Series: Stand Alone titles
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: May 22, 2016
Contributors: Heather Justesen
Add on Goodreads
4.5 stars! "... wonderfully well-written... like a buffet of mini desserts: diverse, delectable, sweet and satisfying." --IND'TALE MAGAZINE,
Stephenia McGee Mara, fresh out of the cold North Dakota tundra, spends her spring break in Texas with her close friend, Anna. When the two women run into Carter, an impatient man with a painful past, it takes hearing Mara’s stunning voice at the local Karaoke club to thaw his heart. But as Mara gets to know Carter, she has to decide if the distance between their lives and homes is worth trying to bridge.
This story originally appeared in Summer Vacation Collection, A Timeless Romance Anthology
IT HAD ALREADY BEEN an insanely long day
when Mara’s plane finally touched down in Corpus Christi, Texas. She threaded through the crowd and found the luggage conveyor for her flight, where she waited for her suitcase, exhaustion pulling at her as much as her heavy carry-on did. Her meager sleep the previous night and short nap on the flight from North Dakota hadn’t been nearly enough.
She shifted her carry-on farther up her shoulder, holding her heavy winter parka on the other arm then pushed her long brown hair out of the way. Bags kept flowing from the machine and whirling past her. They stopped coming, but hers hadn’t appeared, and all of the other passengers had cleared off. Mara was alone. She checked the sign again. Yes, this was the right spot. Her heart beat a little too fast; a sinking feeling said her bag hadn’t made one of the transfers during her two layovers.
She was still standing there with the vague hope that a miracle would happen, and her suitcase would magically appear, when she heard a shrill voice calling her name.
She turned and saw Anna, her old college roommate, running toward her, wearing too-high heels, a short skirt, and a sleeveless top, her blonde curls bouncing as she ran. Mara wondered how Anna could be so energized after her long flight from Vegas.
Mara met her partway and moved her coat to her other arm. They hugged tightly. “It’s so good to see you!”
“I know. I can’t believe I finally convinced you to leave the snow for a few days for some sun.” Anna adjusted her carry-on over her own shoulder; it was only big enough to hold her makeup, and maybe a swimming suit. “Where is your other suitcase? Didn’t your plane arrive like half an hour before mine? I haven’t picked up my bag yet.”
Mara glanced back in time to see a whole new load of luggage start to shoot onto the conveyor. “Looks like mine got lost somewhere en route.”
Anna’s pink-lip-sticked mouth fell open. “Oh, no. Please tell me you packed a swimsuit and change of clothes in your carry-on. I mean, your bag will probably come in tonight or tomorrow, but you have to have something to wear to dinner and at the beach. We’re on vacation, and it’s spring break, baby.”
“We’re way too old for the spring-break crowd,” Mara said, thinking that at twenty-six, she would feel like a cougar even looking at college guys. “But I did pack a change of clothes in my carry-on.”
“Oh, good.” Anna snagged Mara’s arm. “Come on. Let’s grab my stuff, and then we can go talk to someone about your luggage.”
By the time they made arrangements for her lost suitcase and picked up their rental car, it was after three. Anna turned the car west, heading for the mainland and the condo complex where they would be staying, talking almost as fast as she drove. “We have to do some shopping tomorrow; I hear there are great boutiques nearby. Oh, and I can’t wait to show you the great swimming suit I bought for the trip.” She stopped to suck in a breath. “Look at all of these gorgeous beaches.”
“Beautiful,” Mara agreed.
“Remind me again why we’re staying at an inland lake instead of at a hotel out here?” Anna adjusted her sunglasses.
“Noisy, obnoxious college students with spring-break fever.”
“And they’re a bad thing because…”
Mara poked her friend, knowing she was only half joking; Anna would be eternally twenty-two. Mara sat back, getting into the vacation mindset—it had been too long since she put real life aside and let herself go with the flow. That was one of the reasons she’d agreed when Anna bullied her about this trip—Anna was totally fun and spontaneous and would insist Mara get involved instead of allowing life to pass her by while they vacationed.
They arrived and checked in at the condo complex a little before dinner. The building was tan stucco, and looked like it had recently had a facelift.
“This is what I’m talking about.” Anna lowered her sunglasses to peer over the top at some half-clad college men who were striding up the boardwalk from the shore.
“Come on.” Mara grabbed the enormous suitcase Anna had shoved into the trunk and staggered under the weight before setting it on the ground beside her. “What do you have in this thing, rocks?” She didn’t bother to wait for an answer as she rolled the suitcase away from the car. “Let’s go get changed and grab some dinner. After being on the go all day, I need decent food and a relaxing evening to recuperate for the lake tomorrow.”
They reached the stairs to the second floor, where Mara pulled the bag up behind her. The stairwell was narrow and steeper than she’d expected. “I wonder how many people have nearly killed themselves on this thing.”
“Well, hello there.” Anna’s voice was soft and teasing—and definitely not directed at Mara.
Mara looked up to see a man standing at the top, waiting for her to finish making the trek to the second floor. The downward curve of his lips indicated impatience, marring what would otherwise have been a nearly perfect face. His hair was dark, almost black, and cut short. Startlingly pale blue eyes were highlighted by thick brows and a face that was all planes and angles. She had to catch her breath just looking at him.
