, the relationship came first. Excitement sizzles through me as I realize Cole might be the only person I can see myself really with, married to.
Whoa. Where did that come from?
When we reach the face-painting booth, I say, “He wants to be a kitty.” The teenager with the paintbrush looks at Cole to confirm that, but instead, he says, “She does too.”
After second lunch—which was necessary, since we ate hot dogs before we knew another booth was serving nachos—we walk back to the truck. Cole doesn’t unlock or open my door, but goes straight to his and retrieves the oyster costumes I’d forgotten about.
“Have you ever been in a parade?” he asks.
“Here. Put this on.” He hands me an oyster.
I slide it over my shoulders and Velcro the sides. “Did you have to register for us to be in the parade?
“No. Anyone can join in.” He unrolls a banner that says Misty Harbor Cottages.
“You’re remarkably prepared for this.”
When he steps over to lock his truck doors, I notice the back of his costume says, “Shucking Champ” across his bum. I twist and pull the foam on the back of my costume to see the words “Shucking Runner-up” across mine. I pin him with a mock glare.
“I would have worn that one with appropriate humility had I lost, but I didn’t.” He shrugs with feigned nonchalance. “Buck up—it’s only four blocks of disgrace.”
“For all anyone knows, there were a thousand people in the contest, and second place is a great honor.”
His eyes practically twinkle, and in a teasing tone, he says, “Whatever helps you smile and walk.” Then he takes my hand as we go find the beginning of the route. We line up somewhere in the middle of the masses parading. Getting into the spirit, we walk, chase, can-can, and bunny hop our way down the route.
Cole remembers how to have fun. And the costume—that’s part of our winning and losing and contests. I lost—I wear the clam and rock it too.
My hand rests on top of Cole’s across the console in his truck as we drive back to the cottages, I’m almost convinced I could hold his hand for decades. Do I still want to leave? No.
A delivery van is parked at Walter’s front door when we pull in. As we approach, I can tell the boxes being unloaded are mine. Mom clearly marked winter clothes, books, etc. on each box. Ten boxes—everything else I’d left at her house is probably at Goodwill so she can sell the house. Home isn’t a place that held a lot of attachment since she’s only had this husband for two years. She’s about to set a record for herself.
“Your mom called this morning and told me you’re moving out after the summer, so she sent your stuff. It showed up this afternoon, and I put some of it in storage.” Walter points toward the shed on the other side of the driveway.
As Cole picks up a box, he says, “Well, you’re either really confident about winning, or hoping to stay on when I do.” Then he takes it into the house.
That would have been a better reason, and I wish I’d thought of it. The fact is, I blew it. I didn’t know I was going to fall for Cole or even have a chance to win Uncle Walter’s business and stay here when I took the Idaho job, so it’s not like I was planning to leave Cole on purpose. Still, I feel like a traitor. I let myself get close to Cole, knowing that I’d leave—at least to Idaho—like my mother.
I grab a box and head up the stairs. I don’t want to make eye contact with Cole on his way down, but I do. “Hey, I’ll get the rest of them. You can go.”
He’s obviously not listening because I meet him on the stairs again with his arms full. “Let me take that,” I say.
“I’ve got it.” Cole winks.
I should have told him about taking the other job at the end of the summer. It’s not like I came here thinking I would hurt him all over again. “No. Really. You can go.” My voice sounds rough as I reach out to take the box, but Cole doesn’t let go, pulling it to his chest.
“What’s your deal, Jenna? Is there something I don’t get?”
Why did my mom have to send my boxes to Washington now instead of to Idaho when I got there? Couldn’t she wait a month? She wants me out of her life. That betrayal stabs me in the gut. “I just don’t want your help with this.” I try to sound casual. I’m not going to confess that my plan was to move away and keep my heart intact. That means keeping it away from him. I’ve completely failed.
While I’m trying to think about what to say, he pushes past me and puts the box in my room, then spins to face me. I put my head down and place my hand over my eyes. Could this have been worse timing? Guilt wells up in my chest. Why didn’t I tell him?
Cole sounds doubtful when he asks, “You’re so confident about winning that you had your mom send all your stuff?” Like he’s hoping that’s what I’ll tell him.
I wish that had been the reason. Surprise must show on my face.
Distrust chills his eyes, and he asks, “When were you going to tell me you’re leaving?” He throws his hands up. “Why are you in the competition if you were always planning to move? Why keep up the charade?”
He waits for an answer, but I don’t know what to say or even what I think. “I’m part of the charade too. Right?” he asks.
My voice is stuck with the guilt I feel. Cole gives me a curt nod and turns away. A moment later, I hear the front door slam behind him.
I shrivel a little. Why am I leaving? Why don’t I know what to do with Cole and what I feel? I can’t move away from my fear that one day I’ll be[_ her_]. Last year, I told myself not to come here because I didn’t want to hurt him with my inability to have a relationship. This year, I only came as a favor to Uncle Walter. I hope I’m staying, but if Cole doesn’t want me with him, I need a backup plan. I guess that’s still Idaho.
It’s not like we were together together, but it feels like a breakup, like I’ve lost him all over again. I slam my bedroom door behind me, alternately gulping air and holding my breath. My entire body shakes. Even if my mind doesn’t understand what losing Cole means to me, my heart obviously does.
He’s been accepting and obliging to me this whole summer. He could have held a grudge, refusing to take me back into his friendship, but he didn’t. He’s been genuine and fun. He gave me his trust. My heartbeat thuds in my chest, and I’m weak. What have I done? Slowly, I slump down the wall and wrap my arms around my knees. I brush the tears from my cheeks, but they’re suddenly wet again.
Seal sits at Jenna’s feet during breakfast, diving for crumbs she drops to him now and again. Without acknowledging me, she says to Walter, “I’ll be done early. The reno on Apple Blossom is going really well. I just need to replace the windows in the screened porch upstairs, paint that room, and arrange the remaining furniture.”
My gut twists with the realization that she planned to leave this summer without even giving me a chance or a warning. Bare minimum—if we’re friends, she should tell me what’s going on in her life. Best friends deserve at least that. We didn’t start out as friends, but I thought we were now. Friends don’t hold hands and kiss.
I can’t blame everything on Jenna. I kept things from her too. I didn’t call her when my mom died, and that’s just as big. But this hurts.
I grab a couple of bagels and sit across the room at the breakfast bar, hoping to appear unconcerned. An ache down deep in my chest punches home the point that I have to give up imagining that even if Jenna won, I’d still be here with her to run the cottages. If I lose, I lose my home.
“Is there any reason to put off announcing the winner if we’re both done early?” Her gaze doesn’t even slide to mine.
I know it’s juvenile, but it seems like Jenna has everyone on her side. I heap a large dollop of cream cheese on a section of bagel and hold it near my knee. Seal rushes over to snag the tidbit. As I scratch him beneath his ears, he sits against my leg. At least there’s loyalty somewhere still.
She has no idea how close to finished Willow Cottage is or isn’t. I still have a few weeks to figure out why she didn’t tell us about her job. Part of me believes it was because she didn’t think our relationship had a future. I didn’t matter enough. Or she’s just running again. But part of my heart hopes that Jenna was unsure that she wanted to take the job, maybe because of our growing relationship.
Walter chews his sausage slowly, nodding his head. Don’t do it. Come on, Walter, hold out on the deadline. If the contest ends now, I lose my home and the closest thing to a father I’ve ever known along with my best friend and half of my heart. Give me a few more weeks to figure this out.
Jenna drops a chunk of scrambled egg to the floor. Though it doesn’t make a sound, Seal rushes to the spot, licking furiously before he settles next to her.
“No.” Walter pauses before answering completely. “No reason at all to wait. ’Cept I want to. I’ve got a few other goals in mind, so I won’t be announcing until the end of July. That’s the deal we started with, and I’m holding to it.”
Powerful relief floods through me. Thank you, Walter. He leaves the room, and the only sounds are Seal’s tail thumping on the floor and Jenna’s fork clicking against her plate.
I pat the top of my thigh. That’s all the invitation Seal needs to jump into my lap. If I don’t win and have to leave, he goes with me.
Seal spends the rest of the day trotting between me and Jenna as we move from cabin to cabin. He’s not allowed inside the cottages, so he lies around my work area or follows me along the paths while she’s out of sight. When he hears a cottage door shut, he sneaks over to find her.
She and I don’t spend time together for a break or lunch. We only exchange necessary words that pertain to our work, and even then, eye contact is limited. At the end of the day, Seal’s tuckered out from running back and forth between us and is sleeping on the rug by Walter’s kitchen sink.
I’ve been turning it over in my head all day. I knew it was likely that Jenna would push back from me at some point. Why am I surprised that it happened? She hasn’t dealt with her emotional baggage yet. It was an unrealistic goal, but I was really hoping it would happen, for Jenna to come back, make a one-eighty degree turn, and decide to start a relationship with me.
I can get back on my game plan. It will still work. This is just a temporary set back. Tomorrow will be a new start.
It’s after ten o’clock now as I climb to my room, and I still have to make time for homework. I’ve been working late and early every day this summer. Zombies probably have more energy than I do right now.
