“Neil, I need a weekend off,” Travis announced, holding airline tickets for five to Isla Paradiso. “I’m taking the kids to the Isle for the weekend before they grow up completely and move away from us.”
“I guess I can’t say no, since you already have the tickets in your grubby paws,” Neil grumbled under his breath. “At least the season is over. I don’t know how you didn’t get us into the playoffs this year. I shouldn’t let you have any more vacation time until we win a championship, you know that.”
“Yeah, I know.” The team missed the playoffs by a goal during the final game of the season, and it was Travis’ fault. It was a bad kick, and Neil wasn’t done busting his chops about it. “There’s always next season.”
“You don’t have many more good seasons left, my friend,” Neil countered. “You’re not getting any younger.”
“Bite me, Neil.” He fanned the plane tickets out and waved them at his coach. “Make this happen.”
Travis walked to the locker room to get changed into his uniform and was lacing his shoes when Smitty approached him. “Miss Tight Britches is looking for you, Jones. She is nuttier than a peanut butter factory.”
“Oh goody. Thanks for the heads up, Smitty.” Grabbing his water bottle, he jogged down the tunnel into the stadium, and sure enough, Kathleen was in the bleachers waving frantically at him. Totally ignoring her pleas for attention, he joined his team for warm-ups on the field. Neil walked onto the field, a clipboard in his hand, and his phone ringing in his pocket.
“Just a second guys,” he said, reaching for his cell. “What do you want?” he answered it, annoyed. Plugging his open ear, he listened intently to the person on the other end. Neil rolled his eyes and finally said, “Forget it. I’m hanging up.” He walked back toward the team, shaking his head. “That was your girlfriend, Travis.” The guys began laughing. “She wants to see you after practice.”
“I hope you told her no.” Travis was done with Kathleen and her ridiculous antics.
“You have to break up with her. I’m not touching this one.” Neil blew his whistle. “Now, I know Mr. Big Shot over here couldn’t wrap up our season with a spot in the playoffs, but we’ll have to forgive him. His wife has been keeping him busy and very distracted.”
Travis’ face turned red, not from embarrassment but from irritation. His personal life was no one else’s business, and he was suddenly sorry he had confided anything in Neil. “Enough, Neil,” Travis growled. “Charlotte is off-limits for locker room talk.”
“Oh come on, Travis,” Paolo, a veteran player, snickered. “Everyone loves to talk about Charlotte in the locker room. You might as well join the fun.”
Travis could put up with a fair amount of joking, but when it came to Charlotte, he was fiercely protective, and his tolerance was non-existent. “Talk about me all you want, Paolo, but if I ever catch one of you disrespecting her like that, I will beat you senseless.”
“Lighten up, Jones,” Paolo continued. “You have to know everyone on this team dreams of nailing her.” Neil shook his head at him and motioned for him to stop.
“I’m done here today.” Travis was hot, and he turned and walked away from the team before he did or said something he would regret. Neil chased him down the tunnel and into the locker room.
“Man, I’m sorry,” Neil apologized. “That was my fault.”
Travis was furious, and it took every bit of restraint he could muster to keep his cool. “You should know better, Neil. After all the problems she and I have had together, we finally get our heads on straight, and you pull this… My personal life should NEVER come up in team discussions. I thought we were better friends than this. You disappoint me, Neil.” Travis shook his head. “But I swear, if I ever, and I mean ever, hear someone talking that way about my Charlotte, I’m out of here, contract or no contract.”
“That’s not up to you, to just leave.”
“Try me.” Travis grabbed his duffel bag. “Goodnight, Neil.”
Travis got into his car and started it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a white, fluffy blob running toward him. Great, he thought, this is just what I don’t need right now. Locking the door, he rolled the window down halfway. “What do you want, Kathleen? And make it good, I’m in no mood for your baggage tonight.”
“Well, I was going to ask, since you’re leaving early if you wanted to go get a drink somewhere.” She twirled her keys on one finger while she waited for his answer. “I know you like to drink, and I know you love that bed and breakfast.”
“Are you kidding me?” Travis growled. “I am going to tell you this one time, and I can’t stress it enough. When Hell freezes over. Do you understand me? I will never have a drink with you. I will never get into your bed.”
“Touchy!” she exclaimed. “So, I’m hearing not tonight.”
“Never, Kathleen. Never!” He rolled his window up and drove away, laying rubber down on the pavement as he spun his tires. He drove to a nearby parking lot and just sat there, waiting for his rage to subside. The last thing he wanted to do was wreck his car, and he feared he might if he continued to drive. Instead, he dialed Charlotte’s cell phone.
