Authors: Julie Wright,Melanie Jacobson,Heather B. Moore
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Magical Realism, #Inspirational, #Love, #Romance, #clean romance, #lucky in love
She drove the last hour into Seashell Beach. Carter watched the coast roll by out of his window, shooting her a smile and pointing now and then when something caught his eye, but he didn’t talk much. She was thankful for the quiet. Her thoughts tumbled and slid like the seals on the beach had, bouncing off of each other and scuttling in a new direction.
When she turned into the stone-paved driveway leading to the Mariposa’s entrance, she frowned. Last time she’d pulled up beneath the portico, her stomach had already been in knots over Blake, wondering what his mood would be like, which version of her fiancé would show up to meet her. How had she not seen it then?
Carter’s hand brushed hers, and she looked up to read a question in his eyes.
“I’m fine,” she said, looking past him to the hotel entrance. “Blake’s mother would be pitching a huge hissy if she knew I was staying here with another guy on the night before my wedding.”
Carter’s eyes widened, and Lucy burst into laughter even as her cheeks heated. “Wow. That couldn’t have come out more wrong. We’re in the honeymoon suite, but you’ll have a whole fold-out sofa all to yourself.”
A look she couldn’t decipher flickered over his face before he grinned back at her. “Good. I know how hard it’s been for you to resist me. I need a buffer for my own safety.”
“Ha,” she said, putting the car in park and separating the key from the ring for the valet. “Seriously, are you okay with staying on the sofa? I was planning on having my girlfriend Ally with me, and she thought it would be more of a full-circle moment if we stayed in the honeymoon suite. I’m sure it’s a comfy fold-out couch in a swanky place like this.”
“Oh, I’ve done time on a sofa during your emotional trauma before. I’m sure I’ll be fine,” he said, a small smile still in place.
“Right. You know how people say ‘I owe you one’? I think I owe you more like a million.”
This time his hand covered hers on the gearshift and stayed there. She liked the sugar scrub friction of his calluses against her knuckles. She stared at their hands layered together and wondered where his calluses came from— the handlebars of his bike?
His gaze followed hers down, and he withdrew his hand. Cool air flowed over her skin where his touch disappeared. He turned to open his door. “You ready for this?”
“So ready,” she said. Getting past the day felt like the final step toward being done with Blake. He’d be the picture in the back of her head when she eventually dated again, but only so she could ask herself if what she felt for someone was real, or just convenient. It wouldn’t be about how easy it was to be with them socially or because of similar life plans; it would be about how easy it was to be with them sitting on a sofa in their sweats and being quiet and happy.
The desk clerk smiled at her when she pulled up the honeymoon suite reservation. “Congratulations, Miss Dalton. Hope tomorrow is wonderful.”
“Oh, it’ll be something, all right.” The clerk’s smile wavered, and remorse needled Lucy. She gave her a smile and took her key without another word, afraid only snark would come out.
Up in the room, Carter gave a low whistle as he took in the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sheer drapes fluttered in the ocean breeze blowing in over the balcony. “Wow.”
“Yeah.” She didn’t have anything to add.
“So what’s the plan now?”
Ally had planned this part of the trip. Knowing her it probably would have involved ceremonial deletions of Blake’s pictures from all Lucy’s social networks, a little bit of rum, and a lot of nonsense. But all of that felt weird to do with Carter, so she shrugged and wandered out to the balcony.
The moon painted a silver path across the waves to where they met the sand a few hundred yards from her perch. “What time is it?” she asked when she heard Carter step out behind her.
“It’s been a pretty full day. I think I’m ready for room service and then bed.”
“I’ll find a menu.”
“Wait,” she said, and Carter paused in the doorway. “Is that okay with you?” Blake didn’t like staying in often. He was more about the scene and being seen in it.
“I’m up for whatever, Lucy. This is your weekend.”
