Unplanned Love: A Love In Spring novel, page 23
“How did the interviews go? Was it worth the trip?” Ellie asked, placing her hands on her belly even though it didn’t show yet. It was cute.
“I got a job. The job, with a capital J. It’s going to be a managing position in the most prestigious event company. It’s Penelope’s biggest competitor.” She grinned as she put Sophie back on the ground. The more she said it, the prouder she felt. “They’ve organized some of the most important events in Miami and all of Florida.”
“Wait, Florida?” Ellie’s eyes widened in horror. “But it’s on the East Coast!”
Charli rolled her eyes. “What’s wrong with you all? Yes, it’s on the East Coast. It’s always been there as far as I know.”
“But… but…” Ellie’s brows pulled together. “How are you and Kean—”
“There’s no me and Kean. This is the best opportunity of my life and I’m taking it.” Something akin to guilt gnawed at her insides as she said the words, but she blamed it on Ellie’s sad frown. “You know me and small towns don’t get on well. You knew I wasn’t going to stay indefinitely, or settle down here. My career is important.”
“More important than your friends? More important than Kean?” Ellie glared at her. In the ten years they’d been friends she had never seen Ellie glare, and most definitely not at her. “I asked you not to hurt him. I know you always liked cities best, but I figured now that you and Kean were together you’d be happy to stay, settle down in Spring, watch my baby grow…” Her voice cracked as her eyes veiled with tears.
Hurting her friend was the last thing Charli wanted, but she had to understand that playing the pity card wouldn’t work.
“First of all, Kean and I aren’t together. We had a fling and he was happy to play along. And just because you’re living your fairy tale and are satisfied with playing happy family, you know that’s not what I want. I don’t want kids, and I don’t care about playing the good housewife for my husband. That works for you, but it could never work for me.”
Ellie’s brow crinkled as her frown deepened even more. “It’s time you stopped trying to prove your grandmother wrong, Charli; she won’t change her beliefs just because you have a good job. All this nonsense will ruin your life eventually, when you end up alone and miserable. Can’t you see? You’re throwing it all away just to spite your grandmother.”
“That ring on your finger didn’t turn you into a counselor—or into my mother. I’m old enough to know what I want, and this”—she waved her hand in the air to include the house and Ellie’s new life in general—“is not it. I don’t need a man, and I don’t need Kean. I’m going to Miami, and I’m going to pursue the successful career I’ve been dreaming of. I’m leaving next week, and nobody’s going to change my mind.”
Sophie wrapped her arms around Ellie’s leg and looked up at her, probably sensing something was wrong. Charli had completely forgotten about the little girl. She shouldn’t have raised her voice in front of her, but Ellie’s words had hit a nerve and she hadn’t been able to help herself.
“But you can’t go away again, Auntie Charli. You’ve just come home!” Sophie’s bottom lip trembled as she looked up at her with teary eyes.
Great. Apparently, today she was the wicked witch and whatever she said or did, she ended up hurting someone. But why should she care? She was leaving soon and, if things turned out the way she hoped they would, she wouldn’t be coming back—and if she ever did, it would only be for a brief visit.
“Sweetie, Auntie Charli has to go away because her job is in another city.” Ellie patted Sophie’s head and smiled reassuringly at her. The little girl shook her head, in the stubborn way Charli had come to learn was a distinctive trait.
“I don’t want her to go away. I want her to stay wif us!”
“I’ll come back to visit soon,” Charli said, reaching out to stroke Sophie’s curls. Ellie quirked an eyebrow, showing she didn’t trust her to keep her promise. “I have to work to get the money I need to buy food, clothes, and a house where I can live. Your daddy has to go to work, and so does your mommy. And your uncle Kean, and your grandma and grandpa. You have to work when you’re a grown-up, you see?”
“You already have a house, and Mommy can cook for you. You don’t have to leave…” Her voice cracked, and her bottom lip trembled as the first tears streaked her cheeks. “I want you to stay!”
She launched herself at Charli, who stumbled, taken by surprise. She crouched to be level with Sophie, and the little girl wrapped her arms around her neck, holding on tight and making Charli’s heart squeeze painfully. Of all the people she’d never want to hurt, this little girl was at the top of the list. When the sobs started, Charli wished she had a time machine to go back to the start of this day and do things over. The wails that followed made her wish she’d never stayed this long. She should’ve left immediately after the wedding, so she wouldn’t have gotten attached to the girl, ended up in bed with her uncle, and eventually become an honorary member of the Cavanagh family even though she never asked for it.
To make matters worse, Adam’s car came up behind them. A second later a door slammed, and footsteps approached.
“Hey, what’s wrong? Is she hurt?”
Great. He was going to have Charli’s head for making his precious daughter cry. As soon as she heard his voice, Sophie unwrapped her arms from around Charli’s neck and threw them around her father’s. He picked her up and held her close to his chest.
“What happened, baby girl? Who made you cry?”
“Auntie Charli,” she said, between sobs and high-pitched wails. Adam frowned, looking at Ellie for confirmation, then down at Charli, who was still crouched on the ground wishing really hard for a big hole to crack open right beneath her.