Luckily, the assignment needed to finish my degree fits the plans I’m making for Misty Harbor and the marketing contest Walter made up.
The growth-strategy paper that’s due tomorrow needs to be completed. Well, started. I have all the research, but I’ll be typing it up for several more hours.
The concept is simple. The people who vacation here are mostly from the fishing and hiking crowd, leaving times of the year when vacancy is high. My plan is to market to artistic groups to hold retreats here in the off-season. I’ll hire local artists in painting, photography, writing, or music to provide workshops. The guests will have lots of quiet time to work and improve their skills too.
Hopefully, some will want to book vacation stays later down the road. This contest is based on profit. The groups have to book and put down a deposit in order for me to win, and since there’s no expense yet, it’s all profit. That will hopefully make this my first win.
Five hours later, I’m done and slip into bed as the glowing numbers on the clock turn to three twenty-seven. Sleep doesn’t come—only thoughts of Jenna do. Did she know the boxes were coming? When would she have told me about Idaho, or would she have just left again? As soon as I think that question, it rephrases. Or would she have just left me again?
I don’t know why it surprised me that she’s built such strong walls. I guess I just thought I’d taken them all down.
I peek at the time again. Looks like it’s going to be a Red Bull breakfast tomorrow.
Between school, work, renovations, and contests, I’m exhausted. One more month. Whatever it will be—everything ends or starts with this summer.
The sky’s still dark. Not even a hint of morning. I’ve been lying awake all night, reliving so many good memories of Cole and regretting the mistakes I’ve made with him.
Starting from my first year visiting Uncle Walter, the narrow, rocky beach was our kingdom. Maybe it had been Cole’s before I came, but he allowed me in. That seems like the kind of thing he’d do. We crossed swords there for hours, training to be pirates so we could join the crew on the Black Pearl. I always wondered how my mom found the people she wanted to marry. My eleven-year-old heart thought I’d found mine on the beach.
I remember saying, “We’ll find the treasure chest,” and thinking, then we’ll get married.
Cole’s eyes sparkled with hope. “I’m going to buy a boat with my half of the treasure.”
I kick my legs out of the twisted blankets, then smooth them over me again.
In the summers that followed, one of us always had a fling when the other wasn’t dating. Until two summers ago.
I throw off the covers and sit up against the pillows. When is morning? Ugh, three more hours.
It seemed like the stars aligned, fate stepped in, or maybe it’s like Shakespeare said, that we were actors to play a part, and we finally fell together.
Memories of the taste of his kiss, the smell of body wash, holding each other close … If I told myself the truth, it’s what I had dreamed of for half my life … but I blew it with Cole.
I slide deeply into my bed and pull the covers to my chin. I’ve been so busy making sure I’m not my mother that I’ve never stepped back to figure out what I want. When do I reclaim my own past instead of using Mom’s to define my future?
Two years ago, Cole said he loved me. He said he wanted us to spend our lives together. What would have happened if I had trusted him and loved him back? The thought tears at my chest. I know now that I was scared of myself, not him, and I ran away.
A warm tear rolls down my cheek. I didn’t know my own mind then, or even now. But I do know that I want Cole in my future. I want to see where it goes if we commit to each other. We both came from parents who were a hot mess. But we also both had Walter.
Two years ago, I thought I’d doom every relationship, not knowing how to do the healthy kind. But I know how to with Cole. We have roots, deep roots of friendship. It’s so built up inside of me that I feel like I’ll burst if I don’t say it now—I want what he wants. I hope he still wants us to be together. Vibrating with excitement, I can hardly wait to see him.
He might not feel the same today as he did then or even as he did last week, but it’s a risk my heart tells me to take. I regret the mistakes I’ve made and the time we’ve lost. I’ve got to tell him now—today.
Cole didn’t come to breakfast. I need to talk to him before I lose my nerve.
While Walter and I shelve supplies in the laundry room, the walkie-talkie crackles with Cole’s voice. “Walter, you’d better come down to Apple Blossom and bring Jenna.”
What’s happened? Cole didn’t sound like he was in pain. Does he just want to show us something?
Cole meets us on the path, pacing back and forth as I step out of the golf cart. His arms wrap me tightly as Walter continues past us into the cottage. My words come out in a rush. “We have to talk, Cole. Maybe now’s not good … but I want to talk about us … and our future—I mean, if we could have one. I’m presuming a lot … and I’m hoping for even more. I’ve been thinking about us all night.” I take a deep breath. If Cole doesn’t feel the same way I do, I want to have everything settled before the end of the contest.
Cole relaxes his arms to look into my face, then pulls me to his chest again. “We’ll work it out, Jenna.” His hand caresses my hair as we stand there for a moment, then says, “Let’s go.”
Continuing down the path, Cole says, “There’s a problem with the cabin, but it can all be fixed with a little time.”
It surprises me to see Walter just standing in front of the Apple Blossom’s open door. He hasn’t stepped in. I push beside him and walk through the doorway. Shock slams me full force.
Everything not nailed down or screwed into the wall has been stolen. Everything. A sudden coldness flashes through me as I walk through the rooms and take a mental inventory. My stomach drops. The artwork—all of it—in every room is gone. No TVs. The microwave was still in the box—must have made that easy for them. All the bedding, kitchen supplies, and chairs—stolen.
I remind myself to take a breath—concentrate on breathing. My limbs feel weak, and it’s hard to walk. In addition, they damaged several walls and broke all the windows upstairs in the new screened-in porch that would have been installed later today.
“How—how did this happen? And when?” I feel like the cottage—gutted.
Walter walks back over to the door. “As far as I can tell, there was no forced entry. They just walked in and took whatever they could.” He sits on the floor.
I feel as dazed as Walter looks. I can only imagine how he feels to see his cottage damaged. People trespassed on his property, his home. The pain I feel is probably nothing compared to his.
Cole combs his hand through his hair. “I worked on the Willow until about one this morning, and I was up again at six. It must have happened between those times.”
A deep feeling of fear drops to the bottom of my stomach. “It was about nine o’clock last night when I left. I—I don’t remember locking up.” Does anyone ever remember doing something automatic, like locking doors when you leave? It had been a long day of painting trim in the bedrooms and kitchen. I … forgot, and … it’s my fault. It’s all my fault, and I’ll fix it. Like Cole said, it’s fixable. I can do this. A week or two of long hours, and it will be ready. It has to be.
“We should postpone the end of the contest,” Cole suggests to Walter.
“No.” My voice sounds harsh, louder than I thought it would. “It’s all cosmetic.” I’m glad the appliances weren’t being delivered until tomorrow. “I just need to clean it up. I’ll be ready.” This might make me lose, but I’m not going to quit. I’m not leaving Uncle Walter or Cole with a mess. Resolve tightens in my back, making me feel stronger.
“I’ll get to work.” My eyes sting as I turn away from the door and walk back to Walter’s house, brushing tears from my cheeks.
I want to throw myself on my bed and stay there for a few days, but I can’t lose it now—I have too much to do. Instead, I flip open my computer and begin looking up invoices. That part’s easy. I just reorder exactly what I had before.
The paying part hurts, though. I’ve already budgeted and spent the amount Uncle Walter gave me for the project, so I’m raiding my savings to make up for the loss. I know insurance will probably pay for it, but I also know it will take a long time to settle. It’s okay—I’ll pay now and get reimbursed later.
After working for two and a half hours, I’ve revised all the timelines and budgets for the affected rooms, and submit the last order I’ll need. And I’m broke.
My mother’s face fills my mind. If you get married and let a man take care of you, you’ll never be broke. Then trade up as soon as you can.
No. I’ll have my paycheck tomorrow, and the wages for the next two weeks. I’ll have to live paycheck to paycheck for a few months to build up a cushion—I’ve done it before. Maybe I need a leap of faith—to close my eyes and use my heart to figure out what to do.
Walter knocks on my door then pokes his head in. “You doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. How about you?”
“It’s just stuff, Jenna. We’re all fine.” He leans against the wall. “I’ll get you a new prepaid credit card tomorrow so you can reorder what you need.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve already reordered everything. You can pay me back when the insurance company settles with you.”
“That’s generous.” He holds a slip of paper toward me. “This postage receipt was left in the mailbox. Guess we weren’t around to sign for some important letter.” When he hands it to me, he leaves and I grab my key to head to town.
Everyone knows a registered letter is never good news, but I can’t imagine what it would be. I’m not expecting anything. I haven’t won anything. I haven’t even gotten a traffic ticket. When the post office clerk hands me the letter, my stomach drops. The return address has the logo for Falcon Peak Lodges in Idaho.
Good news comes registered too, doesn’t it? Maybe this is my employment contract to sign—maybe they sent it instead of having me sign it when I get there. I quickly walk to my car before I rip open the end. At the beginning of the summer, this was the only plan I had. Now it’s the backup. Cole is plan A.
