Sara stood on a dock staring out at the very spot that had inspired this fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants trip. The lake had several paddle boaters floating around it. She waited, expecting to feel something. Maybe have an epiphany. A light-bulb moment. Anything. But nothing happened.
She looked down at the worn picture she held in her hand and turned it over to try to see if the inscription would make any more sense now. The ink was so faded it was impossible to make out the entire thing. Certain words were still readable though. The message began with two letters: MT. Five words were clear in the body of the message: Beautiful day, love, never forget. Then it ended with the sign off: Always and forever, YT.
Nope. Sara still didn’t have a clue what it meant. It wasn’t Grandma Betty’s initials. Her grandmother’s name, before she’d married her grandfather had been Elizabeth Casson.
“Mom, can we go on a boat? Please,” Trevor pleaded as he pointed to several paddle boats floating nearby.
Sara glanced over her shoulder, sure that there must be some kind of stand to rent the boats.
Her entire life, she’d been a highly goal-oriented person. She was laser-focused and extremely driven. Which weren’t bad qualities in and of themselves, but the flipside of those characteristics was that she didn’t really take time to smell the roses. She’d plant, water, and prune the suckers, but smell? Not so much.
Having kids had forced her to do just that. Trevor and Charlotte both taught her to enjoy the now. Be present. Live in the moment. If left to her own devices, she’d easily fall into the workaholic category. As it was, she worked for about four hours every night after she got them down for bed, and a couple of hours before they woke up in the morning, and for whatever smaller blocks of time she could manage throughout the day.
Between her consulting business, Priority Financial Consulting and the blog she thankfully was able to work from home. She had a core group of clients that had taken several years to build, and her roster was expanding by word of mouth. And the blog had taken on a life of its own. On average, she worked about sixty hours a week. If it weren’t for her munchkins, she’d miss out on things like spontaneous ice cream parties, running through sprinklers, Nerf gun wars, snuggling on the couch watching Goonies or Tangled, and pizza nights. Or like now—going on a paddle boat.
Basically, all of the little things that made life worth living.
She spotted a small building with blue lettering that read: Whisper Lake Rentals, apparently they hadn’t jumped on the fairytale bandwagon.
As the three of them made their way back up the pier, Sara couldn’t help wonder if her grandma had walked on these very wooden planks and what a day in her life had been like. Or if her Grandma Betty had ever felt the same jolt from a simple handshake that Sara had felt when Austin had touched her. If anyone had ever ignited the instant flame of chemistry that Austin had inspired in Sara.
Honestly, if Sara hadn’t experienced it herself, she wouldn’t think it existed. In movies, TV, songs, books, sure. But not in the real world. The way he’d made her feel, just by being near him, was indescribable. It was like Austin’s sex appeal was on a frequency her body was naturally tuned into.
As they passed a row of paddle boats leaned against one of the pillars beneath the dock Charlotte squealed with delight. Trev tried to play it cool, but Sara could see her son was excited. Not as excited as he’d been when Karen had explained they’d be sharing the Jack and Jill bathroom with Austin, of course. Sara smiled at the memory. Trevor had immediately asked if that meant he could leave the seat up, since now two boys and two girls would be sharing the bathroom.
Sara definitely couldn’t fault her son on his logic. She’d tried to come up with a rational response. It ended up being a lot easier task in theory than in practice. Once she’d found out about their living situation for the next seven days, all of her brain power was being used up by images of Austin. Naked. Austin naked in the shower. Austin naked brushing his teeth. Austin naked combing his hair.
Basically, her mind was playing a looped porn version of Austin’s grooming routine.
If she hadn’t known before this impromptu trip, that reaction had made it crystal clear to Sara she had more issues than Vogue. And if the way her body, mind, and heart were all responding to Austin was any clue, loneliness was at the top of the list.
The kids chatted excitedly about who was going to paddle faster, which turned into a rousing game of I-am, no-I-am! Before they made it off the sandy shore her two little competitors were tearing off ahead of her, as if getting inside the rental shop would somehow make them the winner of who would paddle faster.
“Hey guys, wait for me!” Sara called out.
Charlotte spun around and came racing back to Sara.
