One Short Summer - Prologue
One year ago
Our bodies are amazing. They pretty much function on their own without a second thought. Reflexes and muscle memory kick in the second we don’t pay attention to what we do.
It’s nothing short of a miracle.
A miracle I’m endlessly grateful for as I jog across the lawn, Monica held tightly in my arms, while I run as far as I can to escape the blasting heat behind us.
Unintelligible words want to come out of my mouth, but the sirens of the fire truck barreling toward us puts a quick end to it, my words carried away on the light summer breeze.
The scene around us has me in a trance, holding me prisoner, so much I don’t fully realize I’m still holding Monica until one of the paramedics directs me to set her down in the ambulance. I absentmindedly listen to their conversation while the woman checks out Monica, who has started rehashing what happened between coughs.
That she started to make popcorn right after taking her pain medicine, which left her drowsier than she thought it would. That she passed out on the couch when she just wanted to rest for a second after putting the oil in the pan to heat up. That she woke up startled when I ran into the guest house like a bulldozer, picked her up and carried her outside, just as the flames from the small kitchenette slowly started to crawl over to the living room.
My brain keeps replaying the last ten minutes over and over, and I know I will never forget this night. The moment I returned from my evening run, exhausted from the workout, but still able to sprint to the guest house the moment I saw smoke crawling through the bathroom and kitchen windows.
It takes my body a long time to shake the adrenaline, leaving me spent like I just ran a marathon after my workout. We silently watch the firefighters take care of the fire, thankful for the lawn chairs someone pulled over for us.
Monica’s head turns in my direction, her green eyes wide as she stares at me. Her mouth opens and closes several times before the words come out. “Gabe, I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.”
This is not the first time she’s apologized, and I expect it won’t be the last time either.
Shaking my head, I close my eyes for a moment before looking at her. “Stop apologizing. It was an accident.”
“It was stupid and shouldn’t have happened.” Her mouth sets into a grim line, and I’m sure she’s beating herself up like there’s no tomorrow.
Unwelcome thoughts of how this could have ended badly try to make their way into my mind, but I push them away. Everything turned out to be okay, generally speaking at least. I wasn’t able to catch more than a quick glance at the damage, but without a doubt, the cottage is unlivable for now. Maybe ever.
Yet, it could have been a lot worse.
So much worse.
Monica’s crutches rest on the side of her chair, courtesy of one of the firefighters bringing them over when he noticed her casted leg.
Safe to say, her stay in Brooksville after her accident hasn’t been off to the best start so far.
The phone beeps in her lap and she picks it up to look at the message. “Charlie and Hudson will be here soon. Do you think I can go inside and get some of my stuff for the hotel?”
When on earth did she have time to message her best friend and my brother?
She points toward the little cottage several yards away—my guesthouse—that’s now gray and black on the siding where the smoke was able to creep outside.
Her voice snaps me out of my thoughts, my brain still having a hard time letting go of this scene in front of us.
My eyes scan over her face, appraising the dark circles that have deeply settled under her eyes, the playful and flirty expression I’ve come to expect since she arrived in Brooksville a few weeks ago now completely wiped from her face. The words finally sink in. “Hotel? What are you talking about?”
Her brows furrow. “My opinion hasn’t changed about Charlie and Hudson. I don’t want to intrude on their space. Their relationship is still so fresh, and I don’t want to be the third wheel. So…hotel, it is.”
“Don’t be stupid, Monica. You’re not going anywhere. You’ll stay with me at the house.” The words come out rougher than intended, and by the way she crosses her arms in front of her, it’s easy to see she’s about to fight me on this.
Not that I expect anything less from this firecracker.
But I’m not planning on losing this battle.
One Short Summer - Chapter One
The cup in my hand is cold, almost to the point of feeling uncomfortable, as I gaze out the kitchen window into the backyard. The high midday sun reflects in the large rectangular-shaped pool, making it look almost too inviting to pass up. A nice swim in the pool does sound appealing, but I have other things I need to do.
Other things that are more urgent.
Or rather, a certain someone who needs my help, even though I’m not sure it’ll be appreciated.
After a long sip, I set the cup down on the dark-gray kitchen counter and make my way through the long hallway, giving myself a few more seconds before this unavoidable conversation that’s about to go down. I expect resistance in the form of a fiery, sometimes short-tempered, strawberry-blonde who I’m sure is currently lounging on my living room couch.
But I’m ready. It needs to be done.
Less than a minute later, I find her exactly the way I thought I would—spread out on the chaise part of the sectional, a blanket piled up on her lap, the TV playing one of those reality shows she’s taken a liking to.