“Then I want to sleep,” she said. Right after she spent a long evening taking the inside of her brain apart and making sure that she’d gotten the rewiring right. She’d need to be cloistered, nun-like, away from Carter and his distracting hair for that; she’d short-circuited a couple of times around him lately, and she didn’t have time on this mini-retreat to figure out why when there were so many other things to sort through.
“Do you care if I order for us?” Carter asked, poking his head back out.
“More adventure?” she asked with a grin.
“You know me so well.”
“Go ahead. And just so you know, I’m planning adventurous stuff for tomorrow. It won’t be all working on our tans.”
“Oh good,” he said. “Watching people lay around in swimsuits is low on the list of how I like to pass the time. Uh, although I’m sure you look awesome in a swimsuit, and it would be totally worth it.”
It was a line on par with some of the worst she’d heard out at bars, and as if he sensed her surprise, he colored. “I’m trying to say that I didn’t mean I thought laying out would be boring because you would look bad in a swimsuit. I wasn’t trying to sound like a subclass Guido.”
Her filter shut off and let the next words out of her mouth. “I rock a bikini, believe it.”
He swallowed. “I definitely, definitely do. I’m going to go order some chicken breast.” He squeezed his eyes shut on the word “breast.” “Anyway, it looks really good. It’s stuffed with some herb paste I’ve never heard of, and it sounds good. And I’m getting nachos because they sound good too. And I’m going to just do that now.”
He disappeared. Something about walking into a hotel room with him had made her feel like an awkward fifteen-year-old, and she understood his blush. It’d be a relief to get a good night’s sleep and reset. This day was playing more havoc with her brain than she’d expected it to.
She soaked in the moonlight for a while longer until she was sure it had unwound her then slipped back into the suite. Carter was bent over his laptop, the screen full of code.
“Working on your app?”
“Yeah. Funding is in so I hired a couple of other developers. I’m just gathering the requirements so I can call a design meeting next week.”
“Cool.” She shifted from foot to foot. Turned out she was still wound up, so she opted for escape. “I’m going to go sit and think for a while. Let me know when the food gets here?”
He nodded, his brow pinched into wrinkles, but he didn’t stop her. Forty-five minutes later she heard the muffled sounds of Carter talking to the room service guy. She joined him on the still-folded couch for a more normal dinner. They’d done this many times, eaten something new and laughed together. But at ten-thirty a yawn got away from her even after she clapped her hand over her mouth, and he stood and pulled her to her feet. “That’s it, lightweight. You’re done. Go to bed,” he said, leading her to the bedroom and nudging her through the door before he stepped back and tried to pull the door closed.
She held it for a moment. “I’m not a lightweight. It’s been a full day, that’s all.”
“Yes, and there are different kinds of tired. Go sleep today off. You’re probably going to need even more energy tomorrow.” He smiled as he pulled the door all the way shut behind him.
She changed into her pajamas and climbed into the bed, staring up at the ceiling instead of the inside of her eyelids like he’d ordered her to. This weekend was supposed to be about putting Blake neatly into his place in her life, a mental file box like the ones she kept at her parents’ house, full of high school pictures and mementos— certificates, dried corsages. Tokens that proved it had happened, but nothing she needed to keep with her and explore regularly. And Blake was cooperating, staying where she tucked him.
But Carter? Carter wasn’t cooperating at all. And she sensed a long night ahead of her, trying to figure out where he was supposed to fit, because the “benign neighbor” file wasn’t it.
Lucy woke up the next morning and took a deep breath. It had taken her until well past midnight, but she’d decided what to do next. She’d take all the time she needed to sit with the idea and see if held up to the bright light of day. And if it did, well... the rest of this road trip was going to end up far more interesting than she would have guessed.
She crept out of her room in case Carter was still sleeping. He lay on his stomach, his hair poking out over the blanket. She wanted to touch it to see if it felt soft or bristly against her skin. She rubbed her palm against her pajama pants and padded over to the sofa, trying to decide how to wake him. He looked so comfy, his eyelashes lying long and dark against his blanket-creased cheek.
