Authors: Jessica Gray
Hazel rested her head on the steering wheel and wanted to cry. She’d woken up later than usual, and when she’d arrived at the main road leading back into town, construction cones were blocking what used to be the bridge.
She’d followed the orange and black signs marking the detour, until they’d stopped. And now she was lost in the middle of nowhere. With a glance at her watch she realized she’d be late to work if it weren’t for a miracle.
Frustrated, late, and with tears in her eyes, she glanced at the dashboard.
Shoot. The gas is almost empty. I need to make enough tips to fill up the tank tonight before leaving town.
Just when she was about to drive on, not exactly sure which direction she’d come from, the miracle appeared in front of her car in the form of a man walking his dog. She sighed and jumped out, startling both the man and his dog, before she asked for directions.
Apparently she’d missed the sign indicating she should have turned south five miles back. With her sense of orientation she hoped to be able to follow his directions, which seemed easy enough.
After thanking the man, she hopped into her truck and drove on. Finally the first houses of Sandy Beach came in sight, just as the fuel light started blinking. Thankfully she only needed to drive a few more blocks.
She arrived at the salon, totally stressed out, and late for her first appointment of the day. She hurried through the doors, apologizing to her client, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Childers. Give me just a second to get situated and I’ll be back to get you.”
“No worries, dear. I’ve nothing else to do today. Take your time.”
Hazel smiled at the kind older woman and nodded her head. “Thanks. Be right back.” She hurried to the break room, where she dropped off her purse and small bag. On the way back to her station, she stopped cold when the huge bouquet of flowers caught her attention. How could they not?
Two dozen red roses in a large white vase, with fern fronds and baby’s breath intertwined to provide a gorgeous arrangement. Hazel walked towards them in a state of shock.
She gingerly removed the card sticking up in them and opened it, only to hold her breath.
“Hey, Hazel. Who’s the admirer?”
Hazel was in such a state of shock it didn’t occur to her that she should probably keep his identity a secret, at least until she figured out how to respond to the gift. “They’re from Ethan.”
“Ethan Paxton?” Julia wanted to know.
Hazel lifted her head to find all of the girls watching her with jealousy written all over their faces. “Yes. Ethan Paxton.”
She heard several mutterings as they voiced their jealousy.
“He doesn’t send flowers.”
“What does she have I don’t?”
“He must be pretty serious about her to send those.”
The last comment got her attention and she gave it a momentary thought, but then pushed it away. It didn’t matter if he was serious or not, they didn’t fit together. End of story.
She moved the arrangement to the side and went to get her first client. All day long she answered questions from her clients about the flowers, and got the same response from most of them. Astonishment and the suggestion Ethan was serious about her.
Later in the afternoon she had just finished cleaning up her workstation when she heard Vero clear her throat. Looking up, she saw Vero and Ethan standing right behind her.
She turned around, and squinted her eyes as Vero wandered off. “Hi.”
“You got the flowers?” he asked, seeing with his own eyes that she had.
“Yes. They’re beautiful. Thank you.”
“I’m glad you like them. Here,” he said, thrusting a huge box of chocolates into her hands, “these are for you as well.”
Hazel took the box, touched by his gesture. “Thanks again.”
Ethan shuffled his feet and took a step closer. “Please go out with me?”
Hazel sighed. “No. I can’t. We don’t work. Not together.” She expected him to argue with her, but he didn’t.
He simply nodded and promised, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
In fact, he came back every day that week. On day two, he brought her a small gift basket with hand-decorated sugar cookies. On day three, he brought her a delicate butterfly on a chain to hang from her rearview mirror. On day four, he brought her a book of poetry, with several of his favorites marked.
Each day, he asked her out. And each day, up until day four, she refused him. She wasn’t sure what made her say “Yes” on day four, but she did.
He’d just given her the poetry book and prepared to ask his question, but she stopped him. “Yes.”
Ethan looked stunned for a moment, but then he quickly gathered his wits together and gave her a huge smile. “Finally. I will pick you up right after work.”
Hazel nodded her head, ignoring the smiles and victory signals being sent her way by the other girls. They all thought she was stupid for having turned him down so many times, and had assured her he’d give up trying. It had been the main reason she’d decided to give him a shot. He hadn’t given up and had kept coming back – each day with a more romantic gesture than the day before.
Ethan picked her up and took her to a very upscale restaurant. She had taken the time to change in the break room of Hairworks, hoping he wouldn’t question when and where she’d done so.
