I need chocolate.
Lots. Of. Chocolate.
Sara Kellan had one vice. Yep, that’s right: chocolate. She ate it when she was happy, sad, nervous, frustrated, frazzled. She even used it as an emotional barometer. A bad hair day was a Hershey’s Kiss. Having to pay a traffic ticket that was going to overdraw her bank account was a chocolate bar. This spontaneous road trip was a pan of triple-fudge brownies.
“Are we there yet?!” Trevor called out from the backseat.
The question was innocent enough, but right now it was also like nails on Sara’s chalkboard-soul.
Only a crazy person would make the twenty-hour drive from Arizona to Illinois with a seven-year-old that had the attention span of a gnat and a three-year-old that couldn’t even sit through an entire movie at the theater.
“Yes, we’re almost there Trev,” she answered the same question she’d been asked over a hundred times in the last six hours.
“Mom, she’s touching me!” her seven-year-old bellowed.
“Am not!” Her precious three-year-old defended herself against her brother’s allegation with the conviction of a wrongly accused death row inmate.
What the eff was I thinking?
Her question had only one logical answer, she wasn’t. If anything, she’d lost her ever-lovin’ mind. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. No gray area. It was not up for discussion. It was a cold. Hard. Fact.
The only silver lining to this entire fiasco was that at least she would have material for a post on her blog, aptly titled What The F?
The name had come from Sara trying to teach her little sister Shelby math when Shelby was in sixth grade. Her sister would just shake her head and tell her that she didn’t know “what the eff” she was talking about. Shelby was twelve at the time and hadn’t been allowed to curse. Now as an adult, she cursed like a longshoreman. Whenever Sara mentioned it, she said she was making up for lost time. Sara had done her best to explain formulas, fractions, multiplication and theories to her sister, but Shelby and math never made a love connection. For Sara, it was her first true love. Numbers had always made sense to her. It gave her comfort knowing that there was a right answer to something.
Not surprisingly Sara was drawn to a career that dealt with numbers and was a CPA. After she had Trevor she joined a Mommy and Me class where she’d been surrounded by women and a couple of men that had no clue about finances, so she’d shared her expertise. The information she’d given had helped several couples so much that they’d asked if she did any consulting. The thought had never occurred to her, but she’d agreed and slowly, over years, she’d managed to build a solid client base.
Being in a world of numbers was her bliss, but she quickly learned that numbers intimidated most people. One day in Mommy and Me class there were seven women taking notes on the advice that Sara was giving them about finding ways to trim their existing budget and putting that money into building a savings account and then eventually investing. It was honestly the first time any of them had ever heard of it. She mentioned it to Shelby who immediately insisted that her sister start a blog to help women, and men, with tips that could change their lives.
As much as Sara loved numbers she despised technology, so Shelby had offered to design her site and even post her blog entries until Sara got the hang of it. When they couldn’t come up with a name Shelby—the loveable smartass that she is—half-jokingly titled it What the F Mom Blog after the phrase that she’d repeated so many times when Sara had tried to teach her basic Algebra. Then, because her sister said that it needed to be well-rounded and have several different avenues in which she could find an audience, she added the categories: finances, family, food, friendship, fashion, fitness, and favorites with a tagline that read: Figuring life out one F word at a time.
Sara hadn’t thought it would garner much attention but within a few months one of her posts had gone viral. Soon her site was getting over a hundred thousand views a month. She had brand deals, advertisers, and her own merchandise.
Now running it was a full-time job, but she’d kept her accounting business going because a blog might be profitable in the short-term, but long-term Sara didn’t feel it held any security.
“Mom! Make her stop!” Trev’s voice held that special panicked quality that alerted Sara he was moments away from a code-red meltdown.
Not that she could blame him. They’d spent ten hours in the car each of the last two days and were six hours into today’s trip. Trevor had basically been trapped in the backseat with a toddler that didn’t understand the concept of personal space or belongings. Everything Trevor had, Charlotte wanted, and insisted he share. At home, it wasn’t too much of an issue. If the three-year-old got to be too much, Trevor would go to his room. In the car, there was nowhere for him to hide.
“Charlotte, hands to yourself.” As hard as Sara tried to infuse authority into her voice, her instruction came out sounding like an exhausted suggestion at best.
“I wasn’t touching him!” her daughter maintained. Loudly.
“Yes, she was! With her doll.” The word doll was said with as much disdain and disgust as a seven-year-old could muster.
“Dolly was not touching you! You have cooties!”
“Yes, she was!”
“Eww, gross! Mom, she’s sticking her tongue out at me, and she was eating Goldfish!”
“Then just don’t look at her, Trevor.”
Sara’s knuckles turned white as she grasped the steering wheel tighter and attempted to tune her children out.
What am I doing?
The first answer that came to mind was that she must be having a mid-life crisis, but since she was way too young for that, she tried to come up with another explanation.
