It was three forty-five on a Saturday afternoon, and even beneath the awning above her booth at the flea market, it was a scorcher. The flea market was held in the parking lot of the old Drive-In, and it was where she’d met Mr. James when she was a little girl when her mother used to sell her baked good in the booth just two tables away. He was an elderly jam-maker from Colorado, and over the years they’d become trusted friends. His jam and jelly creations always went so well with her mother’s fresh baked bread.
When Mr. James became ill last year, he had contacted Charlotte, shared his recipes, and when he passed away a few months later, at the age of ninety-five, the idea for Feel-good Flavors was born. It just felt like the right thing to do. So, she packed up and moved back to Massachusetts where she met Eddie her boyfriend and their neighbor/her best friend Lisa Evans.
“Did you ever think that maybe the label is a little boring?” Lisa shifted as held the jam jar in her hand.
“It’s simple,” Charlotte argued. “People like it. It’s simple, homemade and delicious.”
“And boring,” Lisa added as she raised her eyebrows and let her aviator sunglasses fall from her forehead onto her nose.
“Are you trying to say that I’m boring?” Charlotte frowned as she placed a few more jars in a nearby box. She had arrived late again that morning and missed the first rush of customers.
Charlotte had brought a few of her new jam flavors to the flea market, apricot-lime, and strawberry-apricot, and they’d caught the attention of some of the regulars. She wondered how much business being late had cost her. It didn’t matter how hard she tried or how early she got up, she was always late. For everything. She was even born a week late.
“No.” Lisa let out a sigh, “I’m just saying that maybe we should work on the label. I’ll mock some up for you and you can pick one you like.”
Jack, her Cairn Terrier, whined at her feet where Charlotte had tethered him to the leg of the table with a long leash. She hated leashing him to the table, but they didn’t allow unleashed pets at the flea market. And she couldn’t leave him at home alone with Eddie. Eddie didn’t appreciate all of Jack’s spirit the way Charlotte did. Just this morning Eddie had discovered Jack eating another one of his shoes.
“We’re leaving in a few minutes. Can you please wait?” Charlotte patted his head. The flea market closed at four, and she had to disassemble her booth down to a science. She could do it in fifteen minutes flat. Most of the time. Today she hoped she could. She was anxious about Dinner.
Jack looked at her with pleading, big round eyes and barked. He had already wrapped himself around the table leg a bazillion times and she had to untangle the unhappy pup. He wanted to roam free and she didn’t blame him. She had the same gypsy urge running through her blood, too.
“Nervous about dinner?” Lisa asked as if reading her mind.
“No…and yes.” Charlotte blew her bangs out of her face only to have them fall right back into place. “Eddie’s mom just doesn’t like me. She’s-“
“A bitch.” Lisa cut her off as she leaned forward in her chair to give Jack a good scratching behind the ear. Yeah, because it was just that simple. For Lisa maybe. Even though they were a lot alike, Lisa always seemed more comfortable in her own skin. She just called things out as she saw them. She turned heads everywhere she went. It probably helped that she had expressive blue eyes, wavy platinum blond hair, and looked more like a runway model any guy would give his right testicle to go out with.
“She’s just very traditional,” Charlotte corrected.
Lisa rolled her eyes. “Oh please, she has a stick up her ass and an odd obsession with her son.”
“It’s called a loving relationship. I know you aren’t exactly familiar with the concept but people do occasionally end up enjoying their parent's company.”
“Are you kidding me?” Lisa snorted. “Eddie lives and breathes by his mother’s opinions. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear the woman still bathes him.”
Charlotte swatted at Lisa’s leg. “Stop it.”
Charlotte had sold one hundred and forty-two jars of jam and jelly today, and at five dollars a jar, it wasn’t exactly a killing, but it was good enough. She loved working at the flea market. Vendors changed often, and there was always an influx of new and interesting people to watch or to chat with. She even kept a little radio on beneath the table, and when it wasn’t too busy, she would dance by herself.
“Your awesome, you know that, don’t you?” Lisa said with a small smile. “Eddie’s a lucky son of a bitch.”