Trevor slowed his pace, his shoulders dropped, and he let out a dramatic sigh. Over the past year, Trev had really started to show his frustration over the fact he had to wait for his little sister, or go into the woman’s bathroom, or play video games easy enough that Charlotte could play them, or watch girl shows.
It was just one more piece of evidence in the case of whether or not leaving Arizona had been the right thing to do. The poor kid was surrounded by females all the time. When they moved to California, Trev would have his Uncle Matt, whose wife, Amy, had two brothers, one who was a firefighter and one who was a cop. Not only that, he’d also have Shelby’s husband, Levi, who had two brothers—one of who was a MMA fighter.
Unlike Phoenix, Hope Falls was a small community that the residents joked had adopted the Olive Garden’s slogan—when you’re there, you’re family.
Sara hoped that was part of what she was missing. Family. Community. Support. Maybe if she had that, she wouldn’t be so lonely and her reaction to Austin would’ve been less visceral.
When Sara pushed open the door to the rental shop a little bell dinged.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!” Trevor’s face lit up when the first thing they were met with was an aisle filled with sugary treats. “Can I get a candy bar?”
She’d said no to candy during their three day drive because she hadn’t wanted to be stuck in a metal box going eighty miles an hour when the inevitable sugar crash hit. But they were here now, and they’d just had lunch, and she deserved some chocolate.
“Yes. Let’s see about the boat first, though.”
“Can I get one?” Charlotte whined.
Sara tried to ignore the inner cringe that caused her shoulders to bunch up. Every parent had pet peeves. For some it was talking back, others it was being messy or chewing with your mouth open, for her it was whining. She could handle the anger of temper tantrums, the tears of a total meltdown, and toys being strewn around a floor, but whining was the kryptonite to her retaining her four vital Cs: cool, calm, collected, composure. Trevor was old enough that with just a look, he’d change his tone if it was veering into whine territory. But explaining the nuanced difference of speaking with a normal voice versus using a whiney one was completely lost on a three-year-old.
“Yes, you can,” Sara answered, successfully managing to suffocate all of the irritation and frustration that was bubbling up in her.
She walked to the front desk, the kids at her side, and looked for a bell or something to announce their arrival. When she didn’t see anything she called out, “Hello?”
It was déjà vu of the B&B.
Just as she was about to call out again, a teenage boy came out from a door that she assumed led to an office. He was looking down at the phone he was holding in his hands and a pair of white wireless earphones were stuck in his ears.
Sara waited for him to notice her as he took a seat on a stool behind the counter that she was standing at, but he didn’t.
“Um, hello,” she repeated, this time waving her hand.
The motion caught his attention and he looked up. He must not have been expecting to see anyone because he jerked his head back, which tipped him off balance on the stool and set in motion a domino effect.
The next few seconds were a blur. There was a crash as the wooden stool hit the ground. His phone launched out of his hands as his hands and feet flew in the air. A screen door slammed and a woman wearing a Whisper Lake Rentals ball cap rushed over gasping, “Oh my gosh!” Charlotte was plastered to Sara’s side and Trevor was pumping his hand in the air triumphantly as he yelled. “I got it! I got it!”
It took a moment for Sara to process everything but when she did, she reached out toward the teen who was pushing himself up, using the wall for leverage and began apologizing, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you.”
At the same time she was talking, the woman that had just joined them snatched the earpiece from his left ear. “I told you not to wear these when you’re watching the store. I’m so sorry,” she apologized to Sara.
“I got it! I got it!” Trevor was still yelling.
Sara glanced beside her and saw that her son was holding the phone. The kid did have catlike reflexes. He loved baseball and was sure that he was going to play in the big leagues one day.
Ignoring the woman that had tugged the earphones from him, the teen smiled widely at Trevor. “Damn, you caught that?”
“KJ.” The woman elbowed him in the ribs.
KJ’s face scrunched. “What?”
“Damn is a bad word,” Charlotte offered.
“It’s fine.” Sara told her daughter, hoping that the subject would get dropped. She didn’t want to make this encounter any more awkward than it already was and once her daughter got started listing bad words it was anyone’s guess where the conversation would go.