“Dear,” skip, skip. “We regret …” The letter suddenly feels heavy in my hands. “We have decided to go a different direction and withdraw the employment possibility. We wish you all the best in your future career plans.” I throw the letter onto the passenger seat and lay my forehead against the steering wheel, taking deep breaths.
Even though I’ve decided this isn’t what I want most, it hurts to be fired before I even show up. It’s the principle. It feels terrible to be rejected.
&Apple Blossom Cottage& is empty and dark this morning. With a flip of the switch, the carpet sparkles like sunlight on water, but it’s thousands of glass shards from the shattered windows. I drag in the Shop-Vac and turn it on. Once all the glass is gone, I’ll clean up the rest of the damage.
I’m up earlier than usual—earlier than Cole. That never happens, but it will give me a couple hours to clean up the cottage so I can start repairs after my shift today.
A little chill of worry skitters through my thoughts. When I first came here, I had the promise of a great job to go to. Then I had the opportunity to win this place and use my degree to work in a place of my own. Either one would have been a dream come true.
Then the cottage is ruined, and I’ll have a hard time finishing it before the end of the contest. On the heels of that, my safety net job in Idaho evaporates. I’ve got nothing. I can’t dwell on those though. They’re both history. I’ve got to move forward and try to win.
Time flies and by breakfast, I’ve only accomplished vacuuming glass—from every room in the cottage. Getting back on schedule with the renovation is going to take longer than I hoped.
Cole is halfway finished with his omelet when I enter Uncle Walter’s kitchen. I sit across from him with my yogurt and fruit as Uncle Walter walks in and grabs a plate.
“I’ll have some time tonight. How can I help with the cottage?” Cole asks between bites.
I feel like I’ve been a fish flopping on the beach this summer. I don’t want to hurt Cole—I want Cole. I want to stay here—I’m probably leaving. Do no harm—I’m in love with Cole. My decision to fix it myself isn’t about winning. I want to see what I can do. I want to prove it to myself that I deserve to be here, that I could make a great owner.
“Thanks, Cole, but I don’t need help. I’ve got it.” I swivel in my seat so I don’t have to see the glare Uncle Walter is giving me. “It’s something I need to do on my own.”
“Well, my offer stands. Let me know if I can help.”
When Uncle Walter sets his plate beside mine and drops into the next chair, I know he wants to talk about it. But I just answer Cole. “I will. Thanks for the offer.”
Without saying a word, Uncle Walter throws his hands in the air, then murmurs to the ceiling, “I’ll probably die before they figure it out.” He leaves the room without eating.
I catch the movement out of the corner of my eye, but I’m not going to have a conversation about it and pop my hand up between me and Cole. “Don’t go there.”
Cole’s hands raise in surrender. “Have it your way.” His voice softens. “You don’t have to do everything alone. You could trust me. What if I just help you get the place back to where it was when the damage occurred? I could patch holes and paint baseboard, that kind of thing.”
“I don’t…” Every competition we’ve had, we’ve been on opposing sides. This summer has been different. We haven’t really been working against each other so much as toward the same goal. Even with the first contest, he delivered my baskets. He didn’t have to—he did it to help me complete [_my _]goal.
“Yeah, okay.” I draw in a quick breath and kiss his cheek. “Just this once.”
Maybe if I let myself dream, this could be what it’s like to build a life with Cole.
There are probably a dozen holes in the walls the size of a boot. I barely understand the theft—they took something they could sell, but the destruction? I can only shake my head. The disappointment must be huge to Jenna. At least they didn’t mar the apple blossoms Jenna hand painted above the windows.
Jenna and I have been working on her cottage for a few hours after work for the past few days, but today we’ve had all afternoon too since there aren’t any guests until day after tomorrow. Now and again as we work, I indulge in a fantasy of what it would be like have my own home. I imagine Jenna walking down the hallway of that home and me taking her in my arms. For a few moments each day, it seems real enough to happen.
The two-way radio blasts with Walter’s voice. “That dog of yours has done it again. You’d better get over to the parking lot. There’s a woman waiting for you, and she’s none too happy.”
Jenna and I look at each other from across the room. The only one who doesn’t move is Seal, happily sleeping on the kitchen floor. I set down the drywall I was cutting for the next patch, pick up the radio, and answer. “I’ll see what’s going on.”
“I’ll come too as soon as I place this patch and hit it with some mud.” Jenna presses the wire mesh over the patch and picks up a trowel while I head out the door.
I walk up the path, trying to think of a time in the last couple of days that Seal’s been out of my sight. While I admit, emphatically, that he’s a sneaky one, lately he’s either been beside me while I work or he’s been in our apartment above the storage room. He’s been a model of doggy decorum. There’s a little hope that the woman is mad about the wrong dog. But only very little.
As I near the lot, the woman is behind her car, scowling, arms folded, definitely mad. That must be her.
“Hello. You wanted to see me?” I ask. I hear the faint sounds of barking from inside her car.
“Where’s your dog?” Her voice sounds angry—fits her look.
I’d better tread carefully on this one. She looks ready to blow. “He’s not with me right now. How can I help you?” Good thing that lazy dog stayed with Jenna.
“He’s a menace.”
Even though it might be true, it’s like hearing someone rail on your child, and I’m more than a little annoyed. I reply, “Sometimes. What happened, exactly?”
Behind me, I hear footsteps crunching on the gravel and turn to see Jenna and Seal approaching. When she stops by my side, Seal jogs toward the woman.
“Sit!” I command, and Seal sits—see, model citizen—his tail raising dust as it swishes making a divot like one wing of a snow angel behind him.
“That’s the dog,” the lady screeches, “and now this is your problem.”
When the woman opens the back of her SUV, the sound of yapping intensifies.
I turn to see my dog, his paws on the bumper—so much for sitting—sniffing the air toward the box, his tail wagging wildly behind him.
“He’s the father, so these are yours.” She simply steps aside, waving her hand for me to look in the large box.
There are eight little repeats of just what Seal looked like as a pup—all fluff and kinetic energy—tumbling around inside.
“Is your dog a Blue Heeler also?” I ask.
“No. She’s a Pointer.”
Those are some pretty strong genes he has.
“Really, Seal? Eight puppies?” I doubt he only went over there once. If any of them have his personality, we’re in for eight little terrors.
“Wait.” Jenna touches my arm, then she looks back at the lady. “How do you know Seal is the father?” She looks over the edge and gives a low whistle. “You dog.” Her voice is mildly scolding. Seal thinks she’s congratulating him. His tongue lolls out to lick her arm. Then Jenna looks back at the woman. “Are you here to offer us a stud fee?”
The woman snorts. “Hardly.” Then she begins to pull on the box, but it’s too heavy. “Help me with this,” she snaps at me.
“Just a minute, Cole,” Jenna answers. For a moment, I think about stepping in and helping, but Jenna looks like she’s doing great without me. “When did they mate?” she asks.
The lady clenches her teeth then says, “Obviously about four months ago.”
“And you saw this?” Jenna asks with a broad smile.
“No, but there’s the proof. They all, every one of them, look like him.” She points a finger at Seal, who is close enough to lick the woman’s hand. She huffs and wipes off his attempt at reconciliation on her jeans.
Jenna continues, “Then I assume it was consensual, given they both have that instinct for the survival of the species. We’ll keep four. So will you.”
Jenna hands me two puppies from the box and grabs two more. Without turning to the lady, she says, “Have a good day” as we walk away, Seal jumping and romping around our feet.
Before I set the puppies on the back lawn, I command Seal to lie down. He complies but can’t take not being part of the excitement and belly crawls up to us. The puppies seem just as interested in him, as he is in them.
Seal yips and runs around the edge of the group of puppies and soon has them chasing after him. Their pudgy legs can’t keep up with their frenzy, sending them tumbling over each other or to the ground. Seal waits with his head near the grass and his hind end in the air. Then when they approach, with their soft ears flopping at the top of their heads, Seal jumps and darts away from them.
“That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.” Jenna laughs as the tide of puppies tries to catch Seal.
I smile broadly and get a little choked up.
Jenna looks into my eyes and asks, “What’s the matter?”
“It’s ridiculous, but I was thinking that I was glad they got to meet their dad. You know?”
She wraps her arm around my shoulders. “Me too.”
A few times, Seal rolls onto his back and lets them catch him. They mob around him and try to climb on top, only to slide down and start chasing him again. When they are so worn out that they aren’t able to run anymore, we pick them up and carry them into the supply room.
“We could use an appliance box as a bed for them,” Jenna suggests.
We lay down newspapers, turn the refrigerator box on its side, cut an opening, add more newspapers and place the pups inside. Jenna puts a pan of water in the box. After having a drink, they pile in a heap and fall asleep, laying across each other. Cutest dog pile ever.
Walter peeks in just long enough to say, “Goes without saying, you’ve got to find homes for that bunch, and quick.”
Jenna sits back against the wall. “How’re we going to do that?”
“Can you imagine four more little Seals running around the cottages? No one would stay here.” I reach in and run my finger over the downy head of the puppy I’m going to name Gordo. “Daddy’s a kleptomaniac, little guy.” My voice sounds all mushy. “We don’t want him teaching all of you bad tricks.” The puppy digs a little deeper into the mass of bodies. “We should start tomorrow, while they’re tiny and cute.”
