Authors: Susan Wiggs
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General
As a good girl waiting for her chance to be bad, Grace McAllen felt lost and discontented. But all that changed one day when a gorgeous stranger with ocean blue eyes rode into tiny Edenville, Texas, on a Harley. Grace knew in her heart that the chance meeting was just the beginning of a grand new adventure….
A prequel story to bestselling author Susan Wiggs’s novel
The Ocean Between Us
My mother always warned me about men on motorcycles, so I suppose that was why, as a fresh-faced college girl in the 1980s, I found them so intriguing. Bikers in general, and Steve Bennett in particular.
On the day I met him, I had no idea a great adventure awaited us. On that day, in fact, I was feeling lost. This was pretty unusual for me, for I had spent my whole life up to that point doing what was right. I got good grades in school because it was easy, and because it pleased my parents. I dated Travis Hunt because he was kin to the Hunt brothers, and in Texas, that meant money and prestige. I attended Trinity University in San Antonio, because it was exclusive and according to my parents, I’d be likely to meet the “right” sort of people.
It was the summer of my junior year, and I’d managed to bitterly disappoint my family by failing to attain, in addition to my B.S. in business, the vaunted “Mrs.” degree they wanted for me. Although I still had a year to go, I felt the weight of their expectations pressing like a yoke across my shoulders. When you’re the only child, you bear so many hopes and dreams alone, it’s a wonder you don’t collapse.
I had no idea at the time that my life was about to change. The spring semester had just ended, and I went home for the weekend to laze around Eagle Lake with two of my sorority sisters. The three of us drove the sun-baked back roads of the Texas hill country in RaeLynn Cullen’s cherry red vintage Ford Fairlane convertible with the top down and our shirts off to display bikini tops that would make the Delta Delta Delta house mother blow a gasket if she knew.
The three of us—RaeLynn, Trudy Long and me—had a favorite swimming hole on the north shore of the lake near the revival camp of the Halfway Baptist Church. In May, the sun was still a kindly presence in the wide blue sky rather than a roar of deadly heat, which it would be when August arrived. The spring-fed waters of the lake were downright chilly, and we took our time easing in.
I put off the inevitable plunge by sitting on the dock for a while, staring out at the flat, bright water and thinking of nothing. The sun warmed my head and a light breeze shimmered through the trees, and I busied myself by contemplating my toes. I’d tried a new shade of polish called Tangerine Dreams and I liked it a lot. The fact that I was thinking about nail polish at all was a pretty darned clear indication of my own discontent. Here I was, twenty years old, a mature college girl, and for the life of me, I couldn’t decide what to do with myself.
“We can’t make up our minds between Cozumel and Acapulco,” said RaeLynn, who’d been my best friend since fourth grade at Edenville Elementary. She was quitting school to marry her boyfriend, who had just graduated. “Dallas says the golf is better on the west coast of Mexico.”
“It’s a honeymoon,” I pointed out, squeezing a tube of sunscreen and rubbing the sweetish scent of coconut oil on my shoulders. “He shouldn’t be thinking about golf at all.”
RaeLynn laughed. “You have no understanding of the male brain, Grace McAllen.”
“She’s right,” said Trudy, outgoing president of the Tri Delts and my second-best friend. A year older than RaeLynn and me, she possessed the special, almost Yoda-like wisdom of a brand-new college graduate. “You don’t, Grace. How is RaeLynn going to shop if he’s not out golfing?”
“He can go shopping with her,” I pointed out.
“That’s about as likely as me playing golf,” RaeLynn said with a laugh. “We’ve got it all worked out, Grace. Marriage is one big process of negotiation and compromise.”
“Then it’s no wonder I’m one of the few in the house who’s going to get through college without getting married. I’m not into negotiation and compromise, much to my parents’ despair.”
Trudy took off her sunglasses to put lotion on her nose. Her brown eyes regarded me with a kindness so sincere it hurt, almost. “So they still haven’t forgiven you for dumping Travis Hunt last semester.”