“Yes, it is. You’re absolutely right.” The woman smiled at Charlotte then gave the teen what Sara called a “mom” stare. To a non-parent, it might just read as tense, but to a person trying to raise respectful members of society, it read as you-have-two-seconds-to-remove-your-head-out-of-your-rear-and-act-right.
Charlotte was, of course, totally oblivious to the “mom stare” being directed to KJ and beamed up at both strangers, glowing with glee at being right.
“Sorry.” The teen grumbled before accepting the phone back that Trevor had been trying to hand to him. When he took it he immediately made a fist and gave Trevor a pound. “That was a sick catch, little dude. You’ve got a good arm.”
Now both kids were beaming. Charlotte at being right and Trevor because a cool teenager gave him a compliment.
KJ reached for the woman’s fisted hand that was holding his earpiece and moved to step beside her. Before she released her grip, she said, “Break down the boxes before you put them out by the bin next time.”
The teen nodded and her fingers un-flexed. He retrieved the small white device that was lying on her palm and put it back in his ear before stepping around her and back into the room he’d come out of.
“I’m so sorry about that.” The woman smiled as she moved into the spot behind the counter that the teen had just vacated. “Hi, I’m Ali, what can I do for…”
When Ali’s eyes met Sara’s her words trailed off.
Sara waited, not sure what was going on.
Ali tilted her head to the side, causing the blonde hair pulled through the snapback cap to fall over shoulder. “You look so familiar. Do I…do we… know each other?”
Sara shook her head. “I don’t think so. We just got into town a few hours ago. I’m not from around here.”
“Mommy!” Charlotte tugged on Sara’s arm. “I gotta go potty!”
“Oh.” Sara grabbed Charlotte’s hand and asked, “Do you have restrooms?”
Ali winced. “Not for the public. Sorry. But The Snack Shack does.”
“The Snack Shack is where?”
She pointed at the side door that she’d walked in from. “Just across the courtyard.”
“I gotta go now, Mommy!”
“Okay, come on.” Sara started to pick her daughter up and rush out of the building, but the woman stopped her.
“You can use ours. It’s fine.”
A wave of relief washed over Sara as she asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Ali nodded.
The trio followed Ali through the doorway that the teen had come out of. He was sitting behind a desk, his head down staring at the phone he held in his hand.
“It’s right there.” Ali pointed to a blue door in the corner of the room.
Sara hurried across the small space and when she stepped into the room and flipped on the light she noticed that she was missing a kid. Looking over her shoulder she saw that Trevor was standing beside the desk, by the teen.
“Trevor.” She used her best “mom” tone.
She didn’t have time for arguments or a discussion. Charlotte was doing the pee-pee dance and Sara didn’t have a spare set of clothes for her daughter with her. Which meant the three-year-old would have to walk back to the B&B in pee-pee pants. Only, chances were she wouldn’t want to walk in them which meant she’d be carrying her back in pee-pee pants.
“Mom.” Trevor might’ve just said her name but what he was really saying was stop-embarrassing-me.
“Little man can hang with me,” KJ suggested.
The same moment he spoke Charlotte went from whine to screech. “Mommy!”
At moments like these Sara had to rely on her intuition. Gut instinct was a powerful tool that she’d always trusted. She wasn’t sure she’d trust KJ to handle a store for her if she owned it, but she trusted him to keep an eye on Trev for a couple of minutes.
“Thanks.” She smiled and shut the door.
As she helped Charlotte, the three-year-old explained that she’d been right that the man they’d met looked like a bear and that damn was a bad word. Sara was only half listening to her Chatty Cathy daughter but mainly keeping her ears focused on the door. She could hear Trevor talking, but couldn’t make out what he was saying.
After hands were washed and dried, Sara opened the door and was not surprised when she heard the tail end of her son’s sentence.
“…she’s going to be my stair mom.”
“Stepmom.” Sara corrected for the umpteenth time as she entered the office.
When she did she stopped up short, taken off guard by Ali’s expression. The woman was staring at her, her eyes wide, and her jaw hanging open.
What had Trevor told them?
