Authors: Jessica Gray
Ethan boarded the plane for Santa Clara and settled into his seat just as the flight attendant came by to take his drink order.
His first meeting would be with Peter Shaw, the CEO of an IT company that had shown remarkable growth from a startup several years earlier, and was now one of the big companies in Silicon Valley.
Peter had come highly recommended to him by Dean Armstrong, a childhood friend. Ethan respected Dean’s judgment, and if he said Peter was trustworthy, he had no doubts about trusting him to do the programming work for his new investment portal.
Before Ethan’s parents had moved to Sandy Beach about ten years earlier, they’d lived in Chicago, next to the Armstrong family with their seven kids.
Dean and Ethan were the same age and had gone to school together, but they had lost contact after high school, when Dean had moved to Princeton to follow his passion to study insects and had later on become a renowned professor of entomology.
Ethan leaned back in his seat and took a sip of his tomato juice with salt and pepper, and grinned as he remembered the times when he and Dean would scare their sisters with spiders or insects. Dean had sourced the animals, but it was Ethan who’d put them to use in scaring the girls. His friend had always been more worried about the well-being of “his” insects than interested in the thrill of seeing a girl run screaming out of her room.
He and Dean had just recently reconnected when Ethan’s brother Grant got engaged to Dean’s sister Samantha. At their engagement party, he’d also met Dean’s wife Melissa and their kids Happy and Emerson.
The thought of their happy little family tugged at his heart. Never one to even consider settling down, the appearance of Hazel had turned his world upside down. While he knew she was “the one,” he was also scared. And not a little.
The plane took off and his mind began to wander – back to Hazel. It stabbed his heart to see the pain in her eyes, but she was a very private person, and so far, she’d kept the cause of her pain to herself.
That bothered Ethan more than he liked.
He’d tried to make sense of his feelings for Hazel on the drive to the airport, but he always came back to the same conclusion. He was falling for her. In a big way. It felt like being sucked into a vortex, and everything he ever thought to be true suddenly felt wrong. Like that being monogamous was boring. Or that he didn’t do relations and sucked at commitment.
He continued to think about her, wondering how her interviews were going, and hoping that whatever was bothering her could soon be put to rest. More than once he wished he’d asked for her phone number to send her a text once his plane landed.
You must be the most stupid man on earth. Why didn’t you get her phone number?
The pilot announced they were beginning their descent into California, and Ethan forced his mind to focus on business. He had only two days to make the specifications for the programming team in Peter’s company.
Disembarking the plane, he grabbed his carry-on and headed straight for the car rental desks. Once he had his car, he activated the GPS system and headed for Peter’s office in the center of Santa Clara.
He arrived ten minutes before their scheduled meeting, but wasted no time in going up to the proper floor.
“Good afternoon,” the receptionist greeted him as he stepped off the elevator.
“Good afternoon. Ethan Paxton. I have a meeting with Mr. Shaw.”
“Thank you. I’ll let him know you’re here. Can I get you something to drink?” she offered.
Ethan smiled, “A bottle of water would be great.”
“Be right back.”
Ethan walked to the windows and looked out over the city. It was much different than living in Sandy Beach, and while he didn’t particularly want to live in a metropolitan area any longer, he knew there were many entrepreneurs who did
“Mr. Paxton? Mr. Shaw will see you now…”
The meeting yesterday with Peter had gone better than Ethan could have hoped for. Today they were having lunch with two of Peter’s longtime employees, and two of his external investors. Peter firmly believed that if one cared for their employees and their investors as they did for their own family and finances, everyone would be working toward the goal of making the other successful. Ethan liked that thinking; it was so different from the usual “eat or be eaten” he’d experienced in London.
As their lunch meeting ended, Peter invited Ethan to join him and his family for dinner later that evening.
“I’d like for you to meet Rachel, my wife. She is part of the reason I continue to be so successful. Without her intervention I might even have lost the company when I was going through a bad time.”
“She works for you?” Ethan asked.
“Not exactly.” Peter grinned. “She doesn’t like to take orders from me. Since the arrival of Aileen, she’s cut down on work and is now responsible for one of our key clients and his contracts.”
Ethan nodded his head. “I look forward to meeting her and your children.”