“Baby, thank goodness,” he said, his voice quivering. “It’s so good to hear your sweet voice, honey.”
“What’s wrong, Travis?” The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. “Where are you?”
“I’m at MN8, in the parking lot. I walked out of the stadium, and I need to calm down.”
“I’m coming to get you,” she said. “Don’t do anything until I get there.”
“No, honey, it’s not like that. I’m just really angry, and I need to settle down before I drive home. I thought hearing your voice would help.”
“What happened, baby?” She could tell he was very upset.
“I don’t want to say on the phone. Just… talk to me, honey.”
“I love you, Travis. Are you sure you don’t want me to come get you? I could call Chris to come get your car for you.”
“Please… just tell me how much you love me. I need you to say it.”
“You’re scaring me, Travis. Please let me come get you.” Charlotte started to cry.
“Okay, but please come quickly. I need you.” Travis began to shake.
“Don’t hang up, sweetie. I’m going to call Chris. We’ll be there soon.” He heard her place her cell on the counter as she dialed Chris on the house phone.
“Baby, please,” he begged. “Hurry.”
Charlotte drove to pick up Chris, and together they drove to MN8 on the strip near the Clips Center. The windows in his car were steamed, and she knocked on the window. “Baby?” she called to him.
Travis opened the door, and got out, wrapping himself around her. “Honey,” he cried. “Oh, honey.” She felt him trembling.
“What happened, sweetie?” She held him tightly.
“Let’s go home. I’ll tell you there.” Charlotte gave Chris the keys to his car and told him to bring it to his house.
“I’ll come get the car tomorrow, Christopher. Just drive it home for tonight.” He nodded and drove it away. “Come, baby, let’s go home.”
Charlotte drove home, with Travis in the passenger seat, crying, shaking. Whatever happened at work couldn’t have been good. She called Darcey on the way home.
“Darcey, please get Danae and Devin upstairs for me? I’m bringing Daddy home from work, and he’s not well.”
“Oh no, Mama!” Darcey cried. “He isn’t drunk again, is he?”
“No, no sweetie pie, he’s just not feeling well.” Charlotte turned the last corner before reaching the house. “Please, just for now. I need to get him home and upstairs to our bedroom. Something happened at work, and I need to make sure he’s okay.”
“Okay, Mama,” Darcey agreed. She rounded up Danae and Devin and brought them upstairs.
Charlotte opened the gate and drove the car into the driveway, parking outside the garage. “Baby, what happened?” She rubbed his back as he sobbed.
“I feel so betrayed, honey. Here, let’s go upstairs. I need to think a minute.” He collected himself and opened the car door. She took his hand, and they walked into the house and up the steps to their room.
Charlotte closed their bedroom door, knocking softly on the door between the two bedrooms as a signal to Darcey they could leave the room. Travis sat on the bed, still in his team uniform, his cleats still on his feet. “I can’t go back there, honey.”
“What happened that was so awful?” Charlotte couldn’t imagine what would make him say he couldn’t go back to work.
“We were getting ready for practice, and Neil made some snide comment about me not being able to lead the team to the playoffs this season, because you were keeping me distracted, or something idiotic like that. And I told him to knock it off, that you were off-limits for locker room talk. The guys get really, really vulgar in the locker room talking about their conquests.” He took a deep breath. “So, one of the older guys on the team told me to lighten up, that you’re a frequent topic of discussion in the locker room, and that everyone on the team dreams of having sex with you.” He began to shake, becoming enraged all over again.
“Oh baby,” she said, feeling nauseated. “They didn’t. They don’t… Oh my goodness.” Charlotte held her stomach. “They really said that? About me?”
“Neil chased me back into the locker room after I walked off the field and tried to apologize. But I was so hot, I threatened to quit if I heard them disrespecting you like that, contract or not.” He took another deep breath. “Neil is the closest thing I’ve had to a friend since I left Emmitt in Dragon Valley, and he betrayed me like it was nothing.”
Charlotte didn’t know what to say. Every person on the team was like family, and to know they talked about her that way made her feel sick. What would their wives say, to know they talked about her like that? “No wonder you were furious, baby. And hurt, and disgusted.” She swallowed back bile that rose in her throat.
He reached into his duffel bag and pulled out the envelope containing the tickets to Isla Paradiso. “I wanted to surprise you tonight with this, but the wind got taken out of my sails.” He handed the envelope to Charlotte.