She wore a pair of black leggings with a silvery black and maroon sweater, and her high boots. It wasn’t quite up to the scale of the other diners, but she figured she looked well dressed enough.
“Thanks for going out with me tonight,” Ethan said as the waiter left to bring the wine he’d ordered.
“How long were you going to keep coming back?” His piercing stare sent shivers down her spine, and for the life of her she couldn’t remember why she’d resisted him such a long time.
Ethan nodded, taking her hands into his. “Every day until you said yes.”
His touch made it difficult to form a coherent sentence, but she pressed the words out of her mouth. “What if I’d never agreed?”
Ethan winked at her as the waiter returned. “You couldn’t resist my charms forever, Hazel.” Her name rolled off his tongue like liquid seduction.
I can’t resist you now.
Hazel was struggling with her inner self. She’d had doubts all afternoon since agreeing to go out with him, but sitting across from him in the dimly lit restaurant, the intense flames and strong emotions for him came rushing back.
He’d taken her hand as they’d walked into the restaurant, and that simple gesture had started the butterflies in her stomach flying around. It had taken all her self-control not to throw herself into his arms and ask him to forget about dinner.
The chemistry between them continued to build as dinner progressed. When he escorted her from the building and followed her to her truck, it seemed completely natural for him to press her against the door and ravage her mouth with his own. Oh, had she longed to feel his touch again.
He plunged his hands into her hair, and she thrust her hands under his shirt, pulling it from the waistband to touch warm skin.
“Come home with me,” he whispered between kisses.
Hazel was beyond fighting his attraction for her and readily agreed. “I’ll follow you.”
“What about a change of clothes for tomorrow?”
“I’m fine. I’ll deal with it tomorrow. I want you.” She couldn’t very well tell him that everything she owned was still in the back of the truck.
“Are you sure?” he asked, kissing a path down her neck. “We can stop at your place and get a few things.”
“I can do that tomorrow.”
“Okay. Follow me. I can’t wait to get you back into my bed.” Ethan gave her one last hard kiss before he opened the driver’s door and helped her into her truck.
Hazel laughed. No, she was grinning like a fool. She felt a lightness in her spirit that had been missing for days, and she knew it had to do with Ethan.
Hazel was happier than she’d been in months. She and Ethan had seen each other almost every day since they’d gone to dinner, and on most of those days she’d stay over and sleep at his house. He’d even suggested she leave a few of her things, which she’d gladly done.
But whenever he’d asked about her apartment, she’d hated herself for not telling him the truth and had given him evasive answers, which he seemed to be content with – for now. Because each time he asked her, he seemed to push harder and become more suspicious.
I need to get out of my car. And soon.
This morning, Ethan had already left for a meeting with some acquaintance who needed financing for a new resort, and she didn’t need to be at the salon for a couple more hours, so she decided to take advantage of the time and balance her checkbook while he was gone.
It was one task she absolutely hated, because no matter how big her paycheck had been, there was never money in the checkbook to show for it.
She retrieved the small file box that contained all of her bills and the statements and scattered them on the dining table. Now that she was finally able to start making some headway on her debt, she went through the process of itemizing each of her debts, and then figuring out how to split her meager income among them all.
The longer she worked on it, the more helpless it seemed, and the more she hated her life. Her misery of a life in a truck.
She placed her income at the top of the page and then began to list all of the debts she owed. Her mother’s sickness had ravaged their finances. Her insurance had only paid the most basic health items, and Hazel hadn’t been willing to let her mother go without treatment. After depleting all of her mother’s savings, she’d secretly taken on the responsibility for paying the medical bills herself. She taken on credit card after credit card to do so, and now they were all topped to the max.
When she finished the list, the amount she owed was staggering. She had to swallow back the tears as it became apparent that she would need a second job.
Even if she allotted every single penny of her salary at Hairworks, she would barely be able to cover the minimum payments on all the cards. That would leave her with only the tips to cover living expenses.
But she couldn’t rely on them to pay the rent of a room. She needed those to cover food, gas, and the fitness gym’s fees. That was her only option for showering when she didn’t spend the night with Ethan.
Maybe if I consolidate the credit cards into a personal loan at a lower interest rate? Then I could pay down one lump sum each month.
She did a few calculations and discovered that if she found a lower-interest credit option, she could be debt-free in three and a half years.
Her blood almost froze in her veins.