“It’s… um… it was a misunderstanding,” she said, her voice trembling a little. She looked up at Ellie for help, but her friend turned away, clearly telling her she was on her own. Fine, she could do this. She stood up, smoothed her pants just to buy time, and looked straight at Adam. “I’ve gotten a job and I need to move to another state. Sophie didn’t take it well.”
“I don’t. Want her. To leave,” Sophie said, with her face buried against her father’s neck.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt her, but this job is a great opportunity. I couldn’t let it go.”
Adam cradled his daughter against him, his hand rubbing her back as he stared at Charli with a frown. “Where are you going?”
His eyes bulged and his jaw dropped. “What? You’re moving to Florida?”
Okay, he wasn’t going to be on Team Charli either. “Yes. I know it’s on the other side of the country, but it’s the job of my dreams, and I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by.”
“I thought your dream job was to open an inn.” His tone was flat and very matter-of-fact. And utterly annoying. Who did they think they were? And why did married people always think they knew best?
“It was. When I was a child.”
“And what about Kean?”
Oh, no. He was going to play the you-hurt-my-brother card now. She didn’t have enough energy left in her to endure another discussion.
“He’s fine, don’t worry. He’s not likely to kill himself when I leave.”
Adam glared. Oops, maybe he hadn’t caught the attempted humor in her tone.
“I’m going to take Sophie inside, honey,” he said, looking at Ellie. Then he turned to Charli. “I hope you find what you’re looking for in Miami.” His tone was cold and it left a sour taste in her mouth. He wasn’t the only one who’d said that today. What was she hoping to find in Miami? The question hit the back of her mind, making her wonder if what she was doing was the right thing. If it was really what she wanted.
Adam walked into the cottage, holding a sobbing Sophie in his arms and whispering reassuring words. Meatball trotted close to his leg, with her head down. Her tail, which always wagged excitedly, was now hanging down like she knew something was wr
Ellie waited until Adam and Sophie were inside, then she focused her attention on Charli. The accusation in her eyes said everything she was too kind to say out loud.
“So… I have to get dinner started. Um… would you like to join us?” Her tone said she was clearly hoping Charli wouldn’t accept the invitation. Charli couldn’t blame her, though.
“Thanks, but I have a few things I need to figure out, and I should book my flights and start packing. I wanted to go to Texas before moving to Miami. I won’t be needing my car, so would it be okay if I left it here? You could probably use a proper means of transportation instead of your bike.”
Ellie smiled. “Let’s make a deal. I’ll car-sit for you, so when you come back you can use it.”
When you come back. Did she really think that Charli would be coming back? She doubted she would. If she knew the job well, she wouldn’t have much free time for vacations, and when she did, perhaps over the holidays, she’d be going home to her family. As much as she loved Ellie, she couldn’t come back and risk running into Kean with a woman hanging off his arm. Not that she should care because, after all, they’d been nothing but casual lovers. Although casual lovers didn’t really cuddle, or have romantic dinner dates. Casual lovers didn’t play the guitar for their woman, they didn’t make pancakes for breakfast. But then again, she’d never had a casual lover, so what would she know?
“I have to go, now,” Ellie said, interrupting Charli’s musing. “Are you sure you don’t want to eat with us?”
Charli shook her head. “Thanks, but like I said, I’ve got tons of things to do. And somehow I doubt your husband would be very happy having me around right now.”
“He doesn’t like seeing his baby girl cry and he’s very protective of his family, so knowing you’ve hurt his brother didn’t earn you any brownie points with him.”
“I didn’t hurt him!” Charli took a steadying breath and let it out slowly. “For the umpteenth time, I didn’t hurt Kean. He’s okay. He seemed fine to me when I left him.”
“I just…” Ellie sighed and shook her head. “I just hope you know what you’re doing, and that you won’t regret your decision along the way.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s not as if there was anything more than just… chemistry between the sheets.” And maybe, if she kept saying it, she would start believing it, too. Because the way her heart ached the moment she’d walked out of his cottage didn’t feel like simple chemistry.
Ellie’s narrowed stare made her want to squirm. Had her friend caught the lie?
“Go now. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” She put her hands on Ellie’s shoulders and spun her around. She desperately needed some time alone. Maybe she’d call her mother, tell her about the job and her visit to San Antonio. Her mom would be happy for her, she was sure.
“It’s not too late to change your mind. Think about it.” Ellie threw the words over her shoulder just before she opened the door. Charli rolled her eyes, knowing her friend couldn’t see her, and walked to the house next door. She didn’t need to think about anything. This was the chance she’d been waiting for. Nobody would change her mind.
A little more than a month after she moved to Miami, Charli didn’t feel half as accomplished as she’d thought she would. She’d been living her dream, her new boss loved her work, her colleagues looked up to her, she’d organized important events, and she’d even been recognized as the smartest planner the company had ever seen.
It was all she’d ever wanted—and yet, it just didn’t feel right. It felt as if something was missing. But what was it, exactly? She had it all here: the job, the city, the success. But it didn’t feel as good as she’d expected. When she walked into her modern apartment in a nice neighborhood, courtesy of the company, the quiet that welcomed her was nearly claustrophobic. There were no dogs or four-year-olds waiting for her, nor a handsome contractor. She shook the thought away. This was her life now, and it didn’t include dogs, kids, or men.