My footsteps must have announced my presence because Monica looks up almost immediately when I walk in. Even though she’s only three years younger than my twenty-seven, she doesn’t look her age, especially with her hair in a messy bun and not an ounce of makeup on her face. I like that she seems to have felt at home from the first moment I moved her into my house, exactly the way I wanted her to.
Now, it has turned somewhat into a problem. And I think she knows it too, from the way she’s looking at me.
You’d think writers like me never have a moment of awkward silence and always know what to say, but they really don’t. At least, I don’t.
Everything I thought of saying to my roommate falls away the second her green eyes land on mine.
Monica pushes a button on the remote to mute the TV. “What’s up? Why are you looking at me like that?” Her chin lifts the slightest bit while her eyes narrow on me. Despite the situation at hand, there’s still a bite to her.
Which makes me hopeful.
Her reaction makes me wonder what she sees though. Maybe I don’t have my cool under control as much as I thought I did. My plan was to waltz in here and demand she get her act together. Now, after looking into her innocent-looking face, the resolve almost seems to puff out of my body.
But I need to do this. For her sake. She will regret it for the rest of her life otherwise.
I just know it.
“Did something happen?” She pushes herself up on the cushion, her back straight as a rod.
My right index finger goes up of its own accord, pointing at her, not leaving a doubt as to what, or rather who, the problem is. At least, it’s pretty clear to me. “You did.”
“Me? What did I do? I’m just watching a show.” She huffs out an exasperated breath, but I don’t miss the flash of bewilderment.
Rubbing my hand over my brown hair, I’m still not sure how to best tackle this subject—it’s a sensitive one, after all. “Monica, pack your bags.
You’re coming to Lake Tahoe with me. We’re leaving in two days.”
Well, call me Mr. Unsensitive.
I was planning on delivering that a little nicer, but it seems like the connection between my brain and my mouth is a bit faulty. This is what happens when I’m overwhelmed by a situation.
A situation. Who am I kidding? Monica has been slightly overwhelming since the very beginning. She’s different. Loud and outspoken, not letting anyone meddle in her business.
That fire I barely see in her eyes anymore is back as she stares me down with a narrowed gaze, her forehead creased as if she’s trying to solve a puzzle. “Mmm, sorry, but why am I going to Lake Tahoe with you? I thought you were going up there for a few weeks to get some quiet time away from Brooksville, so you can finish writing your next fantasy bestseller before the deadline?”
Fantasy bestseller. She’s trying to distract me by throwing something like that at me, I just know it.
“Okay?” She stares at me, clearly waiting for a more elaborate answer. When I don’t give her one, she lifts her hands in front of her, palms up.
I shrug, still trying to figure out how to respond. I haven’t done the best job so far, and if I upset her now, she might not come with me at all. And that isn’t an option.
With a loud sigh of defeat, I plop down on the large sectional, facing her.
My voice is quiet. “It’s time, Monica. I know this last year has been incredibly hard for you, and I don’t want to pretend to have even an ounce of a clue as to what you’ve been going through. Getting into a bad accident during the peak of your dance career was a hell of a bad luck, absolutely no doubt about that. But it’s been over a year. All of the professionals have said you’re good to dance again, that you didn’t sustain any long-term damage to your leg. I’ve given you as long as I could muster, but I think it’s time to get back into the game, and I want to help you.”
She shifts around, her hands squeezing the blanket, wringing it to death. Her gaze is still on me, but again, I’m not surprised. Monica is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met, not to mention extremely stubborn, independent, and honest. Under normal circumstances, I’d also say she’s incredibly disciplined, seeing as she’s been a dancer most of her life, touring the world with her dance company.
When she first moved to our small town in California last year, she was a little spitfire, and everyone was convinced she’d be back on her feet in no time, especially her best friend, Charlie—who now also happens to be my future sister-in-law.
No one expected Monica to fall down a rabbit hole and get worse over time instead of better.
But it happened, and since I’ve been living with her, I had a front-row seat to that miserable show. Whether I wanted to or not.
I blow out a breath, knowing she won’t like what I’m about to tell her. “Charlie and I talked.”
That gets her attention, her eyes flaring open wider than before.
“You guys talk about me behind my back?” There’s a bite to her voice, and I hate I’m the reason for it.
“We’re worried about you, you know that. Charlie is your best friend, and we all hate seeing you like this. It’s like you’ve not only given up on your dance career—your dream—but your life too. You pull back a little more each day. You barely leave the house anymore. Since I don’t know what else to do, I’m going to take you with me. Maybe a change of scenery will help get you out of this funk.”