She climbed on the bed and sat next to him. He mumbled something but didn’t wake up. She reached toward his hair— she couldn’t help herself— but she pulled back short of touching it. What would he think if he woke up to find her in his bed, in her pajamas, fondling his hair? And what did she want him to think? She edged back toward the floor, just setting her foot down as he rolled over to blink at her.
“Hey. What are you doing?” he asked, the same way Ally had sounded when Lucy had given her a ride home after she got her wisdom teeth out.
“Nothing. Came in to wake you up, but then I felt bad. I’m going to change and go for a run. Take your time. Sleep more if you need to.”
He pushed himself up on one elbow. He’d slept without a shirt and his chest looked as muscled as it had felt when they’d been Rollerblading. “No, I’m good. What’s the plan for today?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you asking so you can change it on me, or are you really going to do what I planned?”
He smiled and lifted one shoulder. “Depends on if I think it’ll make you happy.”
She didn’t know what to make of that. “I thought we’d rent bikes and ride down to Pismo Beach, poke around there to see what’s interesting. You want to add any bells and whistles to that?”
“Yeah, breakfast and a shower. But I can do that while you run.”
“Sounds good,” she said, scurrying into the bedroom. Five minutes later she was out again, dressed to run. Carter was sitting on the side of his sofa bed looking like he hadn’t connected all the way to reality yet, but he’d put on a Microsoft T-shirt. Lucy didn’t know if that was a good thing or not, but she thought probably not. It seemed wrong to cover up that chest.
“See you in an hour,” she said. Within minutes she was pounding down the boardwalk, but all the strange, jittery energy she’d felt around him had followed her out to fuel her run. Fine, then. She ran harder, trying to focus on the rhythm of her feet and her breathing. Thoughts of Carter intruded anyway.
She had a whole reel of Carter highlights she hadn’t known about, and it played on a loop. Carter laughing as he diced vegetables like he’d been born doing it, Carter’s eyes twinkling at her as he pulled her to her unsteady Rollerbladed feet, Carter’s forehead furrowed with worry when he thought she wasn’t looking, Carter’s gaze level and cool as he challenged her to the Rampage, Carter’s easy way with her mom.
She glanced out at the water. Three hours from now she would have been stepping onto the sand to walk toward Blake and a minister. She’d expected him to be on her mind so much more today, but all she could feel was a sense of relief, like when she was nine and she’d knocked over her grandmother’s prized vase but caught it right before it hit the floor. It was the bone-deep thankfulness of narrowly avoiding a disaster.
All the space she thought Blake would take was going to Carter. And the more time she spent with him, the more room he took up in her head.
She ran harder, racing toward a conclusion that she’d fallen asleep considering. She’d been ready for a relationship when Blake came along. She’d mistaken him as Mr. Right because he showed up at a convenient time. But she was still ready for a relationship. Now the timing didn’t seem great, but the guy did. She wanted Carter.
She slowed to a stop and pulled her phone out of her sports armband to make a call.
“Hi, honey. Hanging in there?”
She smiled at the worry in her mom’s tone. She loved being loved. “Yes and no. I might be losing my mind, but not for the reasons you think.”
“Okay,” her mom said, drawing the word out as a question.
“I want to talk to you about Carter.”
“Ah.” Her mom sounded about as surprised as if she’d announced that ocean still had waves.
“He’s my friend, but I think I want to upgrade.”
“To a new friend?”
“To benefits. No, to a relationship.”
She could hear the smile in her mom’s answer. “I vote yes.”
“But Carter won’t. He’s been pretty clear that he will
be the guy to step in and catch me on rebound.”
“Are you rebounding?”
“Then there’s no problem.”
“Yes, there is. He’s never going to believe that, especially not if I bring it up here.” Something about her mom’s calm reaction nagged at her. “Wait, aren’t you surprised? I thought you’d ask me if I was sure about this.”