Three and a half years? I can’t live in my car for three and a half more years. I just can’t!
Especially not in winter. She’d have to consider moving someplace else during the winter months.
But that would mean not seeing Ethan again, and tears sprang to her eyes.
Why can’t I get a break?
She’d finally found someone who made her extremely happy, and now she might have to leave him. A little voice in her head reminded her she should never have gotten involved with him in the first place. Being with him, as good as it felt, had only made a bad situation more complicated.
Hazel panicked at the sound of the front door opening, and hurriedly stashed the receipts back into a folder and tried to cover up the checkbook and list with her hands. She couldn’t let Ethan see how bad things were, and the stress and fear of being found out finally was more than she could take.
When she heard him stop behind her and his familiar voice asked “Hazel, what are you doing?” she broke out in tears.
Ethan had briefly scanned the papers lying on the table within the split second before she tried to cover them with her hands. He’d been working in the financial industry for as long as he could remember and he could identify a balance sheet from miles away. And this one didn’t look good.
But he got even more worried when she wouldn’t stop bawling and sobbing, pale as a ghost. He squatted down next to her and asked more gently, “Hazel. Please, tell me what this is.”
Hazel wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he finally tipped her chin up until she had no choice. “Please?”
She stalled. “I…”
“It’s okay. Just tell me.”
She swallowed and took a few moments to get her sniffles under control, before she squared her shoulders and gave him a scowl. “What does it look like? I’m balancing my checkbook.”
“Darling, I can see that, but I can also see there are many red numbers – are you in financial problems?”
He noticed her body go rigid in defensiveness. “If you have to know, yes. I have some debt I need to pay off.”
So this was her secret, she was up to her eyeballs in debt. Money caused her sorrow wrinkles, the nightmares, and the worry he could see in her eyes whenever she felt unobserved. Deep in his heart, he was relieved. Money problems he could handle.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” There was no judgment in his voice, just concern. “Let me help you with this.”
Hazel pulled her chin away. “No. I can’t let you do that.”
“Why not? I want to.”
“Because it’s not your responsibility. It’s mine.”
“Hazel, I want to do this. Give me the statements and I’ll get them paid this morning.” He reached for the papers, but she scooped them up and pushed herself out of the chair, keeping the table between them.
“I can figure this out. I don’t need you.”
Ethan was frustrated with her stubbornness; didn’t she see she was killing herself with all that sorrow? He didn’t want her feeling depressed or unhappy, and he was in a position to make it all go away, if she’d let him. “Like you’ve been doing such a great job so far? I’m going to help you with this. Stop being so pigheaded and give me the statements.”
“I’m not being pigheaded. And I don’t need your charity.” She jumped up, staring at him in rage.
He scowled right back, making no attempt to hide the fact he was angry at her. “Charity? Is that what you think this is? I want to do something for you, to help take the stress away, and you accuse me of treating you like a charity case?”
The words flew out of his mouth and he regretted them in the same moment. But it was too late; before he could apologize for his misspoken words, she grabbed the rest of the papers and rushed from the room.
At the front door she turned and said with such a grave voice he felt cut into halves, “I don’t want to be a burden to you. You are better off if you find someone else to sleep with.”
“I don’t want anyone else!” he shouted after her, but she wouldn’t listen to him.
“You’ll have to. My life is a mess – I can’t be with you.” Then she slammed the door shut and Ethan stood there, dumbfounded. He felt like crying out loud.
He rushed out after her, but she’d already backed out of the driveway and he could see only the taillights of her truck. He headed for his car and then remembered the keys were sitting on the hallway table where he’d dropped them.
Frustrated, he pushed a hand through his hair. He didn’t even know where she was living, and he still didn’t have her phone number. Based upon the numbers he’d seen, he could imagine why.
He grabbed his keys, intending to go to Hairworks and wait for her there, all day if he had to. But before he could leave the house, his cell phone rang.
“Hey, Ethan. This is Preston Armstrong. Dean’s cousin.”
Shit. Shit. Shit. “
Dean said you might be calling me. You’re planning on opening up a new resort in Sandy Beach?”
“That’s right. Have you got a few minutes to talk?”
Ethan wanted to say he didn’t. He wanted to charge after Hazel, but then another thought occurred to him. Maybe he’d let her calm down and get a little distance. He’d go pick her up after work, and then they could talk.
“Sure. I’ve got a few minutes. Tell me about your plans.”