“And before we get attached and do something stupid like naming them.” Jenna sounds tough, but the gentle grin on her face tells me she’s half in love with them too.
Oops—did that already. “Great point. We can take them to the supermarket and sit outside with a sign.”
I get up a couple of times during the night and again in the morning to take some of Seal’s food into the kitchen, wet it down and bring it back, placing it in the box beside the water dish for the pups to eat.
On the way to the store, we have the puppies in an apple box on Jenna’s lap. It takes both of her hands, constantly moving to keep them in there. When we get to the market, we put them in the back of my truck. Jenna ties a ribbon around each one’s neck to indicate which ones are the boys and the girl, and the little beasts are nipping at those like it’s the funnest game ever.
It takes us all day, but we finally give away the last one. As we drive home, Jenna’s phone rings every few minutes. She presses reject each time, then finally turns it off.
After we get back to the cottages, I pull out my phone. Mom’s been trying to call me for the past hour—every ten minutes. What she lacks in wanting to keep in touch, she makes up for with impatience.
I should call her back. Do I want to do this now? I don’t think I’ve ever had a positive conversation with her. My chest constricts with guilt. I’m supposed to have caring, or at least sentimental, feelings about my mother. Disappointment over the years has replaced those with dread.
Mom called several times. It might be urgent. I pick up my phone and push the icon for recent calls, her name at the top of the list. The nagging question pops up, though—what does she want now?
I hold the phone between both hands and lean back against my headboard. This shouldn’t be such a hard decision. The minutes tick by as I consider what to say to her. I guess you can love someone but not want them to poison your life anymore. That’s where I am.
I’m old enough to decide what or who I’ll let in and when, what I’m able to invest in emotionally. If I call her, will I be able to balance the needs I have for connecting with her and for protecting myself from her?
Since hearing Cole’s story about taking care of his mom, I’ve realized that I need a little closure too. Not that I won’t get to hear from her or see her again, just that I need the chance to put the hurt and bad memories behind me. I can’t move forward in my life, especially into a committed relationship, feeling like this.
Cole. We’re so good together. My heart swells, thinking about waking up to his butterscotch-colored eyes, his lips brushing against mine. Our years could be filled with working and playing together. I want to be his every day. I want to see our baby in his strong hands—he’ll be an amazing dad.
These feeling have always been inside me, just under the surface. I’ve refused to examine them very closely—afraid of the hurt that always comes with accepting new people into my life. In fact, I’ve pushed those feelings aside, stomped on them, and buried them beneath an emotional mountain. Do my dreams match his? I hope so.
I take a deep breath through my nose and blow it out slowly past my lips. It’s time to grow up into the person I want to be, who can have the future I thought would never be mine.
Crossing my legs, I sit in the middle of the mattress and press Mom’s phone number. It rings several times. She might not even answer—all my stress wasted.
Without saying hello, she says, “Where have you been? I’ve been calling you all day.”
I can feel the hair on the back of my neck rise a little, but close my eyes and concentrate on controlling myself. I’m choosing my own future now. “It’s so good to hear from you, Mom. Why did you call?”
“I sent your clothes. Did you get them? You didn’t call to say you did.” Mom’s tone is clipped on each sentence.
“Yes, I got the boxes.” My first instinct is to snap at her for being so thoughtless. Don’t. “I appreciate you thinking about me.”
“I’m moving to Belize, and I’m clearing out the house before I go.”
“You mentioned that before I left Alaska. I googled some pictures of the island. It looks beautiful.”
“Well, it probably is—I don’t know. But I need to get rid of your bed and dresser. Do you want them?”
Do I? It might be the only thing I have as a remembrance of my childhood home.
Before I make a decision, she adds, “You won’t be able to get a bedroom set this cheap anywhere. I’ll sell them to you for six hundred dollars.”
Ugh. I don’t think I want that memory. “No, thanks.” This is harder than I thought it would be. I tell myself she doesn’t try to hurt me, even though she does. It’s just a habit of hers, and I don’t have to keep the hurt feelings.
“I’m still selling them and everything else, so don’t think you can come home while I’m gone. I’ll be renting this place.”
What she doesn’t know, and I don’t say, is that I’m already home.
“That’s a good idea, Mom.”
“When are you leaving for Idaho?”
“Why not? You’re not mixed up with some boy, are you? Is Cole still living there? You always talked about him.”
There’s no way I want to talk to her about this. Protective feelings emerge that I never knew were there.
She continues. “Men just mess your life up. You don’t need that.”
This is about the time my brain thinks up cutting remarks about how she’s always looking for the next man and that she messes up their lives. Old habits die hard.
Even if this were the right time to tell her how I feel about Cole, she wouldn’t understand what I want because she hasn’t had that yet.
I want one special man to love and hold for a lifetime, to grow together, and to grow old beside me. I want a happily ever after.
Her tirade isn’t finished yet. “Love doesn’t exist. Even when you think you’ve found it, it fades quickly, and soon you’ll be looking for a way out.”
That doesn’t discourage me with Cole. If love fades, we’ll plant new seeds and grow it all over again. We’ve learned how to do that this summer. Cole might have known how for years, but I’m learning from him. “I’m sorry you’ve been disappointed, Mom. I hope you’ll be very happy with Tom.”
“Well, I don’t want to die alone, so there’s that. I suppose, he’s as fine as the next.”
I’ve reached my limit for today. I’ll talk to her later and try again. Little bits of positive will change our relationship—at least that’s what I tell myself.
“Good luck with the move. Bye, Mom. I love you.” I find that I really mean it.
“Bye,” she says.
As I disconnect the call, I slump back on my pillow. She doesn’t have to be Mom of the Year for me to love her. I can love her for all the things she is instead of all the things she isn’t. I can choose to love.
The tense feeling I had in my chest from dreading the conversation with Mom is gone, replaced by satisfaction. The phone call wasn’t completely terrible. It was tons better than usual, mostly because I didn’t play by the same rules. This could work. It’s a first step—it will get better over time.
This summer, I thought I was coming to Washington for Walter. Instead, I’m the one who’s getting helped.
Walter pushes against the desk to stand. He looks exhausted and a little off balance.
“You all right?” I ask. Jenna has a worried look on her face too. It strikes me that I haven’t noticed Walter aging. For the past fourteen years, he’s always seemed strong and without change. Today, I see it. He’s more than tired.
Walter shuffles to the couch and lies down, but doesn’t answer my question, waving me off and saying, “Since we don’t have guests right now, I thought we’d get a jump on some deep cleaning the next few days. And by we, I mean you and you.” He waggles his finger between me and Jenna. “I’m not feeling real great today. Guess it’s my turn to be sick, so I’ll just sit and watch you work—practice for my retirement.” His finger trembles a bit as he points toward the kitchen. “I have some lists over there on the table.”
I don’t look toward the paper. It’s barely the start of the day, and he seems exhausted.
“What can I do for you?” I pull the throw blanket off the nearby chair and toss it over the back of the couch in case he needs it.
Jenna goes into the kitchen and returns with a water bottle that she sets on the coffee table. We stand together looking at him, not knowing how else to help.
“Don’t you both have work to do? I think that’s what I pay you for.” He slides down and arranges a pillow under his head. “Now git. I don’t need you watching me watching you.”
I snatch the list from the table before Jenna can. She raises her eyebrows, and I answer her unasked question. “The laundry and storage room.” Walter has copies of the deep-cleaning pages that he keeps in a file just for days like this. We do them every year—we just don’t know when. Jenna and I work quickly through the list, splitting up the jobs the same way we do each year.
Jenna pulls out a coin and flips it, saying, “Heads. I get first choice.”
Walter’s head lifts momentarily off the end of the couch. “Nope. You have to work together on the lists—every page—together.”
An hour later, as we return to Walter’s house, Seal trots by with a blue-striped bikini top in his mouth. “Not it,” I say, then look at Jenna, who shakes her head, laughing. My heart flips in my chest.
We go inside Walter’s to find him still lying on the couch. He looks flushed. His arm is draped across his eyes, and he doesn’t move it when we walk in. “Are you okay, Walter?”
“I have a headache. Your next list is on the coffee table.”
This time, Jenna picks it up. “Clean the kayaks. Check oars and life jackets.”
This task is a lot of lifting and scrubbing. “How’s your hand?” I ask.
“Good as new. Ready. Set. Go!” She sprints across the room while I’m still picking up the dropped list. Before she heads out the door, she pulls a chair in front of it. I have to clear the obstacle before I can join the race.
“I won.” She flops onto the bench and strikes a relaxed pose as I get to the boathouse. “What took you so long?”
“Oh, I thought I’d straighten up in the kitchen a little.” Her cheeks are rosy from the sprint, and her smile is full of joy below her sparkling eyes. She takes my breath away. “I’ll get the oars and life jackets separated into piles while you get the hoses, soap, and buckets.”
When everything is ready, I say, “Let’s make this more interesting. In addition to bragging rights for the winner, let’s have a little bet. If I win, you have dinner with me tomorrow night.”