They parted for the remainder of the afternoon, and Ethan did a little window-shopping before picking up a bottle of wine to take to dinner, and some toys for the children.
He arrived at the Shaw residence and was surprised to see familiar faces there as well. Dean and Melissa had just arrived with their two kids, and Ethan grinned and joined Dean in the driveway.
“Man, it’s good to see you,” Ethan told him.
“You too. What are doing on this side of the country?”
“I had a meeting with Peter. Thanks for recommending him; he definitely is the right guy for my investment portal.”
“Yes, our university has contracted him once or twice and we were always super satisfied with his work. By the way, I’m actually glad I ran into you. I’ve been meaning to call you, because…”
He couldn’t finish his sentence, because Melissa walked up to him with Happy and Emerson tagging along. Ethan greeted them and then Peter stepped out onto the front porch and waved them inside.
“I see you and Dean are already catching up. Dean told me you two know each other from high school,” Peter said.
“Yeah,” Both said in unison.
“Well, come on in,” Peter offered.
The men followed him inside, where Rachel was waiting for them. She hugged Melissa, Dean, and the kids, and then came up to Ethan to shake his hand. “Welcome, Ethan. Peter has already told me about your project with the angel investing portal. I would have loved to oversee your contract, but with Aileen and soon another one, ” she pointed, laughing, to her huge belly, “it was impossible.”
The kids took off to play, while the adults found themselves sitting in a den, drinking beer and talking about this and that. When Rachel and Peter left to dish up dinner, Dean mentioned to Ethan, “One of my cousins is thinking about opening up a new resort in the Sandy Beach area.”
“Really? Haven’t heard about it yet. Who’s doing their financing?”
“Not really sure, but I know he wasn’t happy with the terms, and their slow decision process makes Preston crazy. You know him.” Dean rolled his eyes.
“I’d be happy to meet with him face-to-face, the next time he’s in town.”
“Sounds good. I’ll let him now.”
Dinner was served, and the conversation flowed freely around the table, but Ethan couldn’t enjoy himself. The two happy couples, and their even happier children, evoked in him an unfamiliar longing for a family of his own.
He was a player who enjoyed having the field to choose from. Since when did his mind go down the family road and suggest he would no longer be playing? Did he want to become a single player – with Hazel?
That question continued to haunt him through the rest of the evening, and even throughout his business meetings the next morning. He finished out his trip with a final meeting with Peter.
“You’ll send me those projections to look over?” Peter asked him.
“I will. As soon as I get back to Sandy Beach and can check those numbers. I really appreciate you meeting with me.” Ethan ran a hand through his hair. They had made good progress, but there were still left a million things to do before Peter’s employees could start with the programming.
“No problem. We can start with a prototype one week from now if you provide the final specifications,” Peter said.
Ethan nodded and then drove his rental car to the airport. He’d scheduled a night flight back to Chicago. It meant he was driving into Sandy Beach late that evening, but he was glad to be home nonetheless.
At his house, he parked in the driveway and searched for her truck. But it wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and the sense of disappointment hit him like a fist into his stomach.
It hadn’t been unexpected, as she’d been adamant about not being a bother for him. Still, he’d hoped to find her here.
I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
Sandy Beach was such a small, close-knit community; it wouldn’t be hard to find her. Ethan unlocked the front door, and as soon as he stepped inside, he was swamped by Hazel’s presence. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. Her fresh flowery scent still hung in the air, and he could almost feel her standing in the room. Hear her giggles. Feel her silky skin. Taste her luscious lips.
Shaking his head at his silliness, he wandered through his house. But he couldn’t escape. Little signs of her were everywhere. The smell of her shampoo in the bathroom. The memory of eating lasagna with her in the kitchen. And when he entered his bedroom, his imagination could still see the crumpled sheets and how they’d made love.
He finally sat down on the couch and admitted that he missed her. Not only did his body miss her terribly, but also his heart. He longed to hear her voice, to tell her all about his trip and rejoice with her in how successful it had been, to ask her about her day. To take her into his arms.