The sting of my parents’ disapproval over my broken engagement to The Perfect Man was unexpectedly intense. According to my parents, I had blown an opportunity for high society, the best of everything, a golden future. A
my mother had railed in exasperation. You could be marrying a Hunt, becoming one of the most important women in Texas. My grandmother, whom I’d always regarded as an ally, had been disappointed, too, though she tried to hide it. My father pointed out that as a Hunt, I’d be set for life, never being subjected to the worries of a mortgage, a family. I could have had a life of leisure.
You don’t talk to a twenty-year-old about being leisurely. I was full to bursting with restless energy and vague but colorful dreams that were trying to take shape in my imagination. My parents didn’t understand that I wanted…more. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but there was this sense inside me of reaching, of burning, of embracing the richness of life as it unfolds. I just hadn’t figured out what that meant for me. Believe me, it made for pretty weak dinner-table arguments.
I steeled my nerves and dove into the lake, hoping the shock of cold water would wash away the bothersome thoughts. But the water was even too cold for that, so I howled and scrambled back onto the dock.
“Lordy, that’s brutal,” I told RaeLynn and Trudy, vigorously scrubbing myself dry with a towel. Then I pulled on my cutoffs, lay back on the warm wooden planks and looked out at the stark majesty of the hill country. Sandstone crags and grasslands covered with wildflowers framed the intensely blue, mirrorlike water, the surface as blank, vast and empty as an unwritten page. “That didn’t help at all.”
“Help what?” asked RaeLynn.
I combed my fingers through my damp hair. “Still thinking about my parents. I try not to let them bother me. But in their eyes,” I confessed, “I’m a failure already.”
“Listen to you, Grace,” Trudy said, putting her shades on and leaning back on the heels of her hands. “Here it is, 1985, and you’re still expected to be the little woman. It’s like you’re in a time warp or something.”
“That’s my parents. They mean well, I suppose.”
“I wish you had a racy big sister to get in trouble so you could fly under the radar,” Trudy said. “Having Paulette pave the way always helped me enormously.”
Last I heard, Paulette had turned vegetarian and was living in Austin with two guys, both of whom were honky-tonk musicians. She embodied my parents’ great fear that if I didn’t find an appropriate man, I would wind up in some terrible situation like that.
I tried not to think about the disappointment in their eyes and the displeasure in their voices when I told them that not only did I not wish to marry Travis Hunt, but I also didn’t intend to move back to my sleepy little hometown after graduation. And finally, when I made it clear to them that the likelihood of me marrying a man they approved of was slim to none.
Yet I did want things. I wanted a husband and family, I wanted a life filled with passion and purpose. Unfortunately for me, I had no idea how to go about finding it. I just knew it wasn’t waiting for me like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, right here in Edenville.
Braving the chill water, Trudy and RaeLynn went swimming to wash off the heat of the day. I wandered back to the car to get the novel I was reading,
by Jackie Collins. I sank into the story, wanting to
Lucky Santangelo, prowling the glittering casinos of Vegas and having all sorts of imaginative sexual adventures. Heavens, who wouldn’t want that?
Far in the distance, up on the county road, the rumble of a powerful motor intruded into the quiet lapping of the lake upon the shore.
I remember glancing up in the direction of the road, seeing the dark silhouette of a motorcycle rider, backlit by the late afternoon sun. The girls were still paddling in the water and chatting, but I stayed on the shore, caught by something I couldn’t quite define.
Did I know even then, with that first glance? It seems impossible, given that we hadn’t seen each other’s faces or exchanged a single word.
But there was this feeling, deep in my gut. It was a twist of certainty and I can’t say it was pleasurable, but it was very intense. At any rate, I must have sensed something. Because at that moment, my thoughts rang crystal clear.
He’s here. At last.
I felt the rumble of the Harley’s engine deep in my gut, and with the sunlit dust rising in a cloud, the rider looked like something out of a dream. Down at the lakeshore, my girlfriends didn’t notice him the way I did. I think that might have been because at that point, their lives were set. RaeLynn was going to marry Dallas Sitwell, and Trudy was headed off for a summer of travel before law school. I was free, still searching for what my life was to become, and for that reason, I was open to anything.