She realized she had zoned out from the conversation at the table when Bradley, her colleague she was having a work dinner with, touched her hand. Those silly thoughts would have to wait until she was alone. She focused back on the conversation and the important event they were working on.
An hour later, they left the posh restaurant and walked to Bradley’s car. Although she told him she would call a taxi, he insisted on driving her home. When they reached Charli’s apartment, he took her hand. She stiffened.
“Why don’t I come up for a drink?”
His direct question made her skin crawl. She wanted a pleasant work environment, and if she’d understood this dinner would mean more to him than just a simple business meeting, she would’ve declined his invitation. Now she could only hope he wasn’t one who held a grudge, or she would blow her chances of having a happy and cooperative team.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” She pulled her hand out of his grasp and opened the door. “I never mix business and private life; I’m sorry if I made you think otherwise.”
Bradley leaned forward, and before she could understand what his intentions were, he took her face in his hands and kissed her. The feel of those foreign lips pressing on hers, trying to get access, made her stomach lurch. She pushed against his chest, and he finally moved away.
“Sorry, I can’t do this,” she said, resisting the urge to scrub her fingers on her lips. She had to tread carefully, if she didn’t want to have problems at work. “I’m still, uh… I’m not over my ex yet.”
It was supposed to be an excuse, just to get rid of him politely, and she was supposed to be referring to Donnie, but her mind drifted to Kean instead. She cringed. He hadn’t been her boyfriend, so he couldn’t be her ex. And she wasn’t hung up on him.
“No problem.” He shrugged and put his hands back on the steering wheel. “I was hurt before, so I know how you feel. Just think of me when you’re ready to get back on the dating scene.”
Ah, I don’t think so. If she wasn’t interested before, his cheesy line only reinforced her opinion.
“Thanks for dinner. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, getting out of the car and fishing her keys out of her purse, suddenly very eager to be alone in her apartment. She hadn’t thought of Kean in weeks—okay, maybe in a couple of days—but feeling someone else’s lips on hers had shaken her to her very soul. It had brought back memories she didn’t want to remember, not when she was living the dream she’d pursued for so long.
It was only meant to be a work dinner; it wasn’t supposed to make her feel anything. It wasn’t supposed to make her think of Kean, to make her long for his lips, his hands, his laughter…
Her body heated at the memory, and she shook her head. He was in her past now. Just a fling, a mistake she’d repeatedly made because she was lonely, unemployed, and maybe even a little bored.
“Yes, that was it,” she said out loud, nodding as she tried to convince her body to get the memo this time.
Inside, she checked the time. It was barely seven in Oregon. Perfect time to talk to Ellie and check how she was doing. During their call three weeks ago, Ellie had shared the news that she was expecting twins. Whether it was the gene running in both hers and Adam’s family, or just pure luck, Ellie had been ecstatic as she recounted the moment they’d discovered there were two babies growing inside her. And since it was early, Sophie would still be up. Charli had grown attached to Ellie’s stepdaughter and she always looked forward to their video chats. She was sure the little girl would cheer her up tonight.
* * *
“Hi, Auntie Charli!” Sophie’s dimpled smile filled the screen, and Charli’s heart felt just a little lighter. A moment later, Ellie pulled the phone out of her daughter’s hand and moved it to the right distance to allow both of them to fit on the screen.
“I eated all the broccoli tonight. They tasted funny and I didn’t like them
Charli chuckled. Gosh, she missed the little girl’s liveliness. But the fact that her speech had improved so much in just a month made her sad. Sophie was growing at the speed of light, and Charli was missing out on all the small milestones—all those special moments an aunt should be a part of. But then again, she wasn’t her aunt.
She pushed the sadness away and smiled at Sophie. “Well then, you’ll have to keep eating vegetables and you’ll be able to wear my shoes in no time.”
Sophie nodded, holding her stuffed bunny to her chest and tweaking its ear the way she always did. “You know, when Uncle Kean gets married, I can be the flower girl again!”
The phone slipped from Charli’s hand and fell onto the floor, but the crash that followed wasn’t the screen shattering—it was her heart.
“What… when…” She cleared her throat, swallowed, then took a deep breath and picked up the phone. When she looked at the screen, Sophie was waving and saying she had to get Anna and Elsa ready for bed. Charli didn’t even manage to say a word before the little girl dashed away. Ellie’s worried frown was all the confirmation Charli needed to know that her reaction hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“So, um… Kean’s getting married. Well, um… wow. That was fast.” She let out a shrill, totally fake giggle she knew Ellie wouldn’t buy. “I mean, I knew he was a family guy but—”
“He’s not getting married.” The boulder on her chest shifted just a little. “Sophie got a little overexcited when she saw him holding hands with a woman. You know she’s a Disney fan—she sees weddings and happy endings everywhere.”
The boulder was back and had brought a friend. “He’s… you mean… he’s seeing someone?” Please say no, please say no.
Other author's books:
- Saved by an AngelUnplanned Love: A Love In Spring novelThe melody in our hearts
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