Jenna shakes her head, smiling. “We almost always have dinner together anyway.”
“Not just eat together—go out.”
“Dinner out would be nice, but I won’t throw the contest for it. And if I win, we go bowling in Olympia when the contest is over next week.”
I extend my hand, and we shake on it. Easy to do since we both picked something we know the other person would want.
We set up the sawhorses and stretch the first two kayaks across them. We look at each other. It feels like an Old West showdown with our sponges in arm’s reach. She snatches hers, and I do the same, dunking it into the soapy water, then cleaning the cockpit. When Jenna starts on the decks, instead of just using one cloth, she takes off the blouse she’s wearing over her tank top and uses both hands to scrub the top of the kayak. My jaw drops, but I remember this is a contest. Two can play that game—I pull off my T-shirt, dunking it in the soapy water, then wipe it back and forth to clean the hull. She stares, but only briefly.
I’m obviously paying more attention to Jenna than to my kayak. She flips hers over and begins cleaning the hull. Before I realize how far ahead of me she is, she’s spraying it down with the hose. She stretches her arm through the cockpit and pulls the boat onto her shoulder, carrying it back into the boathouse, and returns with another one.
I need to concentrate. Finally finished with the suds, I spray my boat with the hose, completely innocent when a majority of the water blasts Jenna’s ponytail. When she turns around, I’m whistling as I spray the decks.
“You did not just …” She picks up her hose, and I’m hit with a cold-water assault. I suck in a breath and nearly drown. I rush her position and throw her over my shoulder, running for Hood Canal. I hold both of her legs tight with her knees against my chest. When I run into the water, we fall together with a splash, scattering the geese swimming near the edge. We sputter as we stand up and splash each other with waves. She’s perfected wind-milling to move the maximum amount of water. The only way to escape the deluge is to hug her close—every soft curve of her.
Rivulets of water run down her cheeks, and her eyes are bright with fire. We’re both out of breath and smiling broadly when her hands slide up my chest and around my neck. If the water was cold before, it feels warm now. Her lips softly brush across mine, and I tighten my arms around her.
She feels right. If I could just have Jenna, I’d gladly let her win every contest or prize for the rest of our lives. And if I win the cottages, I’d hand them over to her too just to have her stay.
I close my eyes and kiss her with the fervency that has waited two years to be with her. Our kiss at the airport was just our lips, and it was great. Now we’re together, and this kiss has emotion and longing and commitment in it. A small moan sighs from her lips, and my heart nearly jumps from my chest.
One hand presses against the small of her back and my other cups her head. I pull the band from her hair and kiss her neck, letting the wet strands fall across my face. Then after kissing along her jaw, I recapture her lips. For these minutes, Jenna lets herself love me. I could do this all day. For a lifetime.
Jenna breaks the kiss, drawing a deep breath and letting it out slowly, then lays her cheek on my chest, and I wrap her tightly against me. Stay with me. Let me love you. I don’t dare say it aloud, afraid to scare her away again, so I kiss her cheek and say, “Readysetgo!” Then I run to the kayaks to finish the boathouse contest.
Two hours after we started, the boathouse and everything inside are clean. As we walk back, I nudge her. “I won.” She shoulders me back, her eyes shining up at me. My breath catches. When she looks at me like that, I’ll do anything she asks.
“No, you were disqualified. There was still a smudge of dirt on that one oar.” She cuts ahead of me on the path back to Walter’s place.
“I think you put that smudge there,” I call to her.
She turns to face me while walking backward, then raises her hand to her chest in mock surprise.
I point to her face. “That, right there, is the look of guilt.” And it’s beautiful.
Again facing the house, she skips up the path. “You’ll never be able to prove it.”
We step through the kitchen door, and Jenna gasps. Walter is lying on the floor, struggling to breathe. His face is red and his lips are grayish-blue. He’s barely conscious. While Jenna calls for an ambulance, I sit beside him. Suddenly, his hand clutches at his shirt and his face contorts with pain. Oh, Walter, I can’t lose you.
Cold prickles crawl up my spine. “You’ll be okay, Walter. We’ll get you to the hospital. Hang in there.” You have to be okay.
I’m frozen in the moment. Though it seems like hours, it’s barely noon when the paramedics take him away. We follow behind in the truck.
It’s a good thing Jenna drives us to the hospital because when the electric doors slide open to the emergency entrance, I can’t remember most of the trip there. We sit in plastic chairs and wait for someone to tell us what’s going on.
It smells like bleach and vomit. Nervous energy pools in my limbs. I wish I could get up and walk or run, but I don’t dare leave in case there’s news. Instead, I just stare at the repeating pattern on the vinyl floor tiles.
Finally, we’re allowed to see Walter when he returns from getting an ECG, and I stand near him, holding the bed rail. Jenna sits beside his bed. He looks pale. The monitor beside him bounces with his pulse and beeps softly, but feels like a pinprick to my ears. The whoosh of air behind me echoes in the air pushed from the cannula taped below his nose. The slack in his face is completely out of character for this gruff man. He was always strong and capable. Now he looks old and tired and helpless.
The doctor enters and looks at his clipboard, then looks at me. “He lists you as his next of kin.”
I can barely nod my head to confirm, and Jenna stands and slides her arm around my back and leans against my shoulder.
“It wasn’t a heart attack. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s hypertension, which is another name for high blood pressure. In his case, extremely high. He’s lucky you found him or he wouldn’t have had a chance to recover. He’s still hurting and not stable yet. I’m going to keep him overnight to make sure he progresses, and we’ll start medication to drop his blood pressure. I’ll check on him and determine if he needs another day or if he can go home tomorrow. Will he have support at home?”
My throat is almost choked with sorrow and fear. I can do little more than nod again, and Jenna whispers, “Yes.”
Misty Harbor’s rocky beach, where Cole is sitting, is just feet from the water during high tide. It’s not quite sunrise, and the sky is striped with glowing orange clouds sandwiched between the horizon and black clouds above. The canal reflects the scene in a mirroring ribbon of gold as I walk to the boathouse. Cole turns his head just enough to hear my footfalls, but remains on the bench looking out over the water.
I sit down opposite him at the picnic table, but since he’s straddling his bench, gazing east, I only see his profile. “What are you doing out here?”
“Just watching for orcas.”
The year we were thirteen, a pod of killer whales stayed in Hood Canal for a while. I was surprised to see them so far from the ocean. Cole explained that the canal was really a fjord, so it was really deep. I guess the orcas come and go, according to Uncle Walter, but it was my first sighting, and Cole’s too. The whales feasted on the coastal seals that were plentiful. It was gruesome and fascinating to watch.
We saw at least three in the pod swimming above the water at the same time, their black fins bobbing like synchronized swimmers, then slicing under the surface. They swam back and forth, back and forth in a small area not far from shore with clouds of mist shooting above them when they rose. Occasionally, they jumped high enough for their tails to flip water into the air too. And once, a massive head seemed to levitate and turn only to fall with a crash of waves. We didn’t talk. We just watched.
“Watching for orcas” came to mean “sit beside me, but I have serious things to think about.” Since that summer, we’ve sat together on the beach, listening to the nuthatches chirping in the trees behind us and watching white caps on the water, saying we’re waiting for orcas.
Today, we sit silently for several minutes. Without looking at me, Cole says, “What if we hadn’t gone to the house when we did?” His voice is flat—not really a question. More silence follows. “Or what if we’d finished cleaning the boats and gone in sooner?” He turns his face toward me now, and I wonder which question he wants me to answer. Probably neither. He breaks eye contact and leans forward, his elbows on his knees, his head dropping. In barely a whisper, Cole asks, “What if Walter had died?”
I close my eyes, my heart aching. Uncle Walter is important to me, but he’s everything to Cole, the only family he has. “You can’t do that. What ifs don’t help now.” I walk around the table and straddle the bench behind Cole to rest my cheek on his back and wrap my arms around his chest. “The doctor said he’s going to be fine.”
Cole’s chest expands with a deep breath that I hear him blow out slowly. “Do you know how many times I wished my mother would disappear, leaving me with Walter? And then she did. I felt some guilt, like maybe I’d made her do it, but mostly I was glad. Walter’s not really my dad, but he’s the one I’ve had.”
I sit silently, holding him long enough to watch as the sky turns yellow then blue, and the clouds turn gray.
Cole takes my hand, pulls me to a stand, and guides me to sit in front of him, both of my legs swinging over his left leg under the table. Then his arms wrap me. This feels safe and welcome. I want to be in his arms forever.
Life is so fragile. One day can be someone’s last. No warning. Just gone. I’m not going to waste time protecting myself from imaginary pain. I’m going to see what it’s like to love and be loved.
My brain is so practiced that it practically screams “I don’t need a man,” but I recognize now that it’s my mother’s voice. It’s okay for him to need me and for me to need him. In fact, I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, so we can be there for each other.