“Isla Paradiso? We’re taking the kids?”
“Yes, honey. I asked Neil to schedule the weekend off for me, but I’m not going to worry about it. If I don’t have a job when I come back, then so be it.”
“Then maybe this is our ticket out of Starlight Shores. For good.” She looked at the tickets again. “Did you reserve the resort yet? I’d like to stay in the same place.”
“I was going to do that tonight. It’s offseason for them, so I didn’t figure we’d have a problem getting reservations.” Travis looked unbearably sad. “Three hours ago, I had the world by the horns. Now, I don’t even know if I want my job.” She hugged him.
A gentle knock came on their bedroom door. “Mama?”
“Come on in, Darcey,” she called to her. “He’s okay.”
Darcey and Danae walked into the bedroom and saw the sad expression on their father’s face. “Whatever happened, Daddy, I’m sorry,” Danae said, hugging him.
“I’m better now, Punkin.” He looked at Charlotte. “How do you feel about going on vacation for a weekend?”
The girls looked at each other and squealed. “Awesome!” Darcey hugged him. “Where are we going?”
“Isla Paradiso, girls. Where we went to last year.”
“Ooh! I can’t wait!” Danae said.
“You won’t have to wait long,” Travis replied. “We’re going next weekend.”
He took Charlotte’s laptop and looked at the resort online, and was about to make a reservation when his cell phone rang. It was the team owner, and he had to take it.
“Yeah,” Travis answered.
“Travis, this is Armand Halsey. Neil tells me you’re threatening to break your contract?”
“Hi, Mr. Halsey. As usual, Neil gave you half the story, but I shouldn’t be surprised about that. It’s a long story. Can I meet you for coffee tonight? I’d rather explain this in person.”
“Yes, I’d like that, Travis. How about in twenty minutes at the Flying V?”
“Sure thing. My wife will be joining us since this involves her,” Travis stated firmly.
“Not a problem. I’ll see you in twenty.” Armand hung up the phone.
“Girls, can you watch Devin for awhile? I have to meet my boss at the coffeehouse, and I don’t have time to wait for Tracy. I know you can handle him for a while, right?”
“No problem, Daddy. He’s just watching television anyway.” Danae hugged him. “I’ll make sure he’s in bed by eight.”
“Thank you Punkin. We shouldn’t be that long, baby girl. Charlotte, we need to go, honey.” Travis got his car keys and started toward the garage.
She followed him outside and took the keys from his hands. “I’m driving, big guy. Your car is with Chris, remember?” She hugged him. “Thank you for including me in this meeting.”
They sat at the outdoor cafe with lattes and waited for Armand to show up. He spotted Travis and walked briskly to where he and Charlotte sat, and introduced himself to her.
“A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Jones. I’ve heard wonderful things about you.” Mr. Halsey stated, then turned to Travis. “So, what happened during practice tonight?”
“Well, sir, you know Neil and I have had a decent working relationship. And when our last season ended, I brought Charlotte on vacation for a week in Isla Paradiso on a much-needed honeymoon. We re-committed ourselves to each other on that vacation, and apparently, that has become a topic of discussion and great amusement among my teammates since our return a few months ago. I mention this because it has everything to do with what happened this evening.”
“I figured you had a reason for mentioning this, Travis. Please, continue.”
“So, in discussing our, well, my failure to bring the team to the playoffs this season, Neil hinted that I missed the kick on that last goal because Charlotte has kept me, ahem, distracted. His words.” Travis clenched his teeth together. “Then when I asked him to refrain from speaking about Charlotte in this way, and said that she was off-limits in locker room talk, old Paolo decided it was a good time to tell me that not only is Charlotte a topic of frequent discussion in the locker room among my teammates, but that everyone on the team dreams of, if I may quote him, ‘nailing’ her.”
Armand shook his head in disgust. “Dr. Jones, I’m sorry you had to hear that.” He noticed her wiping tears from her eyes. “Travis, what can I do to make you want to stay on this team? You are still my most valued player, the hardest worker I have, and your name recognition is second to none. Frankly, I don’t want to lose you to another team.”
“I’m not sure, Mr. Halsey…”
“Please, call me Armand. I think we’re beyond the formalities.”
“Armand. I’m not sure. The betrayal is something I, quite honestly, I’m unnerved by it. Every single player on that team wants to have sex with my sweet Charlotte. My heart and soul. The love of my life. The mother of my three children. The woman I would die for. How would you feel, Armand, if they said that about your wife?”