Monica harrumphs and crosses her arms in front of her chest but doesn’t say a word. Apparently, that’s all she’s willing to give me right now.
Fine. There was more I wanted to say anyway.
“There’s a gym at the Tahoe house too, so you can continue working out since that’s the only thing you still seem to do. One of my friends up there has a yoga studio, so you can take some classes. I know you’ve been enjoying those here. I’m sure you don’t like it that we’re butting into your business, but we only want to help.”
Her shoulders move up and down.
When the frown on her forehead begins to smoothen out, a surge of hope rushes through my system. I give Monica a moment, allowing her to work through this in her head without me pushing her—which is something she does on a regular basis. The last thing I want is to start a fight. That’s not what any of this is about, and I hope she understands that.
Monica is my friend, and I want what’s best for her. Even though I didn’t know her when she was still actively dancing, I have to agree with Charlie’s comparison of Monica acting like a fish out of water. She’s aimlessly flopping around, not sure what to do with herself, all while slowly withering away.
I can’t watch her do that any longer. I just can’t. It’s starting to affect everyone around her, and I’m done with sitting on the sidelines and watching her destroy her life even more.
It’s just not in my nature.
“All right. I’m coming with you.” Her voice sounds almost normal, and when our gazes meet, I’m surprised to see she doesn’t seem upset about it anymore.
If I’m honest, I’m actually a little taken aback she gave in so easily. I was expecting her to fight me tooth and nail, and then some.
Maybe we were wrong. Maybe she subconsciously wants help, and there really is a chance of saving her from herself. I’m clinging to that possibility because the alternative would suck big-time.
“Sounds good.” I plaster on a smile, and she gives me a small one in return. “Do you need any help packing?”
“Nope, I got it. Thank you.”
I nod, taking my victories when I can get them. I’m still shocked she actually said yes, and I’m not going to toy with that.
Getting up from the couch, I point my thumb over my shoulder. “I’m going to head out to see my grandma. Do you need anything before I leave?”
She simply shakes her head, making me nod again in reply.
“Sounds good. I’ll see you later then.”
Holding up my hand, I wave a quick goodbye before I speed-walk out of the room. Better get out of here before she changes her mind.
Several hours later, my brother, Hudson, and I are in our grandmother’s backyard, walking back a few steps to admire our precious handiwork.
“Look at this, you guys. It looks beautiful.” Our grandmother, Hannah Mitchell, walks down the steps of her porch to join us. I’m glad to see she’s taking it nice and easy, and isn’t running around like she’s in her twenties instead of her seventies. She’s definitely that young at heart, but even our unstoppable grandma has had to learn to slow down some over the last few years so she wouldn’t get hurt.
Her hands are filled with several water bottles, which she hands us as she settles between us. “I should’ve done this years ago. The white fence looks so much better than the dark wood one I had before. Thanks so much, you two. You did such a great job.”
Hudson wipes his hands off on the back of his jeans, smearing dirt all over it. Not that it matters since both of our jeans and T-shirts are equally dirty and sweaty. Even though summer officially began a few weeks ago, we’re not used to the high temperatures we currently have. Our small California mountain town got unexpectedly hit with a heat wave, making most of us miserable ever since. Thank goodness the temperatures are supposed to drop again soon, but for now, we have air-conditioning—not that it helps much when your grandmother calls you to help her put up her new fence.
We’re quiet as Grandma admires our work some more, Hudson and I guzzling down our water like we haven’t had a drop to drink in months. After wiping my forehead with the back of my hand, I screw the lid back on my empty bottle, relieved to be done. Working on this project for the last few hours definitely did a number on my body, and I’m sure I’ll be sore tomorrow.
“So”—Grandma turns to face us, a small grin on her face as her gaze settles on me—“a little birdie told me you’re taking Monica up to Lake Tahoe with you this week.”
“You are?” Hudson’s face snaps to me as he lets himself fall into one of the patio chairs we dragged over earlier. He studies me, a small grin forming around his mouth when he picks up his bottle to take another long drink. “Interesting.”
Grandma claps her hands together, looking way too cheerful to me right now. “I think it’s lovely. Even though I’ve heard you halfway bullied her into it.”
Hudson starts laughing but Grandma ignores him. Instead, she pats my arm. “I know why you did it though. You’re a good man, Gabe. Our Monica is a stubborn one, but you’ll be able to help her, I just know it.”