“Do you need some help with that?” he asked, looking a little annoyed. “I’d rather not stand here all day.”
“What?” Mara realized she’d been staring, so she turned her attention back to the suitcase.
“Sorry.” Heat flooded her face as she began pulling the suitcase again. Way to make an idiot of herself.
There was a grunt, and the man appeared at her side and placed his hand over hers on the strap. “Let me get that.” His voice was more than a little grudging. “I really do have somewhere to be. Second floor or third?”
“Second.” Mara knew she must sound like the biggest moron ever.
He lifted the bag easily, his arm muscles bulging beneath the short sleeves of his shirt while he carried it to the top.
Though Mara had been the one towing it, Anna was the one who responded. “Thanks for your help.” She fluttered her eyelashes a little, and her voice went breathy.
“No problem. Have a good day.” His tone didn’t match the words. He took off for the parking lot without giving Anna’s flirting so much as a second glance—an amazing accomplishment.
Mara watched him for a moment as he walked away—all graceful ease as he strode off. She pulled herself out of her trance when Anna started to titter. “He’s hot, isn’t he? And definitely not a college man.”
She agreed, putting his age around thirty. “Annoying that he was so abrupt. But at least he was nice enough to help with your enormous suitcase. How much extra did you have to pay to get this on the plane, anyway?”
“Don’t ask.” Anna minced her way to the door and slid the keycard in the slot, letting them into the condo. It was small: a kitchen/living room area, a medium-sized bedroom with two double beds, and a bathroom. They had a tiny walk-out balcony on the far side, facing the lake.
Mara walked through to the sliding glass door and stepped out to check the view. “Come take a look; it’s gorgeous.” She sometimes joked that the winters in North Dakota were the best nine months of the year, but she could have sworn it had been longer than that since she last saw anything green that wasn’t a house plant.
The grasses and trees around the lake filled her soul with joy. This trip would be everything she’d hoped for—when she finally got her luggage.
“Nice,” Anna said flatly, apparently unimpressed. “Come on, let’s get cleaned up and grab something to eat. I looked up some restaurants before we came.”
Mara took one last glance at the water then went back inside. She was starting to get her second wind. Her stomach growled, making her agree that dinner took first priority. Plenty of time to soak in the beautiful weather tomorrow.
CARTER CHECKED HIS WATCH, wondering if Paolo, his former father-in-law, was already waiting for him at the restaurant. It had been two years since Rosa’s death, but Carter still tried to keep in touch with her family, if only to help keep her memory alive. He’d lost track of time while swimming in the lake earlier, and he’d been waylaid by his boss’s executive secretary, who was having trouble with her computer and didn’t trust anyone else to fix it. The fact that he’d been on vacation hadn’t mattered to her. Then those slow-poke women had put him even further behind schedule. He hated being late for anything.
He pulled up to the restaurant and nearly groaned when he saw the sign that read “Karaoke Every Night.” Just what he needed—people singing off-key while he ate. It was bad enough that he had to face the emotional meeting with Paolo without having his ears assaulted. He wondered if his father-in-law had eaten here, or if he’d chosen it from the local chamber of commerce site.
Paolo and his wife lived in Florida, but when he’d mentioned that he was making a business trip to one of Carter’s favorite places, Carter decided a vacation was overdue and arranged to be here at the same time.
Carter found Paolo at a table near the stage. “How are you doing?”
He stood and gave Carter a hug. “I’m well. You’re looking well. That college job must be agreeing with you.”
Carter was head of IT at University of North Texas, and it kept him busy, but he enjoyed the work. “Can’t complain,” he said with a smile. “How are things for you? What are you doing now?”
Paolo started talking about his new business selling nutritional supplements and the magical, life-altering powers they had. He always seemed to be looking for the next best thing to support him and his wife. Somehow he’d managed to keep food on the table when he was raising Rosa and her two brothers.
They ordered dinner, and more people filled the tables around them. By the time the waiter brought out their food and the emcee announced the beginning of the karaoke for the night, the place was packed.
Carter focused on his roast beef sandwich and his companion, trying to ignore the screeching, off-key singers behind him.
“Are you dating yet?” Paolo asked after he’d had a few bites. They’d been putting off that topic since they sat down.
“Not much.” That was an understatement. He’d had a few dates here and there, but Carter always felt guilty about spending time on a woman, as if he were cheating on his wife. Besides, no woman he’d ever met could hold a candle to Rosa.
“You need to start dating again,” Paolo said. “It’s been too long. Rosa wouldn’t want you to be alone forever.”
Carter dragged a French fry through his ketchup. “I haven’t met anyone who could hold my interest.”
“You mean you won’t get to know anyone, because you’re afraid of getting hurt again.”
Carter opened his mouth to protest, but Paolo held up a hand. “Don’t make excuses. I can only imagine how hard it must be to lose someone you love, but you’re still young. I want you to promise me that next time you see someone who intrigues you, even a little, you’ll take a chance and get to know her.”
Carter wanted to argue, but Paolo was right—he did need to get out and start dating for real. He was lonely, and a little companionship—even if he wasn’t ready yet for anything serious—would be a welcome change. “Okay. I promise.”
Buy this story here.
Or buy the Spring Vacation Anthology here: This anthology is available in ebook, print and audiobook.