By Carol Burnside
Sometimes, the past merits repeating…
Before she’d finished drying off her morning shower, Sherri Coker’s cell rang. Oh, bother. She secured the damp towel around her breasts and grabbed for the phone before it could wake the boys. The ring tone indicated the caller was her best friend, Melissa Donovan.
“Mel? What’s wrong? You never call this early.”
“Don’t hate me, okay?”
“I could never hate you, though nothing good ever started with that request. What did you do?” Sherri tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder, then smoothed back the beach print bedspread she’d thrown off only minutes ago. Her bedroom oasis was the closest she’d get to a tropical paradise, being landlocked here in Little Rock, Arkansas, with limited funds.
“I didn’t know he was planning to look you up or I’d never have told him where you live. He came into the diner for breakfast and we were having this nothing conversation about my Fourth of July party, y’know?” Mel barely paused for a breath. “Talking about old times and people we’d like to see there. Your name came up and it sort of just popped out that you were living in your parents’ old place.”
Sherri slapped a hand to her chest to stop her heart from galloping away. She didn’t need confirmation to know ‘he’ was Mel’s cousin, one Thomas Jefferson Deluca. He was Sherri’s first love and the very guy who’d given her the necklace she still wore every day. It had once meant a promise of their future.
She rubbed the small silver shell between her fingers as she often did when stressed. “He’s not coming over now, is he? I’m not even dressed!”
“I got the impression he would at some point today. Said he found something on the beach last week that reminded him of you and he wanted you to have it. Look, I’ve got hungry customers waiting for their grub. Call me later.”
“Okay. Thanks for the warning. No, wait! Mel?”
Silence greeted her, pressing in, leaving her heart feeling bruised.
Just as well. She would have sounded pathetic. Has he changed? Is he still the ambitious, determined, and big-hearted T.J. I loved? His face swam before her as she’d often seen it, the strong jaw softened by a sexy grin, his eyes lit with desire. Oh, God. How would she get through this?
There were no secrets between best friends. Mel knew Sherri had never quite gotten over T.J., though Sherri tried not to ask about him too often and Mel pretended the interest was idle curiosity. He only lived an hour south, but except for that first summer, T.J. hadn’t been around for years. Back then, Sherri had been far away attending to life and death matters. Literally.
This time their paths were destined to cross. T.J. had suddenly RSVP’d a yes to Mel’s invitation to an old-fashioned Fourth of July blowout. Since then, Sherri had been slowly, quietly panicking. What if she couldn’t handle treating him like an old friend? She’d embarrass them both.
Over the years, she’d told herself that he was probably married. Possibly, he was even fat and balding and gross, like Johnny from her seventh grade math class. He now delivered potato chips to the area grocery stores and flirted with every female who had even the suggestion of boobs.
Mel had refuted those scenarios.
Turns out, T.J. hadn’t married. Came close once, but he’d been too busy taking over the family construction business after his dad’s heart attack and lost the girl. He’d sacrificed his dream of becoming a big city architect for family, yet Mel said extended family rarely saw him.
Life had thrown a monkey wrench in her dreams too.
Hearing the shuffle of little feet along the hallway, Sherri leapt off the bed and made quick work of her morning routine. Even so, she wasn’t fast enough for a hungry boy.
“Mom, can I get the cereal? Please? I’ll be careful.” Seth’s earnest voice, still gravelly with sleep, penetrated her door.
She opened it and kissed the top of his bed-mussed hair. Shampoo and sweaty kid hair was a friend she welcomed for a few seconds, while recalling she’d moved the milk carton lower in the fridge door so he could reach it. Moms had to multitask, even in their heads. “Sure, but use the X-Men bowl, okay?”
The unbreakable plastic allowed Seth a small measure of independence.
Moving on autopilot, she headed for the kitchen, tossed a scoop of dry food into the elusive cat’s bowl, made a cup of coffee and headed straight for the dining room, which served as her home office. There she began work as a travel agent. A part-time gig, it helped bridge the gap in her budget between interior design clients. She answered e-mails and booked trips with cartoons playing quietly in the background, working fast because Noah, her late riser, would soon be up and demanding attention. She’d grab a bite of breakfast while feeding him.
Two hours later, while tidying up the kitchen, the doorbell pealed.
Sherri took a deep breath and touched the necklace she’d hidden inside her tank top. She started toward the living room, nearly tripping over her toddler playing in the doorway. But it wasn’t the sudden stop that had her heart thudding against her ribs.
“Noah, move, honey. Mommy has to answer the door.” Sherri steered her youngest out of her path as Seth skidded to a halt on inline skates, inches from her knee. “Traffic jam, son. Be careful.”