Especially if it was a black-clad stranger on a Harley, driving straight toward me.
I had always been a rational, no-nonsense person. Raised the way I was, I learned early on to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground and my head out of the clouds. Still, at that moment, as the stranger crested the hill leading down to the lake, I felt a strange shifting inside me, a tightening in the pit of my stomach.
The girls were still oblivious, splashing water at each other and laughing. I walked toward the road, completely intrigued by the approaching rider. The dusty Harley shuddered like a live thing as he brought it to a stop a few yards away from me. Stirring up a swirl of caliche dust from the road, he planted his feet, in knee-high boots, on the ground. Despite the heat of the day, I felt a chill pass over me like a breeze.
Do men remember what they were wearing on certain occasions the way women do? I doubt it. Women always do, though. I can recall, with the clarity of a photograph, what I had on for any significant occasion of my life. I wish I could say I had on something like Lucky Santangelo might wear, a leopard print bikini and gold mules maybe. However, on this particular day, I was wearing faded cutoffs and a blue bikini top, flip-flops and a shiny coating of sunscreen. No makeup other than toenail polish, and my hair in a ponytail, which made me cringe. This was supposed to be an all-girl weekend and we had dressed accordingly.
The stranger, on the other hand, looked spectacular in black jeans and those tall boots. A shiny helmet and aviator shades gave him an air of mystery. I didn’t recognize the ganglike insignia and the logo “VAQ 465” on his black T-shirt, but the cryptic symbols only added to the enigma.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he said, polite as you please.
I asked, “Are you lost?” A mundane question on the surface, but given everything that happened after, it was strangely prophetic.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said in a voice as smooth as melted butter, “I believe I just might be.”
Then he took off his helmet and shades, and I saw his face for the first time. A light-brown beard stubble beautifully accentuated the lines of his jaw, chin and cheekbones, and even though I couldn’t tell from a distance, I somehow knew his eyes would be blue. Just as I was getting nervous—what if he’s a gang member, an outlaw? What if my mother’s right after all?—a wonderful smile unfurled, a funny half grin that caught at my heart.
“Um, can I help you? Where are you headed?” I asked.
“I’m looking for someone…” he said with an unexpected awkwardness that was curiously endearing. “But I’ve forgotten who. My God, I can’t even think straight. You are just about the prettiest sight I’ve ever seen.”
For a few seconds, it didn’t register that he was actually flirting with me. I actually whipped a glance behind to see if he was talking to someone else, but no, he was looking directly at me. Grace McAllen, Grace the invisible, Grace the overlooked. I never thought of myself as pretty, you see. Nice-looking, that was me. Nice-looking Grace, who had never done anything noteworthy in her entire life.
When I finally figured out that he was offering me a compliment, I blushed, of course. And I hate blushing. It makes some girls look becoming, but on me, it’s just a heated rush of color staining my face like a sunburn.
I couldn’t bring myself to thank him. “What can I do for you?”
What can I do for you
Lordy, Grace, I scolded myself, could you maybe be a little more obvious?
Yet somehow the stranger made it all right, letting that half smile stretch into a grin. With unhurried movements, he removed his leather gloves, took out a surprisingly white cloth handkerchief and slowly, deliberately, without taking his eyes off me, wiped his hands.
Then he stuck out one hand toward me. “My name’s Steve Bennett.”
Like Elizabeth Bennet in my favorite novel. It must be a sign, it had to be. I put aside my practical nature and suddenly believed everything was a sign—the way two herons rose from the water and arrowed toward the sun, the nodding branch of a redbud tree arching over the road, the backfire blast of a passing truck. It was like the universe was telling me to pay attention, this was an important moment.
Life does that, I’ve come to believe. Life hands us moments, brings us to turning points, and it’s up to us to make what we will of the situation. Right then and there, I could have turned away, murmured that I needed to get back to my friends. Or, I thought, I could stay right there and see where the moment took me.