As she looked out over the rolling green hills that seemed to go on forever, she mentally backtracked her steps over the past week. Everything that had happened in the last seven days was a blur. Since she’d received a certain large manila envelope by certified mail, her life had taken a Fresh Prince of Bel Air flipped-turned-upside-down twist.
She’d been served with her final divorce papers last Friday and had her house listed and on the market within three hours. Yep. On a whim, she’d decided to sell her house and move away from the only home her children had ever known.
Okay, so that definitely landed in the impetuous column, but not anywhere close to men-with-a-straitjacket-coming-to-get-her territory.
Then, after she’d received a no-contingency, all-cash offer within twenty-four hours, she’d realized she needed to figure out where she planned on moving. It had taken less than ten minutes to decide she was going to relocate to California to be close to her younger brother and sister, whom she’d practically raised.
That was actually a very responsible and mature decision. Not an ounce of koo koo kachoo in it. The kids missed their Uncle Matt and Auntie Shelby, who had both moved, within the past three years, to Hope Falls, California a small town in the Sierra Nevadas. They’d also started their own families. Thanks to Matt and his wife, Amy, her kids had cousins, twin baby girls, Peyton and Paige. Sara wanted the cousins to grow up together.
So far, she was still firmly planted in sane soil.
The break in rational thinking occurred when Sara was packing and came across a picture of her Grandma Betty, who had passed over fifteen years ago. It had been taken when Betty was a teenager. She was sitting in a boat in the middle of a lake with a large castle behind her. Seeing the picture reminded Sara of how her grandma had fixated on that photograph in her final few months. She’d even slept with the picture under her pillow. When she was awake, she’d had it in her hand.
Grandma Betty had told Sara over and over again that the summer she spent in Whisper Lake when she was just sixteen had been the best summer of her life. She’d said Whisper Lake held a special kind of magic that she hoped Sara would experience someday. The magic of love.
Sara had completely forgotten about the photo and the stories, mainly because, at the time, her grandma’s deteriorating health had been so devastating. Not to mention she’d been busy raising Matt and Shelby while trying to grow up herself. Her parents had technically been in the picture. Sara had never had to worry about her and her siblings having a roof over their heads. It was just that they were much more interested in their social lives than the day-to-day care of their three children. So Sara had been the one that made sure homework was done, teeth were brushed, dinner was on the table, lunches were packed, and everyone got to school on time.
Grandma Betty had helped out when she could, and she was more of a support to Sara, Matt, and Shelby than their parents had ever been. That was why losing her had felt more like losing a parent than a grandparent.
When Sara discovered the photograph two days ago, something inside of her had snapped. She’d hired a moving company to pack the rest of her house and move the contents to California. Then, she’d packed their suitcases, picked Trevor up from his last day of school, and set off for Whisper Lake, Illinois. After a stop for Happy Meals, of course.
Sure, she could blame her momentary insanity on the divorce, or the fact that her ex was getting remarried, which she’d known about for months. But deep down, she didn’t believe that was the root cause—the catalyst to her current unstable mental state, maybe, but not solely to blame.
“I gotta go potty,” Charlotte whined as she squirmed in her car seat.
“We’re almost there.” At least according to her navigation. But it was the same navigation that had taken her on a service road and had instructed her to drive across an out-of-service bridge, so she wasn’t putting all her faith in it.
Please, God, let us almost be there.
There was a very good argument to be made that it was because Sara had never gotten to experience a real childhood because she’d had to raise her younger siblings, or a young adulthood thanks to getting pregnant with Trevor the very day that her baby sister had graduated high school. One could conclude this spur-of-the-moment road trip was, in some way, her attempt to reclaim her youth. If that was the case, she was failing miserably.
“Look, a sign!” Trevor shouted.
For the entire trip, he’d announced every sign and big rig they’d driven past. Apparently, signs and trucks were a big deal when you were seven. It had been kind of cute the first day. Now, it was wearing a little thin.
When they were close enough that Sara could read what was written on the sign her son had pointed out, she wanted to stop the car, get out, and do a victory dance. “The Hallelujah Chorus” played in her head. Her prayer had been answered.
“What does it say, Mommy?” Charlotte—who didn’t like to be left out of anything, and who was not at all happy about the fact her brother could read and she couldn’t—asked.
“It says welcome to Whisper Lake.”
“We’re here! We’re here! We’re here!” the kids shouted in unison.
Alka-Seltzer had nothing on the relief bubbling up inside Sara as she got her first glimpse of the small town.
“Whoa, look!” Trevor pointed out the window as a large body of water came into view. The surface of the blue water shimmered as the midday sun bounced off of it. As she stared at the serene vista, a sense of complete peace settled over her. It took her a moment to recognize it, since it wasn’t something that she felt often. Her mind quieted, which was a rare phenomenon for her.