Charlotte’s smile grew a little. She was the lucky one. It was a wonder she had even made it this far. Her older brothers Michael and John had found their calling early in life. Michael was a Navy SEAL, and John was artificial intelligence guru. Even her younger sibling Samantha had found her grove. Samantha was a demolition expert. Unfortunately, Charlotte was the only one still floundering around at twenty-eight. She wondered if she would ever get her act together.
The only good thing to happen to her so far was meeting Eddie. He understood her. He loved her. He made her smile and called her his caramel queen. She moved into his cottage and he let make her Jams in his kitchen. He never complained about her mess and found her inability to tell time adorable. He was her rock. An anchor for her whenever she felt like she might just float away.
Jack whined again.
There were only a handful of customers left on the flea market grounds, and Jack was wrapping his leash around the table leg again.
“Maybe I should try obedience school for Jack?” Charlotte pushed a few loose curls away from her face. “It could work?”
“What did Jack do now?” Lisa smiled began to help boxing up the remaining jars.
“He ate another one of Eddie’s shoes.” Charlotte frowned as she unfolded her step ladder and untied the strings of her banner from the awning.
“Didn’t you try taking him to one of those classes already?”
Charlotte let out a sigh, “He didn’t really click with the trainer.”
“Jack isn’t really the obedience type,” Lisa said as she packed things away.
Charlotte climbed off the step ladder and began folding her Feel-Good Flavors banner. “You think he’s lonely?”
They both looked down at Jack who was now attempting to chew through his leash to get free.
“Do they make doggy dating websites?” Lisa asked with an amused smile.
The two continued to carry on as they took down the display and began loading up Charlotte’s lemon yellow Volkswagen van.
The tide lapped at the sandy shore beyond the deck of the cedar-shingled bungalow where Shane Bolton sat on the deck of his cottage, fingers to keyboard, working on his latest manuscript. Nothing Left To Lose was due to his agent at the end of the month, and Shane always came to his cottage on Cape Cod, to hunker down for the summer and complete the project. He lived just outside of New York City and he wrote daily, sometimes for ten or twelve hours straight. In the summers, he liked the change of scenery that the cape offered and was inspired by the Cape’s fresh air and the sounds of the sea.
The cottage had a separate studio apartment that sat nestled among a grouping of trees on the left side of the cottage. Initially, Shane thought he might use the studio as a writing retreat separate from where he lived with the idea that leaving the cottage to work might give him a chance to actually have a life and not feel pressured to write twenty-four-seven.
Who was he kidding?
Going to the studio only made things worst. He was reclusive enough without having to hideaway, in his already hidden away cottage. He was the only one there, anyway. Who was he hiding from?
His younger sister, Emily, had made it her job to convert the studio into a guest cottage. She had even gone as far as posting an ad online, claiming that it would be good for him not to be so alone and anti-social. Shane hated the idea of it. He didn’t want guest. Having someone around would mean giving up his coveted writing time to entertain.
The cottage was built on a private road at the top of a dune, with a secluded beach below. A curtain of dense air settled around him. Shane lifted his eyes long enough to scan the graying clouds. How long before the rain?
It was seven forty in the evening, and he’s been writing since nine that morning, as was his daily habit, right after his three-mile run, two cups of coffee, and a quick breeze through the newspaper and email.
Once Shane got into his writing zone, he rarely got up, other than to eat and use the bathroom. Writing time was scared. It annoyed him that he was going to have move inside soon.
He set his hands back on the keyboard and reread the last few sentences of what would become his sixteenth thriller novel. A dog barked in the distance, and Shane drew his thick, dark brows together without breaking the stride of his keystrokes. Shane hadn’t come this far by being easily distracted.
“Jack! Come on, boy!” A female voice sliced through his concentration. “Come on, J-Jack. Where are youuuu?”
Shane’s fingers hesitated for only a moment as she hollered, then he went back to the killer lurking outside the window in his story.
“Jack!” the woman yelled again. “Where the h-h-hell are you!”
Shane closed his eyes for a beat as the wind picked up. The woman’s voice was distracting. She was too close to ignore. And she sounded intoxicated. Hurry up, find the mutt and move on. He let out a breath and went back to work. Shane needed the silence. The quitter things were, the better he could hear his characters and think through their issues. He tried to ignore the sounds of splashing and continued writing.