“I wouldn’t feel any differently than you do right now, and I’m not sure I could have kept my composure. But I can’t realistically fire the whole team. It doesn’t work that way, I’m sorry to say. What I can do, however, is end Paolo’s contract, and replace Neil with a different coach.”
Travis sighed. “No, I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs. That might have been the old me. But Charlotte has taught me many things.” He took her hand in his. “One of them is how to forgive. This woman has an enormous heart, and she inspires me every day.”
“That is awfully big of you, Travis. But that is still unacceptable for them to be talking like that about your lovely wife. I’ll have a talk with Neil, and tell him to control his players. Then I can force them to apologize to you…”
“No, that’s not necessary, Armand. If they aren’t truly sorry, it will just come off as fake, and it’s worse than no apology at all. I can forgive it, but I won’t forget it. And I can’t promise I won’t slug the first person who makes an off-color remark about my precious Charlotte.”
Armand laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t blame you, son. I won’t punish you if that happens. I can just as easily look the other way.”
“I appreciate that. The other things will come back in time, I hope, but I will never trust Neil again. I guess I can’t have friends on the job.” He shook his head. “What a shame.”
“Yes, it is. Well, if we’re good here, I am missing my own dinner. My wife is keeping mine warm. She’s a treasure, much like your Charlotte. I couldn’t imagine anyone telling me what Paolo told you. You’re a man of great restraint, Travis. I respect that. And, for your trouble and your wife’s sake, I’ll bump your contract salary up by 25%.”
“Thank you, Armand, that’s very generous of you, and much appreciated. I hope to hear from you again, under better circumstances.” The men rose and shook hands.
“Take care of that beautiful young lady. She is precious.” Travis nodded and took her hand.
“Let’s go home, baby,” he said. “I’ll drive.”
“Jones, my office please.” Neil summoned him to his official office. Travis walked in and closed the door behind him. “Do you mind telling me exactly what you told Mr. Halsey last night?”
“The truth, Neil. I told him the truth, not half-truths spun to make me look like the bad guy.” He sat across from Neil, his arms folded defiantly. “I’m not taking your garbage, so spare me.”
“So, you told him you threatened your teammates?”
“I told him what my teammates said about my wife, and he said he didn’t blame me for feeling how I do. You were my friend, the closest thing I’ve had since I left my hometown. Why did you betray me like that? For what? A laugh? To make yourself feel better at my expense? I don’t understand, Neil. Explain that to me.”
“I thought I was being funny. I didn’t expect Paolo to bring that up.”
“So you knew the guys talk about Charlotte like that and you didn’t bother to tell me? Do you think of her that way, too?” Travis was getting angry again.
“You’re taking everything out of context, Travis.” Neil shook his head. “You’re way too uptight. Maybe you should go on your little vacation.”
“Out of context? I heard him clearly say that everyone on the team dreams of nailing my wife. How is that out of context?”
“Lucky for you, I don’t have the authority to fire you. You’re ticking me off, Travis.” Neil paced back and forth behind his desk.
“Oh, that’s rich, Neil. I’m ticking you off. Let’s see how you would like it if the guys all said they want to bang Glenda.”
“Half of them actually have, Travis. You need to lighten up.”
“Hey, it’s not my problem if you can’t keep your wife satisfied that she needs to resort to half the team. But I’m not going to let any of these scumballs touch mine. Armand is in agreement with me.”
“Oh, so you’re on a first-name basis with the owner now?” Neil taunted.
“In fact, I am. You know, I actually saved your pathetic job here last night. Now I’m sorry I did.” Travis got up and walked toward the door. “I might still be on this team, and you might still be my coach, but personally, you’re dead to me.” Travis slammed the door behind him.
“What’s up, Jones?” Smitty approached Travis.
“Go away.” Travis snarled at him.
“Hey, for the record, I never said anything remotely like that about Charlotte. She is a beautiful woman, but I respect you, Travis. You’ve never been anything but kind and respectful to all of us. I mean, sometimes I wonder what she sees in you,” Smitty joked, nudging him, hoping Travis would laugh.
“Yeah, me too sometimes.” Travis chuckled. “Thanks. You might be my only friend left here.”
“Just remember Travis,” Smitty said, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
Travis nodded his head. “Profound, Smitty. Very profound.” Travis clapped him on the shoulder and grabbed his duffel bag. “See you on the field.”
