Julia caught a perfect wave and eased up on her board, arms opened wide. The freedom, the energy healing to her mind and spirit. She loved the spray from the splashing waves, as she rode all the way in.
Elated, her feet covered with lacy foam at the edge of the shore, she pushed her fists in the air, claiming victory. At sixty-plus years of age, it felt enormous. Pete-dog ran to her, his tail wagging as though joining the celebration.
Her gaze followed the sound of applause to an audience of one. Julia glared at Nicholas resisting the urge to smile.
She rubbed the chill bumps on her arms as she trekked through the sand to the towel marking her spot on the beach, and smoothed her terry cloth cover-up over her newly slimmed body.
Weight loss had not waved a magic wand, erasing signs of aging. It had reopened doors she had closed, losing a big part of who she was.
Quitting some of her favorite things was her own doing. If you asked her, she would explain the extenuating circumstances she’d allowed to rule her life. And attribute it to choices, good and bad.
“Awesome ride! Impressive.” His smooth, sensual voice made her want to jump into his arms—or run.
She combed her fingers through her hair, that fell in curls onto her shoulders.
He moved closer. His eyes held hers, brown eyes with golden flecks reflecting the warmth of the sun. Eyes a woman could get lost in. He touched her face, his fingers tracing the outline of her lips. She imagined the taste of his kiss, as emotions fluttered inside. She placed a hand on his chest, taking a step back. She wasn’t looking for a man.
“What’s up?” She shoved her towel into her black striped tote bag.
He gifted her a boyish smile. “My son, Trent, arrived earlier. I’m meeting him and his family on the beach, near the inn.” He motioned toward the Sea Crest Inn. “Join us, meet the rest of my tribe?” His charming smile urged her to agree.
Smart and casual. A polo shirt untucked over designer cargo shorts. Silvery hair trimmed below the edge of his cap. His magnetic virile charm quickened her pulse—not that she was looking for a man. Keep telling yourself that. Her inner critic always with an opinion and an accent like Dr. Ellie. The town’s favorite psychologist.
“I’ll take Pete-dog home and meet you there.” She retrieved her surfboard. Why had she agreed? Nicholas wanted to take their friendship to another level. Just friends worked for her.
Family gatherings edged toward complicated, to steal a word used by the millennials. She enjoyed the comfortable flow of her life. Challenges, changes, and choices were not on her list of intentions.
“We’ll drop the board off on the way. Bring Pete. The girls will enjoy meeting him.”
Nicholas, ever the gentleman, carried her board. In the same manner, guys, back in her day, lugged a girl’s books home from school. Young women today appeared more independent. Still, she cherished the memories, content she’d grown up in a chivalrous age.
“Is Trent easy-going? It’s a trait I admire in you. Your son, Nick, has the same personality.”
“Thank you. For me, it was part of aging.” He leaned the surfboard against a rock near her cottage.
“Trent’s the oldest. More restless, in search of a hot story.” He entwined his fingers with hers as they approached his family.
“Pete-dog, sit.” She snapped her fingers. He sprawled on the sand, stretching out his paws. “Good enough.” Amused at his antics. She shook her head. “His obedience skills depended on his mood.”
His son offered his hand. “I’m Trent. And this is my lovely wife, Paige.”
I clasped his hand and said hello to Paige.
She mumbled hi, her honey-brown ponytail swished as she faced the sea, shading her eyes, as though watching for a ship’s return. Her other hand rested on her rounded stomach. In her second trimester of pregnancy, if one could go by appearances, which were often deceptive.
Paige didn’t hide her surly attitude. Plain rude is how Julia labeled it.
Nicholas hugged his granddaughters. “Let’s get our feet wet.” Nicholas kicked off his leather sandals. Julia’s hand in his, they followed the girls toward the water’s flowing edge. Pete-dog ran ahead, catching up to the girls.
“They’re adorable.” He’d often shared stories about his granddaughters. Kayla losing her first tooth. Maia learning to ride a bike, the training wheels incidental to the feat. She grinned at Nicholas, impressed at the pride reflected in his eyes—a man who cherished his family.
“They’re special. Their grandmother thought they placed the stars one by one.”
Maia squealed, high pitched, the way little girl’s do. “It’s squishy.” She grabbed onto Julia’s leg, balancing herself. “Wanna make a castle?” Maia looked up at Julia, squinting one eye.
“I’d love to.” She lowered onto the sand, helping Maia scoop sand into her bucket.
“Can Pete help?” Kayla hugged Pete-dog’s neck. Her six-year-old voice held less whine than her five-year-old sister’s. The girls sported honey brown ponytails, like their mother, with warm brown eyes like their grandfather, one could say like their father or even their Uncle Nick.
Nicholas and Kayla filled a plastic pail with water. Maia showed Julia how to scoop up mounds of sand. Pete-dog joined in, raking his paws through the sand.