Great. He was hoping to squeeze in a few more hours of writing on the deck before wrapping up, but if that woman kept up her racket, he’d be forced to work inside, and if there was one thing Shane hated, it was changing his surroundings while he was in the zone. Writing was an art that took total focus. He’d honed his craft with the efficiency of a drill sergeant, which was only fitting since his father was a four-star general.
Lighting cracked through the sky. It appeared other forces were working their magic to distract him this evening. The mighty roar of thunder echoed through the air and Shane let out a sigh. Maybe he should just call it a night.
“Oh god! Please no!”
The woman’s voice had a hint of panic in it that split his focus right down the center. He thought of Emily, and for a second he considered getting up to see if the woman’s concern were valid. Then he remembered that his sister often overreacted.
The cringe-worthy scream finally won the battle for focus, and with a sigh, he pushed away from the table and went to the railing. He caught sight of the woman wading waist deep in the rough ocean waves.
Shane narrowed his eyes as he watched her wade deeper into the water, which was becoming rougher by the second as the clouds darkened and the wind picked up a notch. He didn’t see any signs of a dog anywhere. He then scanned the beach and came up empty as well.
“Come on boy! Come to mommy.” She tumbled back with the next wave and fell on her butt, then struggled to find her footing.
Seriously? He didn’t need this. He watched as she pushed through the crashing waves. She was shouldered deep. Shane knew about the dangers of riptides and storms and he wondered why she didn’t.
Drops of water began to fall and Shane spun around to gather his computer and notes before taking off inside. He checked to make sure he saved his file before pushing the laptop safely back from the edge of the counter, then turned back to the French doors. Another roar of thunder echoed and the rain was getting heavier. Before he knew what he was doing he was headed back out the door and down the steps to the beach.
Charlotte was wet, cold and possibly drowning to death. She could barely stay upright. She wished she hadn’t taken those three shots of tequila, she wished she hadn’t come home early for once in her life and found Eddie banging some tramp with a horrible spray tan. She wished she wasn’t being pummeled by rain, wind, and waves while chasing a dog that never listened!
“Jac-“ A wave knocked her off her feet and she went under the water, taking a mouthful of saltwater along with her. She tumbled head down beneath the surface.
Now Jack and I will both drown. Fan-fucking-tastic.
Something grabbed her arm, and she reflexively fought against it, sucking in another mouthful of salty water as she broke through the surface, arms flailing, choking, and pushing against the powerful hand that yanked her to her feet.
“You okay?” A deep, annoyed voice carried over the noise of crashing waves.
“My dog!” she coughed, blinking rapidly and trying to see something in the storm. “My dog is out there.”
“Are you insane!” The man shouted. He held tightly to her arm while pulling her back to shore. His clothes stuck to his body like a second skin, riding the ripples of his impressive chest and arms as he held her above the surface with one arm around her ribs.
“I can’t find my dog.” She coughed as he plowed through the pounding surf with her clutched against his side. She slid down his body, and he lifted her easily into his arms, carrying her like he might carry a child, pressing her to his chest as he fought against the waves.
She pushed against his chest, feeling ridiculous and helpless…and maybe a little thankful, but she was ignoring that emotion in order to save Jack. “Stop we have to go back-Jack is out there.”
“Your dog is fine, he’s saner than you are!” he hollered over the storm.
“You saved Jack!” she clung to him now as they approached the shore. She felt ten times heavier and light headed. She wasn’t sure if she could even stand on her own.
“He was hiding under my stairs!” he squinted in the storm and motioned ahead of them where she could faintly see jack barking in their direction and pacing the shoreline like a lunatic.
“Jack!” Charlotte shouted in relief. They were almost at the shoreline. The water was at her ankles. She could feel his hold on her tighten.
“Take it easy.” He cautioned as she stumbled. “Do you have a leash?”
She shook her head. Her wet hair whipped across her cheek and she bent down shivering in tears to gather Jack up in her arms. “He doesn’t like them.”