I imagine gathering my mother’s voice in a large net and drawing it to me. I have to twist the net to condense her words. Then I cinch my arms around it, squeezing and squishing. Finally, with my imaginary hands, I press that voice into a tiny ball. I mentally stand on the edge of this beach and throw it far from me into the canal. I’m still as I imagine that ball sinking to the bottom of the fjord, settling among the rocks, and getting covered over by debris. It’s gone.
The quiet that remains fills slowly, like a tide moving in, with memories of me and Cole together. Flashbacks of moments from every summer to the kiss yesterday are the happiest memories of my life. All of this with Walter makes me realize how short life is. When I really listen to myself, my heart whispers that I want Cole. I want to wake up each day in his arms. I want to work with him and see his future twisted with mine. I want to be family with him.
Cole’s lips against my cheek pull me from my thoughts. I turn and meet them with my own. We share one sweet, soft kiss before he leans back, and his hands fall from the tight hug to wrap loosely around my waist as we watch for orcas together.
&My brain isn’t fully alert&, but something woke me up. There it is—a quick scraping sound. Crap—what is that? My breathing hitches but I try to silence it so I can hear over myself panicking. Someone is in the house, downstairs.
Maybe the theft at Apple Blossom wasn’t a crime of opportunity, and Misty Harbor is being targeted. My ears strain to hear any new noise as I lay rigidly in bed. Anything that doesn’t belong? Nothing. It’s just before three in the morning—I could have imagined the sound, or it might have been part of a dream.
What would my options be if someone broke in? I glance around my room and grab my cell phone, punching in nine and one before setting it back on the table. Now I’ll only need to hit another one for emergency. That gives me some comfort, but I’m probably overreacting.
Wait—I swear I can hear somebody walking around. A sharp bang comes from downstairs, and I’m on my feet, padding to the door. My heart ricochets against my ribs.
I’m not going to be their victim, sitting around so they can plunder everything Walter has. I pull the door open an inch to listen and hear soft scratching sounds. Ice skittles down my spine. Pushing the fear aside, I look around in my room for something that could be a weapon. The alarm clock—I could swing that thing like nunchucks and clock the guy. I grab my phone, and ease onto the landing at the top of the stairs.
I try to stay in the shadows and peek around the corner. No one is in the front room, so I step lightly on the stair tread, which creaks beneath my foot. I freeze. And hold my breath. Clanging from the kitchen completely drowns out the noise I make. I decide that rushing the guy would be best. Adrenaline is swimming through my veins, pushing me to move. I pull out my phone, punch in the last one, and hit send. I won’t have time to talk to the operator, so I set it on the stair.
As I’m moving quickly across the front room, the noise in the kitchen stops. He probably heard me. I tighten my hand on the clock and cord, ready to whip it toward his head. My heart is hammering.
At the corner, I nearly collide with him. With a screech, I throw the clock, hitting his stomach, and kick his shin.
“What the crap, Jenna?!”
Cole? Though adrenaline is still racing through my veins, I also feel a wave of relief. My eyes are squinted shut, and when I open them, Cole looks mad and kicks my clock across the room, shattering it against the wall.
I punch him in the chest. “What are you doing, sneaking around in the middle of the night? You scared five years off my life!” I slap his shoulder.
“Stop hitting me. I’m sorry.” Cole’s fingers rake through his hair and hang around the back of his neck. He lets out a deep, long breath. “I’m worried about Walter.” He practically falls into a chair at the table. His chest rises and falls with built-up tension. “And all I could think about is that he’s been talking about cleaning and organizing his pantry, so I came over to do it.”
Cole looks despondent. All the fight I felt a moment ago drains out my feet, making me feel weak. I sit on Cole’s lap and wrap him in a hug, my forehead against his temple. “Walter will be okay.”
I feel him nod against me. “Am I always going to be the little kid whose mother doesn’t want him—who’s afraid of not being loved? Afraid everyone will leave me?”
His grief tears at me. “I love you, Cole.” My right hand settles over his heartbeat, but my own heart is in my throat. I close my eyes and force the words into a sentence. “You’re an amazing man, and I’ll always be with you.”
His arms tighten as he holds me to him. A long moment passes before I look into his toffee-colored eyes. “Did you ever wonder why I came here and stayed every summer, all summer?” I ask. “My mother must have had a rule she never told anyone about. ‘Assure your new husband that he will barely notice you have a child.’ So she shipped me here from May to August. At least, that was the start. But I came every summer, even on my mom’s off years for marriage. By the time I was in high school, I came to see you—the boy you had been and the man you’ve become. I knew I’d fallen in love, but I hated myself for it. I was scared of it. Mom was always falling in love, and it never looked good.”
Cole whispers softly in my ear and pierces my soul. “We’ve always had each other—even if it was only for the summers. If you win, Jenna, I want to stay.”
I hear the longing in his words, and a small amount of vulnerability and hope. I nod and answer, “And if you win, I will too.” I belong with Cole. Not like he owns me or I own him, but more like we’re in the right place when we’re together. We fit.
Red-and-blue lights dance across the windows as a man yells, “Police. Open up,” and bangs on the door. Cole’s head snaps up. He stands with a jerk, and my feet hit the ground.
“Oh, no. My phone.” I run to the stairs as Cole goes to the door.
I explain to the dispatcher that everything’s fine. “It was a misunderstanding. I overreacted because we were robbed last week. It was my friend downstairs, and he’s okay to be here. He works here and lives here.”
The dispatcher asks, “Is he being threatening to you in some way? Do we need to get you out of there without him knowing?”
“No. He isn’t even by me, and he’s not making me say this.”
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m fine—we’re fine. Thank you, and sorry.” I click the phone off.
I walk toward Cole and hear the officer ask, “What’s with the alarm clock?”
I look over, and it’s lying in the middle of the floor, its guts spilling out on the carpet.
It’s almost four thirty when we finish giving statements and have everything worked out with the police and close the door.
Cole stands beside the door, looking exhausted when I say, “I hate it that I need to leave, but I do. I was going to get up at five anyway. Walter is judging the contest day after tomorrow, and I haven’t finished.”
Cole steps beside me and wraps an arm around my waist. “Come on. I’ll help.”
“No.” I’m still doing this on my own, not because of Mommy baggage, but because I’m proud of what I’m capable of doing.
“Does the contest matter that much? I hope it’s the first of a lot of things we do together. This isn’t about winning and losing.” I open my mouth to say something, but Cole’s on a roll. “I’m helping you, not because I have to, but because I want to. And you’re letting me because you choose to.”
He lowers his mouth to mine. His teeth tease my lower lip. Very persuasive. I peck his lips and draw back.
“Mmm, nice kiss. But that’s not distracting me. No, being the winner isn’t the most important thing to me right now. You can help with part—that’s all. I want some of this to be a surprise.”
That’s something Cole can understand. He’s been keeping a big secret about the Willow cottage all month.
“How about a private viewing before breakfast on judging day?” he asks.
The drive to the hospital in Shelton only takes half an hour, but I leave at nine, knowing Walter won’t get released until around eleven. I drop by a store to pick up a book of crossword puzzles and some Louis L’Amour books. That might help keep him in bed for the rest of the day. Walter slipped up last night, telling me he could go home as long as he took it easy. To him, that probably means catching up on paperwork instead of staining a deck. I’m determined to keep him down at least until tomorrow.
I’m taken aback again when I see Walter. Everyone looks sick in a hospital bed, but now I can see how much he’s aged in the thirteen years I’ve known him, and he wasn’t young then. His cheeks are hollow, and his skin is thin enough to show blue lines beneath the surface. It’s funny how days roll from one to the next, and the little changes don’t register too much.
Walter signs his discharge papers, then they give him care instructions. Finally, he’s scheduled for a follow-up visit and given a prescription.
After we visit the pharmacy down the hall, they wheel him out to my truck, Walter protesting that he can walk by himself. Finally, we leave the hospital and head north.
“Take a left here. Let’s get a burger for lunch before we go home.”
I don’t think that’s what the doctor meant by making changes to reduce the high blood pressure. But when we park and go in, Walter orders a veggie burger wrapped in lettuce instead of on a bun. He’s big enough to make his own decisions, and I won’t nag him, but I’m glad he wants to hang around longer.
“Guess this old body is reminding me to get rid of the cabins.” Walter chuckles. “No backing out now.”
“But if you take it easy and get your blood pressure down, couldn’t you stay at Misty Harbor?” I pause and take a quick look his way to see him shaking his head. “I’ll bet Jenna would understand if you’re not ready to move yet.”
“No. I’ll come back, but I’ll be a guest when I do.” His eyes twinkle toward me. “Don’t think you’re getting out of the contest that easily. I think Jenna would be pretty sore at you if you didn’t give it all you’ve got—or she’d make you sore. Not that I’d mind seeing that. She hates it when someone throws a win her way. Didn’t you learn that lesson the first summer she came here, when she beaned you with the wooden ball from the lawn bowling set?” Walter chuckles. “You had a goose egg right here for a week.” He points to his left temple. “She’s nothing like her mom, you know. Jenna has spirit, ambition. She’s a spicy salsa while her mom’s plain yogurt.”