“I hope so. I’m not sure what else to do anymore.”
Another pat from her. “She’ll get there, I’m sure of it. I think she just needs a little push, and you’re the best one for that job. Don’t let her tell you otherwise, you hear me?”
I nod and think about it for a moment, hoping she’s right. Then something dawns on me. “Wait a second. How do you even know about this?”
She chuckles, her eyes sparkling with mirth as she shrugs her shoulders. “Monica texted me.” She says it so matter-of-factly, as if we’re talking about the weather.
“Of course you guys message each other.” I close my eyes and shake my head.
When the heck did that happen? Since when does my grandmother text with my roommate?
Hudson is halfway bent over with laughter by now, obviously enjoying this way more than he should.
Grandma turns to him, her hands on her hips, clearly meaning business. “What’s so funny? I text with Charlie all the time too.”
That sobers him up quickly, even though a small smile remains on his face. “I know, Grandma. I was just trying to picture Gabe bullying Monica into anything.”
She thinks about that for a moment before nodding. Then a small chuckle escapes her lips. “I was thinking the same. That’s the reason they haven’t killed each other yet though, living in the same house and all. These two push and pull each other in a unique way. It’s an interesting dynamic, to say the least.”
“That it is.”
Just then, I’m saved by the bell, or rather the telephone inside the house, which we can hear ringing from the far side of the backyard. Someone needs to turn down that ringer, pronto, before Grandma suffers from hearing damage.
“Sorry, boys, but I have to take this. I’m expecting a call from Edna. Come say goodbye before you leave, okay?”
We nod in agreement.
Hudson gets up to stand next to me as we watch her rush back into the house. “Sooooo, you’re taking Monica up to Tahoe with you, huh?”
I don’t have to look at him to know he’s grinning. It’s easy to detect in his voice.
“Yup. Looks like it.”
He stays silent, and I take the bait. “What is it?”
Shrugging his shoulders, he studies me. “Nothing, really. I was just thinking of that one time, a couple of years ago, when you wouldn’t let any of us stay at your place up there. You said it killed your writing mojo, but you’d happily find us a rental close by.”
Crap. I totally forgot about that. I barely refrain from shuffling my feet, not wanting to make this more awkward than it already is. “Monica is different.”
Well, if that wasn’t original.
Hudson seems to think the same since he looks ready to burst into laughter again. “I’m sure she is.”
I glance at him before starting to pick up our tools that are strewn across the grass. I could end this conversation right there, but for some reason,
I feel like I need to defend myself. “I’ve been sharing a house with her for most of last year, Hudson. She doesn’t kill my writing mojo because I’m used to having her around.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him cleaning up beside me. “I see.”
“She’s my friend, and I want to help her. Is there something wrong with that?”
Hudson drops a hammer into Grandma’s old toolbox and holds up his hands, that same smile still tugging at the corner of his lips. “Not at all. I just said it was interesting. That’s all.”
“Hmm.” I don’t believe for a second this is it. Hudson likes to be “helpful,” like Grandma.
He stops what he’s doing and regards me with a more serious look. “For what it’s worth, I think Grandma is right. If there’s anyone who can help her, it’s you. I know firsthand that Charlie’s been trying whatever she could think of, without any success, and they’ve been best friends for most of their lives. It hurts her to see Monica that way, but you already know that. I’m glad you’re trying this your way. Hopefully it helps.”
The way he still studies me makes it seem like there’s more he wants to say. “What is it?”
“Nothing really.” His smirk returns, and he shrugs his shoulders. “I was just wondering if there’s an ulterior motive behind it or not. I mean, I know you spend a lot of your time in your office while she’s trying to avoid life as much as possible, but you two still spend some time together. There’s obviously something between you, that was pretty much visible from the very first time you guys met.”
I scoff. “You mean, when she first came here after her accident and pushed all my buttons as much as she could?”
Hudson laughs, pulling up his shirt to wipe his face. “You loved it. Don’t even pretend otherwise, or I’m calling BS.” He points a finger at me.
“Plus, don’t tell me you aren’t attracted to her. I’ve seen you check her out more than once before.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” A grin spreads across my face before I can stop it.
I’m such a bad liar, and I’m pretty sure he can see straight through it, but I really don’t want to talk about it. There is nothing to talk about. Maybe there used to be a spark when we first met last year, but that’s long been burrowed under Monica’s inability—no, unwillingness—to get back to dancing, and therefore back to actually living, rather than simply existing. “We’re friends.”
Very good friends.
No matter how attractive I find her.