Nicholas helped the girls drizzle water over the piles of sand. They formed the towers and carved crooked windows and doors. At Nicholas’s urging, they graded a wavy road to circle the kingdom. Maia sprung up, waving to her parents. “Mommy. Daddy. Come see.”
Their parents, looking reluctant to move from their spot in the sun, traipsed to see the castle. Trent lowered to the sand between his daughters. “Cool castle.” The same boyish grin, Julia had seen in Nicholas’s smile. Unmistakable family resemblance. Shorter than his father, he’d inherited his dad’s broad shoulders and masculine good looks.
“We need beach roses.” Julia stood, brushing the sand from her maxi cover-up, and barefooted toward the outer edge of the shore.
An eerie sense someone was watching her, sent chills down her spine. She picked a white bloom as she glimpsed over her shoulder.
Paige followed her, looking younger than thirty-something, her long legs and slim hips in contrast to her rounded stomach. Paige strode closer, a scowl distorting her face.
She blushed with blatant irritation. “Don’t even think about using my daughters to pursue Nicholas.” Her chest rose with an exaggerated breath. “Their grandmother is not replaceable.” Her final words forced between clenched teeth. She plucked a few flowers and stomped away.
Flabbergasted, Julia wondered how she’d become the wicked witch. A romantic relationship didn’t exist on her list of pursuits, not with Nicholas, not anyone. She hated conflict and wanted to go home, but Pete-dog was waiting for her.
Nicholas clicked pictures with his phone, as Paige helped the girls decorate the castle. And Trent threw a stick for Pete-dog to retrieve, one of Pete’s favorite games. The picture of a perfect family.
Julia placed her hand on Nicholas’s shoulder. “I’ll see you later.”
“I’m ready, too.”
“Stay. Enjoy your family.”
He grabbed his sandals. “I’ll walk you home.”
She called Pete-dog, debating not saying goodbye—rudeness wasn’t her style. With an artificial smile, she nodded to the couple. “Nice meeting you.” The words sounded insincere even to her.
“Nicholas speaks of you often.” Paige’s Hollywood smile hid the outburst she’d leveled at Julia earlier.
Sweet hugs, from his granddaughters, softened the mood. Kayla whined, begging for Pete-dog to stay, which earned a frown from Paige, who was quick to distract her daughter.
Nicholas grasped her hand. She hoped he couldn’t feel the way she trembled inside. The words of wisdom she wanted to give that cheeky woman were right on her tongue. If nothing else, the sheer difference in their ages should have earned Julia respect. She pursed her lip, choosing to walk away.
They followed the boardwalk to the cobblestone path separating Primrose Cottage from the seashore. She called the classic white clapboard house, with its green lawn and fragrant rose garden, home.
Nicholas pushed his feet into his sandals. “Early dinner at the inn?”
“Sorry. Can’t today.” I wanted to talk to him about Paige, but some things were best left unsaid. Julia disliked hurting his feelings. Their friendship deserved better. Paige’s actions were not his fault.
He lifted an eyebrow, questioning what had gone wrong. “We’ll talk in the morning?”
She nodded, her emotions ready to betray her if she spoke.
Pete-dog, followed her home, trying to shove through the open door ahead of her. “Come back here, mister.” She whisked him into the utility sink, Pete-dog disliked baths, nothing short of torture according to his sad eyes. “You are one silly dog.” Finished and dried, she set him free from his misery.
Mr. Kitty, a gray tiger tabby, rubbed her ankles as Julia poured a mug of her signature French Roast, and padded to her art studio. She pulled the glass doors open, breathing in the sea breeze. The fur babies, taking advantage of the open door, settled on the patio in their cushioned beds.
She scooted a stool closer to the easel. Roses blossomed on her canvas for the same reason she grew them. The connection to her late husband, past the prescribed stages of grief, she missed his touch. His voice. His presence.
Paige’s nastiness played havoc in Julia’s mind. The younger woman seemed convinced of her accusations. Julia wanted to reason with Paige—but that wasn’t happening.
Julia’s mother would’ve called it a waste of breath. She missed her mother’s witticisms, gone twenty-seven years. She continued to cross her thoughts daily.
The fact Maia and Kayla were adorable, well-behaved children proved Paige, a loving mother. One who invested time in her daughters.
For all that was remarkable and rewarding in her life, she’d never mothered a child of her own. Enough rambling, she fussed at herself.
With a stroke of her brush over the canvas, her wistfulness faded. Time passed unnoticed, as she mixed colors, using a small sable brush to add detail to the double-delight rose bush in her painting. Although she’d never painted animals, she planned to add Mr. Kitty to her garden scene. In what seemed a matter of minutes, the evening shadows faded the natural light. She cleaned her studio and locked up for the night.
In bed, she stared at a book—her thoughts overriding the words. Tomorrow she’d distance herself from Nicholas. The thought saddened her. She would miss their chats and shared activities.
She enjoyed their friendship, but to her way of thinking, family trumped friendship. Therein lies the rub.