“Cart three on the Ghost Chase needs a rescue at zone seven,” Rick, the midway night manager says over my walkie-talkie.
Unclipping the bulky device from the waistband of my tan colored yoga pants, I bring the mic close to my lips. “I’m a minute out,” I answer. “Be there shortly.”
Taking a shortcut behind the Zombie Snatcher, I enter the Ghost Chase from the blacked-out service door closest to location seven. Before my eyes can adjust to the darkness, I hear the hysterical cries and my chest tightens. The little boy sounds just like him. It’s times like these that I wish my parents had sold their chain of amusement parks with adjoining motels around our state, and gone into a different business. Every little boy’s cries remind me of Aiden. Every panicked child sends me into panic mode, and I can’t turn off the desperate need to make sure this little boy is okay.
But all the saving in the world won’t bring Aiden back.
Swallowing hard, I push down the thought, and flip on the zone seven switch just in time to see a little boy no older than four or five standing in his cart.
“Try not to move,” I shout, moving quickly beside the metal track that guides each cart separately through the glow-in-the-dark kids’ ride.
Somehow, the little boy figured out how to undo his seatbelt and lift the safety bar holding him and the girl around his age sitting beside him. He has one leg dangling precariously over the side of the cart, ready to make the three-foot jump to the floor. The height is not what puts him in danger. It’s the fact that depending on where he lands, he can fall or become wedged between the tracks, possibly injuring a finger, a limb or worse. Thankfully, the ride has an emergency stop safety feature that’s triggered when anyone in the cart removes their seatbelt.
“I want to get out!” the little boy cries, his deafening screams bouncing off the narrow walls as I make my way to get closer. “Let me out now!”
“Sit down, Nathan,” the girl beside him shouts, her voice matching his volume. She tugs at the back of his t-shirt. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“Hush up, Sofia. I don’t want to sit down!” he answers her, his voice slightly weaker. “I want Mommy.”
“The ride is almost over, Nathan. It’ll be okay, kids,” I hear the deep, calm, masculine voice rumble behind them. My head turns as I follow the sound, and when my eyes land on his piercing green eyes, all the air is sucked out of my lungs.
I have no idea why.
In my job here at one of the busiest amusement parks in the city, I see thousands of men of all ages. There’s no logic as to why this one man catches my eye, but he does, and for a long, distracted moment, I can’t look away.
I should be a lot more professional than I am right now, taking him in from head to toe as I stand a few feet from the little boy and girl that I assume are his.
The fluorescent track lighting overheard shines down on his thick dark head of hair, casting shadows down his face and sharp jawline to his unbelievably broad shoulders. The man exudes alpha maleness. He’s walking masculinity. Well, sitting at the moment. He’s all alpha male, yet his features have a calmness to them, or maybe it's the patience in his tone as he tries to coax his little boy back into the cart. I can tell he's really tall too, from the way he sits with his knees askew from having folded himself into the boxcart. It's made to comfortably fit two medium-sized adults, but his shoulders take up almost all the width, and his legs can only go in sideways. That's devotion, I say to myself. He must be so protective of his kids, not letting them out of his sight, not even for a six-minute indoor ride. But then again, I can't blame him when his son is in a panic, crying for his mother.
Heat spreads out from between my upper thighs as I look at the rest of what I can see of his body. He's ripped. His chest and torso strain the fabric of his plaid button-down shirt, hinting at every line and ridge of all those muscles. My eyes trail back up to his face, and he gives me a crooked smile. This time, when our eyes meet, I discover that just as I had a moment to take a good look at him, he’s doing the same, with me. Heat rises to my cheeks as his gaze drags slowly down my face and body, his eyes seeming to darken. They inch past my collarbone, pausing at my breasts, then jump to my waist, my hips and back up to my eyes. I’m sure my face turns a deeper shade of pink in reaction to his appraisal, which is when I snap back to my reason for being here.
“Hello. I’m Kara,” I tell the little boy. “Is your name Nathan?”
He nods but doesn’t stop stretching one leg down the side of the cart as he struggles to get out by himself.
"I need you to lift your leg back into the cart," I say to him. “Can you do that for me?”
Nathan shakes his head and points back where the carts came from. “I want to get out. I don’t like it in here.”
“The ride is so close to the end, Nathan. Really close.” I motion over at the only red flashing light ahead of us. “See that light? That’s where the ride ends. After that, you’ll be back outside.”
“Please let me out, Miss Kara,” he begs so softly, and his two hands reach out toward me. I can’t ignore his adorable plea for my help. The ride has been held up for several minutes and must have at least a few livid passengers in the carts behind, so I get the urgency.
Glancing over at the striking face of his father—at least, I think it’s his father—I see him nod his okay. I take his son into my arms. Little Nathan clings to my side, his small arms around my neck, his legs tight around my waist, his blonde head of wavy hair buried in one side of my jet black ponytail hairdo. His whimpers and cries soon stop.
“Can you stay buckled up?” I ask the girl that was in the cart with him.
“Yes. I’m a good girl,” she answers, nodding her head so sharply that some of her long blonde locks fall into her face. She pushes her hair away from her light hazel eyes. “Not like my baby brother, Nathan.”
“Thank you,” I tell her, and quickly look back at the man again, ignoring the nervous flip my stomach continues to make. “Sir, I’ll be right outside the exit with your son, okay?”
“My nephew. And yes, that’s fine,” he answers, and that half-smile appears again.