“Come on,” he pointed to the wooden stairs in the distance. “Let’s get out of the storm.” He led her up the stairs to a wooden deck, opened a French door, and leaned in close, talking over the rain.
“Go on in.”
She stepped onto the pristine hardwood. The warm cottage smelled of coffee and something sweet and masculine, like a campfire.
“He…” Her teeth chattered from the cold. “He must be scared.”
“I’ll get you a towel.” He reached for Jack- the dog who never let anyone else carry him and nestled him in his arms. “I’ll be right back.” He eyed the dog in his arms and shook his head before disappearing up a stairwell.
Charlotte wrapped her arms around herself as she looked around the cottage, looking for signs of crazy. How crazy could he be? He had just rescued her and Jack, and Jack already seemed to be quite attached to him. He went into the water, in a storm. The man was crazy. It dawned on her that she’d done the same thing, but she knew she wasn’t crazy. She had no choice. Jack was all she had. To her right was a small kitchen with expensive looking light wood cabinets and fancy molding.
A laptop sat open beside two neatly stacked notebooks on the shiny marble counter-top. The screen was dark, and she had an urge to touch a button and bring the laptop to life, but she didn’t really want to know if there was something awful on there. He could have been watching porn, for all she knew.
She shifted her thoughts away from the computer to the quaint breakfast nook to her left. Her eyes traveled past a little alcove with two closed doors and a set of stairs from the kitchen to the white-walled living room. There was not a speck of clutter anywhere. A light-headed feeling swept through her once again and she reached out to grab hold of the table.
What was she going to do? Lisa! She reached into her back pocket and immediately got teary eyed when she couldn’t find her phone. Oh-no.
She was all alone in a stranger’s house with no phone, no idea where she was and possibly about to die from delayed drowning or a crazy person who went off to find an ax. She reached for a dishtowel from the kitchen counter as the man came back down the stairs with Jack cradled in his arms like a baby and wrapped in a big fluffy towel.
The possibilities of him being crazy went out the door. Crazy people don’t carry dogs like babies.
He shifted Jack to one arm and handed her a fresh towel. “Here. I’m Shane, by the way.”
“Thanks, I’m Char-“ her breath caught and before she could reach out to grab something she was already going down. Hitting the floor was the last thing she remembered.
As soon as she went down Shane panicked, he quickly put the dog down and came to her side.
“No you don’t,” he muttered checking her neck for a pulse. Then he checked her breathing.
“Miss?” he tapped her face a few times. “Miss are you okay?”
Her eyes fluttered open. “Where am I?”
“56 Center Road, you went out into the water, I brought you out and now we’re in my kitchen. What’s your name?”
She nodded, “I’m just going to nap for a minute.”
“No, no, no,” he said taking her hand in his and giving it a little squeeze. “I need you to wake up.”
“Leave me alone,” she half sobbed shifting away from him and settling into a fetal position.
“Lady?” he said nudging her again. “You have to wake up so you can tell me where you live. Or who I can call. You can’t sleep here.”
No movement. No opening her eyes. She was out cold.
The mutt barked.
“This is your fault,” he murmured at the dog. Now, what was he going to do? Shane reached for his phone and then paused. Who was he going to call? Who do you call? He looked back at the woman passed out on his kitchen floor. Her clothes were soaked, her hair matted to her face. Her white skirt was see through and he could see her pink panties underneath the fabric. His eyes traveled upwards to the bright pink bra strap revealed from underneath her yellow tank top. “Shit.”
“Eddie?” she mumbled.
Shane bent down next to her again. “Are you okay?”
“F-f-fuck you, Eddie.” The woman rolled over onto her back seemingly passed out.
“Okay?” Shane looked back at the dog who was rolling around and rubbing himself all over the towel Shane had wrapped in. Great. Wet dog smell.
The next morning Shane poured the steaming coffee into the mug and carried it towards his bedroom. The dog following his every move. Like a shadow. He glanced down at the dog again. After a lot of inner debate after he’d gotten his owner to bed, he’d given the dog a bath. At least now the damn thing didn’t smell so bad or look so homeless.
He pushed open the bedroom door and made his way inside. He wasn’t sure how the woman took her coffee-or if she even drank coffee, so he made it as strong as usual and hoped she liked it black.