Her life was a far cry from the big city design firm she’d dreamed of being a major force in, but she didn’t regret the choices she’d made, especially when her days were filled with joy. She liked her life, even if her goals had been revamped several times.
Would T.J. appreciate the choices she’d made? It shouldn’t matter to her so much, but it did. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and felt a rush of emotion so fierce it shook her.
Sherri was everything T.J. remembered and worse. So much worse.
In his head, somehow he’d become convinced Sherri couldn’t possibly live up to his idealized version of her, that she was simply an interesting diversion from his youth. This visit was supposed to dispel the myth and ground his feet firmly in reality.
But she was all too real and every bit as lovely as he remembered. Perhaps more so. Soft waves of dark hair framed her face, the ready smile spearing him in the gut. Before she’d been a little too thin, now she had curves in all the right places, which were shown to perfection in black shorts with layered pink and purple tanks. Damn. The sight of her would keep him up nights.
“Hi, T.J.” Her throat bobbed. “It’s good to see you.”
“Sherri—” He was stunned to see a small boy with the same dark hair emerge between her and the door.
“Who is it, Mom?”
“A friend of mine. He’s Mel’s cousin, sweetie. T.J., this is my son, Seth. Won’t you come in?”
“Ah…sure.” His head was still trying to fit Sherri into the role of mom as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Oh, man. She was married. Why hadn’t Mel said something? Why hadn’t he asked? He glanced down at the kid giving him a skeptical once over with serious, gray eyes. “Hey, little man. How old are you?”
“I’m five. How old are you?”
Sherri laughed, the sound a little strangled. “Seth, we don’t ask grown-ups their age. It isn’t polite.”
“Why?” His little nose scrunched up in confusion.
“We’ll talk about it later. T.J., the little munchkin in his own world across the room is Noah.” She indicated a child, barely more than a baby, playing with a stuffed dog. Suddenly, he wished he hadn’t come, hadn’t had to see for himself that she’d moved on. “And your husband? Is he home?”
“No husband, at home or otherwise.” Her guarded gaze put him on alert.
“Oh.” T.J. wasn’t sure what to make of that. Was she no longer married or had never been? He was definitely cornering Mel for some answers if he didn’t get them here. “Wow. A family. I had no idea. You’ve been busy since college.”
He cringed as the words left his mouth and she crossed her arms. “That sounded a lot worse out loud. I just meant that as a single mom you must have your hands full. Did you finish that Interior Design degree?”
“Eventually. I put things on hold for awhile before Seth was born.”
That meant she’d have been pregnant in college. T.J.’s pulse stuttered.
“I’m starting real school this year,” the kid offered, obviously proud. “Hey, if you’re mom’s friend, how come I’ve never met you?”
“I live in another town. What’s it been now?” T.J. turned to Sherri.
She waggled her hand like a drunken airplane. “Six years, give or take.”
His head started to swirl. He felt like he might pass out. They’d been lovers and shortly after their breakup, she’d had Seth. Those last weeks, she’d been distracted, worried, but refused to talk about it. His palms began to sweat…
Intrigued? You might be surprised by what comes next. Read the rest of the story on my blog.
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“Sizzling romance that tugs at your heart!”
Traditionally published in short stories, Carol’s novel length manuscripts have placed in numerous contests and won five, including the prestigious Maggie Award for Excellence. Writing as Annie Rayburn, she produces speculative fiction, erotic romances.
Imagine our world today with a humanoid race very much like us (Crainesians) living peacefully among us here on Earth and searching for their life-mate. They have the ability to communicate telepathically, can project visions and share dreams. Can you imagine? Not just phone sex, but dream sex? That’s why they’re also labeled soft sci-fi and lite paranormal. Talk about cross-genre sizzle! Enjoy excerpts, review snippits, and more about her sexy Crainesian characters on her website.
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SEASONS AND SEASHELLS
Ten great stories. Ten great voices. Ten great reading choices. SEASONS AND SEASHELLS, an anthology from the Petit Fours and Hot Tamales bloggers, will leave you laughing, crying, sighing and wanting more. SEASONS AND SEASHELLS offers stories for every season. And best of all, they’re free!
Fall in love all over again with SEASONS AND SEASHELLS from:
Carol Burnside, Tami Brothers, Marilyn Baron, Lindy Chaffin Start, Linsey Lanier, Pam Asberry, and Maxine Davis
Stories by Sandra Elzie w/a Sandra McGregor, Sia Huff and Sally Kilpatrick will appear here on PetitFoursAndHotTamales.com.
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Cover art by Linsey Lanier. Background photo of Gulf Coast Beach, a painting by Sharon Goldman, used with permission. Gulf Coast Beach can be viewed on Sharon’s gallery.
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