I’ll pay Vero a visit in the morning. She hears everything and would know if one of the town’s salons has a new hairdresser. And she always complains about not seeing me or my siblings often enough
Veronica, or Vero as her friends referred to her, had become an unlikely friend of his mother’s. The two women were as different as night and day, but shared a love of Chinese food and reading a good book. The differences didn’t stop there, though. While his mother preferred the elegant-conservative look, Vero dressed to please herself. The twenty-year-olds wearing the latest fashions would never outdo Vero’s own fashion sense.
He grinned. Vero had a weakness for love and romance, and she’d be the perfect ally to find Hazel.
Hazel packed all of her stuff in Ethan’s house and returned it to her truck. He was due back tonight, and she couldn’t return here. Even though every cell of her body longed to see him again, to touch him, to feel his hands on her body, she was determined to end things right now.
It was better this way.
She bade farewell to the empty room, placed the keys on the table beside her note, and slid out the door. Emotions threatened to overwhelm her, but she swallowed them back and entered her truck to drive to work.
Hazel had just finished sweeping up the hair clippings from her last client and was standing in the break room when she overheard her colleagues discussing men.
That’s all they care about.
“I could go another round with Ethan,” one of the women stated.
When his name was mentioned, she couldn’t help but listen intently to the discussion.
“Yeah, me too. But you know Ethan, he doesn’t do repetitions. One night or one week and then he’s happy to be your friend for the rest of eternity, but you’ll never be in his bed again.”
What? Were they talking about the same Ethan she had met? And slept with? She could feel a blush creeping up her cheeks and quickly slipped back out the break room and returned to work.
After hearing the other employees discussing him, she was even more confident she’d made the right decision. While staying in his house, she’d been able to pretend. But reality was back.
And it sucked.
She was used to scrimping and saving each and every penny that came her way, but living in her car? That still had her stomach turning over. But there was no way around it; her car would be her castle until her she got her first paycheck.
At least the tips would be enough to get her through the week. They would have to be.
She shrugged off those unpleasant thoughts and was setting up her workspace for a clip and color when the other girls came back into the main area, still discussing Ethan like he was headline news.
“So, I heard he’s gonna stay in Sandy Beach.”
“Really? Isn’t he just visiting his parents for a while?”
“No. I heard he bought a house at the edge of town and he’s not going back to London anytime soon.”
“The stud is going to stay here?”
Hazel watched her colleagues in the mirror, her heart squeezing under a bite of jealousy as she heard them talking about her man. She perked up her ears once again.
“Girls, this might be a chance for us to get that second night.”
“I would be up for that. And we all know Ethan’s always
Hazel averted her eyes; she’d heard more than she wanted to.
This is what you get for eavesdropping
These women thought they knew Ethan, and in truth, they probably knew him better than she did. They were sure he was a heartbreaker and a womanizer, and were content to barter over him among themselves. A man for a good time, not a potential relationship partner.
And if he was truly the type of man they believed him to be, he was most definitely not the type of man Hazel wanted.
But I’ve seen a different person. He was caring and attentive. Special. Maybe they’re talking about some other Ethan?
She turned around and caught the eye of Julia. She smiled slightly and her curiosity made her ask, “Who are you guys talking about?”
Hazel nodded, playing dumb as she tried not to seem too interested. “He sounds interesting.”
The girls looked at each other and Julia answered, “He is. He and his brother, Chase, were always the ones you could rely on for some fun nights. No-strings-attached, light-the-sheets-on-fire sex.”
“There are two of them?” Hazel asked, thinking back to the family portrait she’d seen on his shelf.
“Actually there are four. But those two were the most fun ones. And sadly, Chase is not on the market anymore. He’s now with that high diver Pearl Davids.” Sandy giggled and made a sad face.
“But Ethan is still very much single and available,” Julia chimed in.
Hazel turned away to hide the blush that rose in her cheeks at the memory of her night with Ethan. And the morning.
Her lack of response was interpreted as disinterest, and soon the girls all had new clients and talk of Ethan faded away. Hazel was relieved, until she went into the storeroom a few minutes later and Vero followed her.
“Honey, I overheard the girls talking.” Vero searched her face for a clue. “And I also saw your reaction. Do you know Ethan Paxton?”
Hazel could only nod. She’d tried to hide her reaction to him, but the owner of the salon was sharp. Maybe too sharp.