Sometimes Trev represented things in a not so flattering light. He didn’t do it on purpose, he just mixed things up, like stair mom instead of stepmom. He got the sentiment of things right, but not always the facts or names.
Once he’d stood in front of his first grade class and told them that his mommy spent the weekend growing weed and then she put it in baggies and took it to people’s houses. Which in California would be totally legal, but in Arizona was still frowned upon. The thing that made it worse, was he had drawn a picture to aid in his show and tell. And hell if that kid hadn’t drawn a perfect marijuana leaf and a small clear baggie with green leaves in it.
In reality, Sara had spent her weekend gardening. She’d pulled weeds and then she’d picked rosemary and basil and put it in Ziploc baggies to give to her neighbors.
The teacher had been cool about it and thought that it was funny once Sara had explained. But the parents were another story. Her phone had blown up for a good three weeks. Half of the calls she got were about her being unfit and the other half were parents looking for a hookup. She’d explained the situation to both the agitated and drug-seeking, but the outraged parents thought she was just trying to cover up her drug dealing ways, and the parents looking to get high thought she was holding out on them.
PTA meetings had been a nightmare after that—not that they were real fun before. Some good did come out of it though. It had given her material for a blog post Felony or Floriculture that had been shared over three million times.
She wasn’t sure what Trevor had said to make Ali stare at her like she was, and she was scared to ask.
“You’re Sara.” Ali said as if that was totally unbelievable.
“I am.” Sara wasn’t sure why that was so remarkable. Sara was an extremely common first name.
“And that’s Charlotte and Trevor.” Ali pointed at the kids respectively.
“Yep.” This was the strangest roll call Sara had ever been involved in. She was starting to think it might not have been such a great call to leave her son alone with these people. Her instinct might’ve made a very bad call.
“Aunt Ali, why are you acting so weird?” KJ blurted out, obviously as weirded out as she was.
Yes. Her intuition was still batting a thousand.
“Sorry.” Ali shook her head and blinked as if she was snapping out of some kind of trance. “I’m sorry, I’m just so shocked. I knew you looked familiar, but then when you said Trevor’s name I put it together.”
“Put what together?” KJ shook his head.
Yep. She really liked this kid.
“What the F Mom Blog!” Ali shook her hands out in front of her.
“You’re Sara, Charlotte, and Trevor from What the F.”
“Oh, yeah.” Sara had only been recognized a handful of times, and she didn’t think she’d ever get used to it.
She only had one picture on her website. Shelby had taken it. It was Sara sitting at her computer and the kids were running around her. Trevor was holding a roll of toilet paper above his head with a train of it unraveling, flowing out behind him as Charlotte chased him with chocolate smeared around her face and spaghetti noodles in her hair. The photo shoot had been staged but it wasn’t like that scene hadn’t played out in their house before.
Ali smiled from ear to ear. “I can’t believe you’re really here. You have no idea how much your financial tips helped after—” Ali’s eyes shot toward KJ, and Sara noted a definite moment pass between them before Ali looked back at Sara. “After I took over this business. They were a godsend.”
Sara was pretty sure there was more to that story. Charlotte lost interest in the conversation and pulled her chubby hand out of Sara’s and walked over to stand by her brother, who was cracking up at a video on KJ’s phone.
“Jess, my best friend, and I have read every single post…Oh my gosh! Jess is gonna freak!” Ali gasped and pointed. “She flipped when you posted the video of her proposal on your Friday Favorites.”
Sara used her favorites section to post about any and every thing she liked. It could be anything from a new pair of socks, a television show she was binging, an at-home wart removal remedy, to a video of a proposal. She’d posted a few, so she wasn’t sure which one Ali was talking about. “Which one was hers?”
“It was the Dirty Dancing one.”
“Oh that was amazing!” Shelby had actually been the one to send Sara the video. She and her sister had watched it at least a dozen times. Wow, between the reality show being filmed here and the dirty dancing proposal, her sister was going to flip out. A thought struck her. Sara walked out of the office and pointed out the window to the pier that she and the kids had just been on. “Wait, is that the pier that he—”
“Yep.” Ali followed her. “That’s the one.”
“Wow.” Sara couldn’t wait to tell Shelby. She might even take a video of it and send it to her.