From the moment she opened her eyes in the morning, until she closed them at night her brain was a flurry of activity. If it was a computer, she’d have at least ten tabs open at all times with a running tally of to-dos like the stock market ticker constantly scrolling through. She’d tried meditation, several times, but she’d never been able to master shutting off her brain.
Sara felt her eyes watering as she pulled into a parking space at Goldilocks Gas N’ Go. They were here. In Whisper Lake. They’d all made it in one piece, and Sara still had a tiny sliver of sanity left.
“Is that a castle?” Trevor asked, pointing across the street as they piled out of the SUV.
Sara’s heart lodged in her throat as she glanced over her shoulder and saw the structure that was the very one she’d seen featured in the background of Grandma Betty’s picture. “It is.”
“That’s so cool!” Trevor enthused.
“Does a princess live there?” Charlotte’s eyes widened as she spoke with a hushed reverence.
“Maybe.” She gave her patented mom answer. In her experience it was better not to deny or confirm anything. Ever. “Okay, guys. Let’s go. Bathroom only, no snacks. And sorry, bud, you have to come in the ladies’ room.”
“No, Mom!” her son protested. “Come on!”
She ignored his objection. She knew she was overprotective. She just didn’t care. Her babies were her whole world, and she would rather err on the side of safety.
“I want gummy worms,” Charlotte whined.
“No snacks. Right after this, we’re going to go get lunch.” She pressed on as she reached across the console to grab her purse.
Sara always made it a point to lay down ground rules and expectations before going into any public place in hopes there would be less of a chance for breakdowns once inside. Did the plan always work? Nope. But it had a higher success rate than going in blind.
“But Mom, I’m starving! Please!” Trevor begged.
“I want gummies!” Charlotte cried and started kicking her legs against the seat. “I can’t get my buckle off.”
“Just wait. I’ll help you.” Sara opened her door, but before she made it back, she heard more screaming.
“No, don’t touch me!”
“I was helping!” Trevor yelled.
“Mommy’s helping me!”
Sara closed her eyes for a moment and reminded herself that once her kids got out, stretched their legs, and got some real food in their bellies, they’d be back to being her angels. Well, maybe angels was pushing it, but at least they’d be back to their normal semi-angelic selves.
She opened the back passenger-side door and reached in to unlatch Charlotte’s booster-seat buckle as Trevor continued to tug at her seatbelt.
“Stop,” Sara barked, then inhaled through her nose and exhaled through her mouth and tried to soothe the sting of her harshness. “Thank you for trying to help, Trev. I’ve got it.”
“Fine!” He huffed as he opened his door and slammed it shut.
Sara flinched at the loud sound as she helped her daughter out of her seat. When she’d gotten out of the SUV to get Charlotte, she’d noticed a sandwich shop across the street. Mentally, she made a list of next moves for the day. Sara lived her life by lists and rules. She always had a game plan. Which was why this spur-of-the-moment trip was so out of character for her.
Bathroom. Food. Lodging. Lake. Dinner. Showers. And then finally…bed. Her shoulders relaxed the way they always did when she had a solid game plan. Things had been a little hectic during the road trip, and schedules had been a joke, but now she could get things back on track. She took a deep breath when she heard her son’s voice going a mile a minute.
“My dad has that tattoo, but his letters are different. His say U.S.A.F. He doesn’t live with me. He’s going to have a new wife. She’s not going to be my real mom, though. I have a mom. I don’t know the lady yet, but she’s going to be my stair mom—”
Stepmom, Sara mentally corrected her son.
“Trevor Paul!” She called out his first and middle name, hoping to get his attention as she rushed to pick her daughter and purse up and stop her son from spilling their entire life story to some unsuspecting passerby, which had happened more times than she could count. Trevor had come out of the womb friendly and outgoing. As much as she tried to drill into him the concept of stranger danger, he still spoke to almost everyone he came in contact with.
It didn’t surprise her that her full-name warning went unheeded, and she heard her son explaining, “That’s my real mom! She’s getting my baby sister ’cause she’s cranky. We’ve been in the car forever. We’re going to have lunch so we can’t get snacks.”
“Trevo…” Sara’s voice trailed off as she rounded the back of the SUV and saw her son pointing to a tattoo of hanging dog tags with the letters U.S.M.C. beside them. The tattoo was on a muscular arm that belonged to a very tall, very sexy Marine.
Being rendered speechless was not something Sara Kellan experienced often, or ever. But that was exactly what was happening now. When her gaze traveled up the sculpted forearm and biceps and along the chiseled chest, she worked to form a cohesive thought but was unable to. As her eyes continued north over the sprinkle of scruff along the strong jaw of the man that had sent her into the unfamiliar state of muted lust, and her gaze met an emerald green stare surrounded by a thick bed of inky lashes—a jolt of awareness shot through her.
Yep. This stranger was definitely danger…to her.