Vero drew her brows together, “Look, honey, Ethan is a good man, and I count him as a friend. But he is not one for having serious relationships. If you get involved with him, you should be clear about that.”
“I gathered that.” Hazel fidgeted with her hands.
No, I didn’t. He seemed all for having a serious relationship, but I’m not.
Vero gave her one more look and then nodded. “If you want to have fun with him, go for it. If I were twenty years younger I’d share his bed without a second thought. Just don’t believe you can change him.”
Hazel had a hard time holding back her giggle when she said, “Thank you, Vero. I appreciate your concern. But you don’t have to worry about me getting hurt. There’s nothing between Ethan Paxton and me.”
Liar. There was a whole lot of attraction between them.
Vero shook her head as if to say, “Many girls before you have thought the same” and stepped out of the storage room.
Hazel finished out the day and dragged herself to her truck, eyeing it with a mixture of despair and relief. She was officially homeless once again, and the prospect of living in her vehicle was just plain depressing. Almost as depressing as the first day she’d come to Sandy Beach. Almost.
The difference between then and now was a faint light at the end of the tunnel.
She had a job.
And if she purchased a membership to one of the local fitness studios, she’d be able to take a shower every day.
OK, so let’s go and look for an affordable one.
She stopped at the first one she passed, asked for a tour, and picked up some brochures. It was a little more costly than she liked, so she headed to the other side of town and stopped at the competition.
This one offered the same amenities, mainly a shower and locker room, and they were much more affordable. The place was old and old-fashioned, but who cared? She could use the exercise equipment if she chose to, but her main reason was a shower, and an old shower was still a shower. She didn’t need fancy or new, she just needed a safe place to get cleaned up each day.
She signed the paperwork for one month, hoping when the renewal rolled around, she wouldn’t need it anymore. Then she thanked the attendant and told him she’d come back in the morning for her first round of exercise.
Next on the list was to find a place to park her vehicle. She drove her old truck out of town down the road to that rural village Vero had mentioned.
Soon she’d scouted an open patch of grass along a back country road that would do just fine. She parked her car and locked all of the doors. Thankful for the tinted windows she moved into the back of her truck, where she changed, nervously tucked a blanket around herself and closed her eyes, hoping no one would bother her at night. As soon as the sun came up, she’d already be on her way to the fitness studio, not wanting to give anyone cause to stop and question her.
But shortly before sunrise, Hazel jerked awake, her heart threatening to beat out of her chest in fright. Someone was rapping on the passenger window. Incessantly.
She sat up and crawled to the front seat to roll down the passenger window, staying on the driver side for the time being.
“What are you doing out here?” a very irate farmer shouted at her.
Hazel smiled tentatively. “I’m so sorry. I stopped for a moment last night and must have fallen asleep. I’m really sorry. I’ll get going…”
She wasn’t watching the farmer, so she didn’t see him glance into the back seat, nor did she know that he’d already spied her suitcases and the blanket in the bed of the truck. “Wait a minute, gal. I’ve been in a tight spot before. This here is private land…”
“I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again…” She fidgeted with her hands.
“Now see here, there you go again interrupting me. You seem like a decent young girl and what I was going to say is this is as safe a spot as anything. You’re welcome to park here for as long as you want or need. I’m sorry for scaring you – I thought you were one of those teenagers who don’t know no better than to mess with drugs and alcohol. Not on my land.”
“No, sir. I don’t do either,” Hazel assured him, trying to process the fact he wasn’t mad, and had actually invited her to continue using this spot to park each night.
“You just make me a promise, gal.” He leaned on his spade.
“If I can.”
“You camp here at night, but you stay inside the vehicle and keep the doors locked. Dale is a safe village, but with all of the lake tourists who wander through here, it’s not a good place for a young, beautiful girl like you to be alone at night.”
Hazel appreciated his concern, and even though he hadn’t asked, she offered him an explanation. “I’ll do that. And this is only temporary. I’m not in a position to rent an apartment right now, but I have a job and as soon as I get my first paycheck, I hope to be able to afford something besides the truck.”
She felt a kink in her neck. After exchanging a few more pleasantries, the farmer took his leave, and Hazel was once more all alone.
I just need to do this until I get paid. Everything will be alright – soon.