She’s salsa all right—with jalapeños. I smile at the thought of Jenna wielding an alarm clock at a burglar. She has guts. I like that.
Walter slaps his palm on the table, effectively getting my attention back. “The judging is tomorrow, and I intend to get rid of this place to one or the other of you. I want to wake up and have a whole day to do what I want for a change in a place that’s always a sunny seventy degrees. It’s time to pass the torch, and I don’t have cold feet about it at all. In fact, today I’m even more sure.”
We eat in silence, at least outwardly. When I thought Walter could die, there were so many things I wanted to tell him. Now, I don’t know how to bring them up. Instead, I pick up French fries one after another and wash them down with Coke.
When we get back to the house, I take a deep breath and say, “Thanks for taking me in. You didn’t have to, and I’m glad you did.”
“Some things are a gift from God.” Walter’s voice is solemn. “I expect you’re old enough to hear the story about how that came to be. You’ve been old enough for a long while, and maybe you think you know all of this because you lived it, but I’m going to tell it my way anyway.”
He looks across the room to where pictures of he and his wife hang on the wall. “You know, my little Belle and I didn’t have kids. We had a full life, meeting new people every few days, but our family was just the two of us. Our work kept us busy, and we had each other. That seemed to be enough. We had a good life.” His eyes sparkle with unshed tears at her memory.
“Oh, I loved that woman, and the surprise of it was, she felt the same about me. Belle moved to heaven without me a couple of years before your mom took a job at the cottages as a maid. Your mom asked if you could trail around with her as she worked, and it looked like you did more work than she did, so it was all right by me.” He nods with a satisfied look.
“One weekend, she left with friends. I found you down at the beach, sitting on a picnic table, gazing out over the canal with red, swollen eyes, waiting for her to come back for you. I moved you into the guest room, and you took to following me on my chores. One thing must’ve led to another, and we didn’t see her until the next Monday.”
I think back to that day—I thought it was only one, not realizing until now that she had left me for several days. Walter never said anything about that. In fact, I don’t remember him ever saying anything negative about my mom.
“Her car came screaming into the parking lot, and she was yelling for you. She nearly like to woke up every cabin. I told her you took a job with me for summers and after school. She worked for me a few weeks longer, then drifted to another job, but she let you work here.
“I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but I figure you and I did some good for each other.” Walter grabs his napkin and wipes his eyes. “You’ve been a real good boy. Now you’re the kind of man I can be real proud of.”
“Thanks.” My voice is rough with emotion, and I have to clear it to continue. “I want you to know, I’ve always thought of you as my dad. I love you, Walter. I’m sorry I’ve never said it before.”
&The next morning& as I check in with Walter, Jenna’s standing by his bed, fluffing a pillow, and says, “There’s a walkie-talkie and a cell phone on the bedside table in case you need us. You’ve still got that old phone plugged into the wall on the dresser too. I put a sticky note with my number and Cole’s beside it.”
Walter is dressed, like he’s going to go to work. Since he isn’t leaving the room, Jenna must have put a stop to that.
“What else do you need?” I ask, not knowing what to do.
“For you to leave.” Walter starts throwing the extra pillows I put on the bed yesterday onto the floor. “I know what a phone does. You two get out of here and clean the guest cottages that vacated this morning.”
Yeah, he’s feeling a lot better. “Try to stay in bed.”
He kicks his shoes off and reaches to pull at a sock. “Don’t think that’s possible.” I toss the bag of Louis L’Amour books and word searches onto his bedspread. He looks inside. “Yeah, think I’ll stay in for a while after all. Shut my door on your way out.”
&That night&, Jenna and I sit in Walter’s living room watching a movie, neither of us wanting to leave, but Walter doesn’t want us hovering over him. Jenna hits pause and jumps up. “I need popcorn.” A few minutes later, she returns and says, “You know, we still haven’t had a date.”
I think about it for a moment. Dates are what strangers use to get to know each other. We’ve used more ordinary ways. “I’m going to count the summer we met and had that mud fight as our first date.”
Jenna laughs, shaking gently against my side. “As first dates go, it was original. I’ve never had anyone else cake mud in my hair since then. Maybe our second date was sneaking into that apple orchard and eating green apples all afternoon.”
“That date made us both sick.” I turn toward her and throw her legs over mine so we can face each other. “We’ve had a lot of dates, like when we made dry-ice bombs and took out that picnic table.”
“Seriously? I’m not counting that one. We’re lucky no one lost a hand that day. But we’ve been to lots of movies and gone out to eat. That’s mostly normal date behavior, even though we were often holding hands with someone else.”
“I’m going to count shopping for the cottages the other day too.” I pull her closer, stealing some of her popcorn. “And I’m going to count sitting here with you tonight.”
“I agree.” She smiles and says, “Stop stealing my popcorn.”
We get quiet to watch the end of our movie, but my mind can’t focus on it anymore. I’m holding a secret that she has no clue is about to happen. Just thinking about asking Jenna to be my wife tomorrow expands my chest, and my heart burns. She’s an extraordinary woman, and I want to share my life and this beach with her for decades to come.
Either tomorrow will be the best day of our lives that we tell our children and grandchildren about, or it will completely push her over the edge, and I’ll never see her again.
“We’re going to have an early morning if we’re going to tour each other’s cottages before Walter comes to judge them.”
Jenna nods. “Five thirty.” She puts the bowl on the coffee table. “Then Walter decides our fate.”
No, he doesn’t. I think the words, but don’t say them.
We both move, not to leave, but to be closer. I pull her legs across my lap and lean her down on the pillows at the end of the couch, her chestnut-colored waves flowing across the pillow. Her smile reveals the long dimple in her right cheek. I lean over on my elbow, and my finger traces it.
“I’m glad you came back this summer. Our future won’t be decided by a contest or a coin toss or by Walter. Tomorrow has it’s own secrets. I don’t need to know what’s going to happen in the future, I only need to know that right now—being with you—is perfect.”
Her arms pull me toward her until our lips meet. Fire explodes through me when her hand presses down my back and then moves up my chest.
“It always was a little tricky, having the two of you under my roof.” Walter’s loud voice makes us jump. “But there’re old-fashioned values inside these walls. Just stand up and wave goodnight. Your lips don’t need no more action,” he barks from the stairs.
“Goodnight,” I whisper against her lips.
Jenna looks over my shoulder and hollers at Walter, “What are you doing out of bed?”
“Oh, just eavesdropping. Glad to see the competition has repaired your friendship,” Walter says with a wink.
“Yup, all fixed.” She rises from the couch and walks up the stairs past Walter to her room.
“Oh, good. ’Cause I’m out of ideas for things for you two to do together. Glad I didn’t have to take an ax to the pavilion.”
“Why’d you do a competition instead of picking one of us to buy the cottages?” I ask after Jenna’s door shuts.
“I’m old, TV was broken the night I thought it up, I knew you’d be a hoot to watch, and you have not disappointed.” Walter’s smile widens. “Yup, things are finally getting interesting. Come here a minute,” he says, turning back to his room.
I flick off the TV and follow him. When I get to his room, he’s sitting on the edge of his bed with an envelope in his hand. He reaches in and pulls out a diamond ring. “This is the ring I put on Bella’s finger when she finally agreed to marry me. Seems like we’d known each other our whole lives. Loved her since we were kids.”
He pauses, giving me a knowing look, and I can’t help but think of Jenna. The little freckles across her nose that fascinated me when we first met. The girl she grew into that could do anything I could do, and beat me at it half the time. The woman whose smile broke wide as she descended the escalator at the airport. And tonight. The woman with love in her eyes as she gazed at me.
Walter continues, “I think Bella would be happy to know I’ve passed it along to someone else who will have a forever love, like ours. You’ll use this one day.” He places the cool ring in my palm.
I swallow back a lump in my throat. I nod, but am unable to speak or look at him. My eyes brim with unshed tears.
In all significant ways, Walter is my dad. Giving me this ring, Bella’s ring, is the same as passing me a family heirloom. It shows me that I’m family, more than the custody papers the court filled out. Those ended Walter’s responsibility to me when I turned eighteen. But the family tie has kept me in his life, and will continue. I matter to him.
“Thanks, Walter.” I swallow back more tears, but my voice is thick. “This means a lot.”
“And the good ones are worth all the work it takes to win them over.”
I nod and clear my throat. “Jenna is.” I’m finally able to look up at him now.
“Now, get out of here. I’m tired.” His eyes are full of tears as well. “I’ve got a big day tomorrow. And so do you.”
Cole and I meet on the back porch. “Whose cottage shall we see first?” He flips a coin, and I call, “Heads.” When he removes his hand, it reveals that my streak continues.
His eyebrows pinch together and he laughs. “How is that even possible? We’ve used different coins. You’ve flipped. I’ve flipped. Whatever. You always win.”
“Oh, do you want to call heads now?”
“Yes, I’d like to think I’m not completely unlucky.”
I take the quarter and toss it in the air as Cole calls heads. My palm covers the cool metal longer than usual as I consider that this is a new game, one we’ve never played before because now we’re on the same side. And not just that he calls heads—everything has changed. Who I am. Who he is to me. Who I am when I’m with him.