I disable the emergency stop and switch off the zone light in a haze, and watch the carts jerk into its lazy motion along the rail behind him. Taking a breath, I retrace my steps to the service door with Nathan cleaved to me. He’s so calm as we wait. My mind transports me back to a time when I would hold my younger brother, Aiden this way. He was slightly older than this boy when the universe took him from us. For a moment, pain clenches my chest again, as though it only happened yesterday.
“You smell good,” Nathan mutters sleepily into my hair. “Like my mommy.”
“Um, thanks,” I answer. “Is your mom here at the amusement park with you?”
“No…Uh-uh.” He points upward. “She’s in heaven.”
I don’t have a response to that. The ache in my chest rises to my throat from his answer. Seeing someone so small forced to face a loss so immense and all-consuming, warms me up to him instantly.
After a few minutes, I catch sight of Nathan’s big, broad, handsome uncle with Sofia in tow.
“Thanks for helping him back there,” sexy uncle says to me and holds his arms out to take Nathan when he’s close.
“No problem at all,” I answer.
His fingertips lightly touch my forearm as he lifts Nathan from my arms. I get all the butterflies. My skin tingles. And the pulsing at the top of my thighs catches me off guard. I press my legs together, hoping it’ll stop soon.
But it doesn’t.
Nathan has different plans for me. When he’s almost in his uncle’s arms, he tucks his left leg back to my waist, and his left arm curls around my neck. Using all the force his legs and arms can muster, he tenses his limbs and pulls his uncle and me into a kid’s version of a group hug. Neither of us adults moves to close our side of the embrace, and thank goodness for that. This close to his sexy uncle, my arms go limp, and I’m pretty sure every exposed square inch of my skin turns red from embarrassment. Or from the heat of being in such close proximity to the man who got my motor running with just one look. I can’t tell if it’s one or the other. Or both.
“All right, Nathan,” his uncle chuckles deep. “That’s enough for now. Let’s say goodbye to the nice lady so she can go back to her job.”
“Bye, Miss Kara,” Nathan says, sounding more tuckered out by the minute.
“Enjoy your shift, Kara,” sexy uncle tells me with a polite nod.
“You too.” I watch him walk away with his niece and nephew, and they merge into the dense evening crowd.
Too bad I didn’t ask for his name. Not knowing what it is, I’m left longing for the first time ever.
My disarming stranger is still on my mind at the end of my shift. I walk back to my place, the home I’ve lived in with my parents since it was the four of us. Aiden made four. I quickly try to push the thought away, but tonight, it’s so hard. Holding that little boy in my arms brought it all back.
On my way around the side of the motel we own next to the midway, I look up at the sound of the large, loud, outdated ice machine that motel guests use. I hear myself gasp under my breath when my eyes land on him.
It’s him again.
Sexy uncle green eyes.
There he is, a handful of feet ahead of me.
I notice him on the walkway before he realizes I’m watching. He leans against that pillar near the ice machine, looking a lot taller than I expected, and naturally rugged in only a white t-shirt, dark shorts, and loafers. And there are no nieces or nephews in sight. Under this light, the faint stubble on his jaw gives him an edge I didn’t notice before. I didn’t think he could be more handsome, but he damn well is.
“Kara,” he calls my name the second his eyes land on me, and I freeze.
It’s not fair. He already has a slight advantage over me, just from knowing my name. I want to know his, but my throat goes dry, and my mind goes blank. I couldn’t string together a proper sentence right now if I tried.
“Thanks again for helping Nathan out,” he murmurs. “You have a real gift with kids.”
“I… it was nothing,” I stammer out, staring up into his face. “I work here.”
“Yes, the uniform kind of gave that away. And the nametag.”
His smile disarms me yet again. All I can do is nod, and my hand nervously flies up into one of my ponytails, twisting the end.
“Kara… lovely name.”
“Thanks,” I mutter, and barely have the presence of mind to ask for his. “And you are?”
“It’s Jackson,” he answers, extending his arm from his spot against the pole for a handshake. “Good to meet you.”
I meet his handshake, and his large, warm hand envelops mine. “Same here,” I answer. I try really hard to ignore the tremor of nervousness in my voice and the electricity that rockets through me when our fingertips touch.
“I didn’t realize the staff has to live on the premises.”
“You’re not staff?”
“No… yes. My parents run the park. I live in that house over there.”
He looks off in the distance toward the only single-family structure on the property, tucked away a few hundred yards from the motel. “Very nice,” he says, then turns to face me again. “Will they have a problem if I ask their daughter out for a drink or dinner as my show of thanks? Away from here, of course. Somewhere with a dress code.”
“Probably,” I answer, feeling more comfortable with him all of a sudden. “But that’s never stopped me before. Full disclosure…I’m eighteen. A meal might be a safer bet, in case I get carded by a bartender.”
He studies me again, looking down into my face with those piercing eyes. “Is that a yes?”
Nothing like this has happened to me before. Sure, A couple of the male staff and a few of the amusement park patrons have tried to make a move on me. The difference this time, well, it’s me. I didn’t find them interesting or attractive. I’ve also never felt my body react to anyone. I don’t know if I should run far away or give in to my undeniable attraction to him. But as he steps closer and smooths out some stray strands of my hair behind my ear, I know that if I stand here a second longer, my ability to choose will slip away, and I’ll be left with only one answer.
To give in to whatever this is.