Still asleep, she was lying on her back with one arm above her head, the cock-eyed pillow forcing it into a weird, break-neck position. She had kicked the comforter onto the floor, leaving her luscious, full figured body covered by a lacy pink bra and matching panties. Unfortunately, those meager scraps of lace did nothing to hide her hard nipples.
Fuck me. He tried his damnedest not to stare, but the mere idea of her lying in his bed, with her hair cascading down his pillow, already had his dick twitching in delight. Her tan skin was broken out in goosebumps, possibly from the combination of the chilly air conditioner and the fan circling on high over the bed. It probably hadn’t helped that Shane had undressed her to make her more comfortable. And to not destroy his bed with all her wet clothes.
If she hadn’t passed out cold, he doubted he would’ve been such a gentleman and kept his hands to himself. It definitely wasn’t the first time he’d undressed a woman in complete darkness, but it was the first time he’d slept in the guest room down the hall afterward.
He tapped on her shoulder, hoping the alcohol had worked its way through her system. Maybe he’d be able to actually wake her this time.
Slowly, the woman stretched as her body and mind came into a conscious state. She sighed as her eyelids fluttered gently. She must have sensed she was in an unfamiliar place and panicked or something though because suddenly her eyes shot wide open and she arched her body off the bed oddly clutching her back.
The quick movement startled him, causing him to tilt the mug and splash hot coffee onto his hand, burning him.
“Sonofa-“ he wiped the side of his coffee-splattered hand on his jeans. “What’s wrong with you?” Shane asked.
“I…uh was just checking.”
“M-my kidneys?” it sounded like a question.
He squinted at her, not sure what she was talking about.
“I was freezing. I guess I just thought…Well, you hear stories about people waking up in tubs of bloody ice water and missing a kidney.”
Shane blinked and shook his head. “You’ve got some serious issues lady.”
She laid back with both arms above her head and laughed. Then she must have realized she was not just in his bed but wearing only her bra and panties. She gasped and immediately pulled a pillow in front of her.
He grinned lightly. “Too late. I’ve already seen it.”
“What the hell did I do last night?”
“Nothing your mother would be proud of,” Shane said easily.
Her eyes widen. “Are you saying that we…um, I mean, did we…you know?”
“Stop.” Shane sighed. “I was talking about your crazy impulse to run into the ocean in a middle of a storm. While drunk no less. You could have drowned.”
The dog jumped onto the bed.
“Jack!” she smiled pulling the dog into her arms and letting the pillow fall to the side. “Oh, my sweet baby boy. You’re okay.”
She looked up at him again, her brown frizzy hair falling over her shoulder. “So just to be clear, we didn’t…”
“Of course not. What kind of pervert do you take me for? I wouldn’t take advantage of an unconscious woman.”
She was quiet for a moment, probably trying to recall the events that led her to this very moment. He doubted she’d remember much more after collapsing in his kitchen before the lights went out on her memories.
“How did I get here?”
“You passed out on my kitchen floor, and I couldn’t wake you. I didn’t know who to call for you, let alone what your name was so I just put you to bed and figured you would wake up soon enough.”
She nodded then leaned in as if she was about to tell him a secret. “Um…why am I naked?”
He glanced down at her partially covered body. “That’s hardly what I consider naked.” The words rumbled out, low and breathy like he was turned on. And if he was being completely honest with himself, he was. She was just as attractive out of her clothes as she was in her clothes, and Shane was enjoying the view.
“You were soaking wet, so I put your clothes in the wash. I did put some dry clothes to the side for you.” he motioned to pile of old workout clothes.
She nodded, her eyes looking around his bedroom, then she settled on the coffee. “Is that for me?”
Shane nodded and handed it over. “There’s a bathroom over there. Feel free freshen up and take off when you’re ready. I have some work to do.”
She nodded and Shane took that as his cue to get going. He made his way to his bedroom door and before leaving he took one last look at the scene behind him. There was a woman in his bed. Her soft body, only covered in scraps of pink lace, sat upright against his pillows. A warm cup of coffee to her lips and small, annoying dog laying comfortably in her lap.
Maybe he’d write about her one day.