“And it was during my wedding reception.”
“Congratulations!” Sara enthused, turning back to Ali. They were standing just outside the office and Sara could see the kiddos out of her peripheral.
Ali shook her head slightly. “I still can’t believe you’re here. Are you visiting someone or on vacation or business?”
“Um, none of the above. It was actually…it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
“Really?” The pretty blonde’s brow furrowed.
Sara laughed. “I guess, since you read the blog, you know I’m not really a spur-of-the-moment person.”
“Yeah.” The corners of Ali’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Your planner posts are epic.”
At the end of each month Sara posted snapshots of her daily, weekly, and monthly planner pages, with all of the personal information redacted, of course. She had no idea why anyone was interested in it, but they always got really great engagement. A ton of Sara’s posts were centered on her Type A personality and her love of organization and planning. She planned dinners a month out and had laundry, including sorting and folding penciled into time slots in her schedule.
Honestly, Sara didn’t understand why everyone didn’t plan as meticulously as she did. It was the only way she knew that nothing would fall through the cracks.
“So this trip wasn’t planned?” Ali seemed like she couldn’t quite believe it.
“No. It wasn’t.” Neither was selling my house. Sara figured that might be too much information to share with this virtual stranger.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here.” Ali smiled. “What made you decide to come to Whisper Lake?”
“I was going through some things and came across this picture.” Sara pulled the photo out of her purse and handed it to Ali. “That’s my grandma. She spent a summer here when she was sixteen and said it was magical. She passed away years ago and at the end, this place was all she talked about. When I found it again…I don’t know what happened, but one second I was looking at it, and the next I was packing the kids’ bags and hitting the road. I didn’t even know where we were going to stay.”
“Wow. Well, your grandma was beautiful. Your daughter has her eyes.”
Charlotte did have Grandma Betty’s eyes. Sometimes when she looked in them it was like having a piece of her grandma here on earth.
“And she was right, Whisper Lake is magical.” Her face fell slightly as she handed back the picture. “Wait. You said this wasn’t planned and that you just got into town?”
“Yep.” Sara wasn’t sure what had caused the shift in Ali’s demeanor.
“Things get a little crazy during festivals and the summer festival is starting tomorrow. The B&B has been booked up for months and I think the Castle has too. But, I have a friend whose mom had an Airbnb that I might be able to—”
“Oh thanks, but we got a room. There was a last minute cancellation at the B&B, which is where my grandma stayed when she was here,” Sara explained.
“That’s awesome. I just heard something about the B&B…” Ali tapped her finger on the counter as her eyes narrowed. “Oh right. Mrs. D came by and said she had an Austin sighting. Him being back is pretty big news around here. His grandparents owned the B&B and he inherited it from them. He was in the Marines. A sniper.” Ali leaned in and lowered her voice, not that the kids were paying any attention. KJ, Trev, and Charlotte were all watching a funny video on KJ’s phone. “And, fair warning, I know you’re married, but Mrs. D said that he’s got even better looking with age. She said he’s sexier than Brad Pitt, David Beckham, and Ryan Gosling combined.”
Okay, sexy she knew. Marines, she knew. Sniper was new information. Not that it surprised Sara. Between the domineering air of calm authority he exuded and the perceptiveness to notice a stranger’s tires were low, he fit the bill to a tee.
“We met.” Sara’s voice was so breathy she sounded like an out of shape phone sex operator running a marathon. Great. Austin didn’t even have to be in the vicinity to affect her. She straightened up. “And I’m actually not married…anymore.”
It was the first time she’d said that to anyone other than her brother and sister and she waited to feel…something. But she honestly didn’t feel any different at all.
“Oh.” Ali’s eyes widened for a split second, but then her look of surprise was replaced with a warm, friendly, open smile. “Right, I think Trevor mentioned…Well, I haven’t seen him in over a decade but he used to be really nice.”
“Yeah…he seems nice.”
Nice wasn’t exactly the first word that came to mind when Sara thought about Austin. Sexy. Dangerous. Hot. Tempting. Those all topped the list of words she would use to describe Austin Stone.
Oh, and off-limits. Yeah. She should probably remember that one.