When I remove my hand to reveal an eagle with its wings spread wide, Cole drops to his knees, laughing. “You completely defy the laws of probability. If Walter had flipped a coin at the beginning of this contest, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“I still won. We’ll see my cottage first.” I step out, and Cole closes the back door behind us. We walk arm in arm to Apple Blossom. The smell of dirt and sea and pines floats on the calm morning air. This is home. Win or lose, I’m not leaving.
When we reach Apple Blossom and tour the rooms, I watch Cole’s face as he takes in each detail. “Seeing this cottage change from the aged building it used to be, to the wreck the robbery left, to the transformation I see now shows that you have natural, genuine talent for this.”
I squeeze his hand. “Thanks.” I’m proud of these rooms, from the floral curtains and throw pillows to the thickly padded chairs covered with gray ticking above delicate turned legs. The rooms are comfortable with warm gold and rich blue.
“This is amazing. We won’t have another cottage like it.” As we finish the tour and lock the door, he says, “It’s like a bed and breakfast.” His arm hugs my shoulder. “Great job.”
Although the cottages aren’t that far apart, we can’t see Willow until we walk around Blackberry Cottage and break through the trees. Flickers of light shine in all the windows.
I give Cole a sidelong glance. “I see the paper is finally off the glass.”
He just says, “You’ll see.” But the smile on his face tells me he’s excited about this. No matter how bad it is, I have to find a few positive things to say. When I walk up the two steps, he doesn’t follow, but still holding my hand, he tugs me to a stop. “I want you to look around by yourself. I’ll be here when you finish.”
He’s being so mysterious. In fact, he has been about this whole project—even to the point of papering all the windows so I couldn’t peek, and yes, I snuck over more one late night to do just that.
He kisses my hand. Then instead of opening the door, he pulls me close. He holds my hand to his chest and leans his cheek against my forehead. It’s almost a silent slow dance with his other arm around me. The morning air, blowing in from over the canal and through the trees, mixes with the smell of his body wash, making me satisfied to stay in this moment with him.
No matter how today turns out, I hope we’ll have these moments for the rest of our lives.
He releases me and kisses my cheek, then opens the door and steps back.
The flickering lights of battery-operated votives are clustered around the room as I step across the threshold and shut the door. Nothing—not one piece of furniture is from the shopping trip Cole and I made to Seattle. I’m not complaining, but he totally set me up. I chuckle to myself and stand in the center of the front room, turning in a full circle.
Where there had been dark paneled walls, there are now beautifully white washed walls. The furniture is thickly padded with floral patterns on a dark green background. The top of the sofa sways in an elegant swoop, and the chairs have curling ironwork below the seat, matching the glass coffee table.
When I enter the bedroom, I gasp softly. I get it. The chalk-painted furniture, the lace-covered pillows, the vanity with a framed oval mirror all scream shabby chic. It’s so beautiful. Someone else read my mind and created all this. It’s like climbing inside my dream house.
He decorated this cabin for me. It’s in my favorite style and in my favorite colors. The muted gray, tan, and cream give a comfortable base to every room, then accent pieces pop with color, blue and green like the water in our canal.
I walk down the hallway, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls Cole built to attach the old shed to the cottage. It’s wide enough for a table and chairs to be placed in the middle, and there’s plenty of room to walk around them. Pendant lights have been repurposed to hold little cages of silk wildflowers above the table. To one side, guests can watch Hood Canal, and through the other windows, they can watch the wildlife toward Olympic National Forest.
Continuing my tour, I notice that Cole’s photography decorates many of the walls, but they’re all of places I love or memories we’ve had together.
The picture above the sofa is of my favorite trail we often hiked through a cool, damp tunnel of dense trees surrounding us. There are photos of Hood Canal taken from our picnic table, some with churning gray water and white caps during a storm, others with bright blue skies overhead. A shiny carpet of black-gray oysters litters the beach in another photo. The kayaks stacked on racks, boulders along the water’s edge, rain while looking out my bedroom window, and the apple orchard, in full bloom, that’s just down the road are all saved in print.
Cole didn’t just decorate this home for me. I get a sense that he’s reminding me we’ve been building our lives together for years. There isn’t a single picture of a person, but every picture is of us.
A warm glow passes through my heart. The memories are like a life preserver.
Cole is sitting on the steps when I make it back to the front porch. More votives have been set up, lining a path from the porch to the beach. I reach for his hands and pull them around me. My heart hammers in my chest, not from a desire to run, but the beat of excitement to create a life with Cole, knowing we’re right together.
I whisper, “Thank you. It’s beautiful.” I lean away as far as his arms will allow. “I was so prepared to hide that hated it. But you tricked me.”
Cole throws his head back and laughs. “You’re welcome, and I had to.” He gazes into my eyes and my heart flips in response. Then his hand cups my chin while his thumb grazes over my cheek.
I’m trapped, willingly, in the sensation, and lean my head into his palm. One of his arms surrounds my shoulders and the other curls around my waist, tightening the hug, and I rise to my toes. He captures my lips with a slight taste of chocolate still on his tongue, his lips soft against mine, but increasing with need. I know deep in my soul that he’s mine and I’m his. When his teeth tease my lip, my arms reach farther around his back and pull us closer together.
I had tried to deny my feelings for Cole, the feelings that now roar through me with his touch. I’d even stayed away, hoping we would go our separate ways and never have to be exposed to love and the rejection that goes with it. But I’d been so wrong. I had turned away the happiness and complete joy we could have been sharing for years.
Cole seems to groan with effort as he breaks the kiss and loosens his embrace. But before he can move, I whisper across his lips, “I love you, Cole.”
His smile lightens his whole face just before he leans down for another kiss, then presses quick kisses down my neck between his words. “I love you, Jenna.” He takes my hand and leads me down the lighted path toward Hood Canal.
Willow has always been my favorite cabin. It’s the oldest one, and also the closet to the water. The beach is narrow here, and the sound of the water lapping on the rocks is soothing. A bench is set up near the water’s edge. When I sit, Cole kneels in front of me, unshed tears dimming my view in the pale morning light.
I swipe my fingers quickly over my eyes before Cole speaks. “Jenna, I adore you.” His own eyes are wet, but his words are earnest. “I love everything about you—that you’re playful and competitive, you’re ambitious and strong, you’re beautiful and tender. I knew that whatever mess happened in my life was just because it was the winter. Then summer would come and so would you, and I would feel whole again. I want to make my home with you. I want to be a family with you. Jenna, will you marry me?”
I slip out of the chair to kneel in front of him, kissing his lips, his cheeks, his lips again. He pulls me across his chest, his kiss taking my breath away. For several minutes, I’m lost in him.
“You haven’t answered. I hate to stop what we’re doing, but …”
“Yes. Yes, I’ll marry you. Soon.”
Cole pulls a ring from his shirt pocket, and I gasp. The gold ring has a large diamond in the center and a halo of diamonds circling around it. It fits my style perfectly.
“Walter gave this to me, thinking one day I’d have a reason to use it.” Aunt Belle’s vintage ring slides onto my finger, the diamonds reflecting the first rays of the morning sun. “If you want to pick out your own, we can go to Seattle tomorrow and—”
“No. I want this. I want us to have the kind of love they had.” As I finish the words, Cole kisses the ring now on my hand and whispers, “Forever.”
The sound of the golf cart crunching over the path toward us breaks our moment, and Walter pulls up as we stand. “Well, are you two ready for me to judge the cottages?”
After a silent moment, Cole reaches into his pant pocket and pulls out a silver coin, flips it into the air, then slaps it onto the back of his hand. Neither of us call it in the air, and I cover his hand with mine, the diamond winking up at us. “We both win.”
Walter’s gaze travels from our faces to my new ring. “About dang time.”
Jo Noelle grew up in Colorado and Utah but also lived in Idaho and California. She has two adult children and three small kids. She teaches teachers and students about reading and writing, grows freakishly large tomatoes, enjoys cooking, builds furniture, sews beautiful dresses, and goes hiking in the nearby mountains.
Oh, and she’s two people, Canda Mortensen and Deanna Henderson, a mother/daughter writing team. We write sweet romance with a time travel, fantasy, or contemporary twist.
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Jenna Brennan doesn’t believe in love. She doesn’t believe in marriage, and she’s learned to only count on herself. At her Uncle Walter’s insistence, and a little emotional blackmail, she returns to Misty Harbor Cottages to help him for one last summer in a place that's really the only home she’s ever known. Cole Zamora has worked at Misty Harbor for more than half of his twenty-three years, and imagined someday owning the place. He met Jenna when they were ten-years-old, and his young heart fell hard for her, relishing every summer she came back. That is, until two years ago, when she broke his heart and never returned. Uncle Walter proposes a challenge between the two, with the winner becoming the new owner of Misty Harbor. Now, there’s a real chance Cole could lose his heart and his home. Jenna isn’t sure which worries her more—a summer of rivalry or romance? One Last Summer is a 100-page novella in the clean & wholesome romance category.