Charlotte didn’t know what to think.
Her eyes shifted around his bedroom, how on earth had she gotten here. Parts of her memory drifted back. Eddie screwing some woman on their kitchen table. The bar. Multiple shots of tequila. The beach. Lots of crying. Jack taking off suddenly and making her chase him into this secluded part of the beach.
Then things got fuzzy.
She remembered water. Lots of water. And him. The man who had taken her clothes off last night and nothing more.
The nagging curiosity resurfaced. The dig had started very small and hidden away. For hours after walking in on Eddie, the thought had remained in the back of her mind. When she’d found Eddie and the over-tanned-bimbo together, he’d been doing her from behind over the kitchen table. They’d been doing the nasty, super nasty-like. He’d had her hair fisted in his hand, forcing her spine into an uncomfortable-looking arch.
It had looked excessively dirty compared to their missionary sex. Maybe it was the shock and hatred boiling inside her, but she wondered why she and Eddie never had sex like that. Had he thought she wouldn’t have been open to roughing it up a little bit? Was she not sexy enough to elicit that kind of vulgar response?
She took another sip of coffee and gently rubbed Jacks tummy. Her thoughts shifted again and she thought about Jack running off.
“What am I going to do with you?” she said quietly. Jack furs were soft and clean like he’d just gotten a fresh bath. A small smile pulled at her lips. What kind of guy puts a drunk stranger to bed and gives her dog a bath.
She let out a deep breath and got out of bed. Making her way to his bathroom. She showered, dried and then changed into the clothes he’d left out for her. A blue Duke pullover hoodie and a pair of grey sweatpants.
She made her way downstairs remembering a campfire like the smell from the night before. Then she located the source of the smell. A gorgeous two-story stone fireplace covered most of the wall adjacent to an oversized brown couch. There was a small stack of firewood in a metal holder beside the hearth. The cottage was surprisingly warm considering there wasn’t a fire in the fireplace.
Dark wood bookshelves ran the length of the far wall, from floor to ceiling, complete with a rolling ladder. The room was full of textures, a chenille blanket was folded neatly across the back of the couch, a thick, brown shag rug sat before the stone fireplace, and in the intricately carved wooden table was placed before the couch.
“Wow,” she mumbled. She turned into the kitchen, following the sounds of fingers dancing across a keyboard. There he was. Her rescuer. Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, working at a laptop.
Jack was peacefully sleeping underneath his chair. Show-off.
“Thanks for the clothes.” She said lifting her hand holding her pink lacy items. “This is so much comfier than this awful bra.” She shivered.
His fingers stopped and the tapping noises from the keyboard came to halt. “No problem.”
“I’m sorry about everything. For the mess. And my dog. And…” her eyes shifted to the kitchen and her stomach rumbled. She should get going. She’d interfered in this man’s life enough.
He was looking at her now. He had a slightly amused smile on his very handsome face.
“Thank you for rescuing Jack and me.”
At the mention of his name, Jack sat up and barked.
“You should have had the dog on a leash.”
“He hates it. He hates listening, leashes, lots of things.” Her eyes shifted to Jack sitting beside the man. “Except you, I guess.”
The man stood and grabbed a banana from a nearby fruit bowl holding it out to her. “You should eat something.”
Charlotte took the banana. “Charlotte, by the way.” When he made a face, she explained. “My name.”
“Oh, right.” He said with a nod. “Shane.”
“Hi, Shane.” She said meekly as she peeled the banana.
He looked back at his laptop. “I really got to write. Did you drive here?”
“No, I biked.”
“I bike here a couple times each week with Jack, but we usually go the other way down the beach. Jack just took off this time. I think I left my bike by the public beach entrance.”
“Think?” he said with a pinch of annoyance.
Charlotte broke off a piece of banana and lifted it to her mouth. Yeah, she was a mess. Nothing like the man standing in front her, who clearly had his life together. At the moment, Charlotte didn’t even think she had shoes.
“You were barefoot when we came in last night.” He said answering her unspoken question.
“Oh,” she nodded. They were probably at the bottom of the ocean with her cellphone.
“I’ll drive you home. And you can come back later for your Bike.”