The family of five sat in the first-class section of the aircraft as it taxied off the runway and into the terminal of the Isla Paradiso municipal airport. Charlotte’s excitement was nearly uncontainable as the familiar surroundings came into view. “I didn’t think we’d be back here so soon, honey,” she bubbled. “I feel like a kid!”
Travis smiled sweetly at her. The airplane arrived at the terminal and they deplaned through the Jetway. They walked together to baggage claim, where a driver was waiting for them, holding a sign. Travis introduced himself as Charlotte helped the kids pull their one suitcase from the conveyor. The driver escorted them to a waiting stretch limousine that would take them to the resort.
Travis, Charlotte, and the kids entered the lobby, and Rosa spotted them immediately, running to hug them. “I was hoping when I saw your name on the reservation list that it would be you!”
“Rosa, these are my twin daughters, Danae and Darcey, and my son, Devin. Kids, this is Rosa, probably one of the nicest people you’ll meet here on the island.”
“Oh, Mr. Jones, you flatter me!” Rosa blushed. She checked them into their luxury suite and handed each of them a key card. “Remember, if you need anything, I’m almost always here! Welcome back, and enjoy your stay!”
After the flight, Charlotte wanted to splash some water on her face and fix her hair, and she wanted to walk to Jayna’s shop downtown to say hi. She regretted they never made it back to see her before they left months ago. Together, they strolled down the main thoroughfare and took in the sights and smells of the island as they walked. Twenty minutes later, they arrived at Jayna’s dress shop. Charlotte smiled as she opened the door and saw Jayna’s friendly face looking at her with great surprise.
“Charlotte! What an honor!” Jayna beamed as she and Travis entered, with the girls and Devin in tow. “Oh, and you brought your children this time!” She ran to Charlotte and hugged her, and then each of the children as well. She saved her strongest hug for Travis and kissed him on the cheek. “I was sorry to see your team missed the playoffs by a goal, honey,” she lamented. “But, you wouldn’t be right here if you had made it, so it all worked out!”
“You made my day, Jayna,” Travis said, kissing her hand. “The girls are Darcey and Danae, and my son is Devin.” Jayna fussed over the girls and gave Devin a hearty pinch on the cheek.
“We’re just in town for the weekend,” Charlotte announced. “We haven’t been in for more than an hour, and you were the first person I wanted to come visit.”
“I’m glad you did, honey.” Jayna’s countenance suddenly changed. “Next month, I start my going out of business sale. I have no one to pass the store to when I retire. I’m afraid, I’m losing my grandmother’s passion.”
“Oh, Jayna, no!” Charlotte said, saddened. “Who will I get my daughter’s wedding dresses from now?”
“There are other dress shops around, and I’ll recommend a few.” Jayna’s shoulders heaved. “I just never had a chance to get married and have my own family. I was always married to my job. I loved it so.”
“Well, this town will be losing a legacy when the shop closes its doors. I know I will miss you.” Charlotte wiped tears from her eyes. “But, I suppose we can still chat on email. There is no reason we can’t!”
“That is very true,” Jayna replied. “I kept in touch with your mother for years. She was such a beautiful soul.”
Travis agreed. “I know where my lovely wife gets hers from, for certain.” Charlotte blushed.
“I’m so glad we stopped in, Jayna, but the kids want to go to the beach, and I don’t blame them.” She jotted her email address down on the back of Travis’ business card and handed it to her. “Here’s my email. I do hope we keep in touch.”
Jayna handed her a business card. “You bet I will! Oh, honey, I’m so glad you stopped in. And it was a pleasure to meet your gorgeous children!” She hugged everyone one last time and wept as Charlotte and her family left the store.
A horse-drawn carriage was stopped outside the shop, and Travis paid the handler to bring them back to the resort. He’d never ridden in a carriage, and the kids certainly hadn’t either. A twenty-minute walk took five minutes in the carriage, and Travis tipped the handler well for his trouble. Everyone got changed for swimming and headed to the private beach outside the resort.
Devin and the girls made sandcastles, while Charlotte and Travis sat under an umbrella, sipping nectar and holding hands. “This is so peaceful,” Charlotte finally said, her face relaxed and her soul calm. “I could stay on the beach forever.”
“Why don’t we?” Travis suggested. “We can take the kids to dinner tonight, and run it past them. See if they would miss Starlight Shores. We could make a beautiful life here.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to ask them.” She kissed his fingers. “Maybe, if they want to come and live here, I could take over Jayna’s shop. She could teach me everything she knows.”
“Now there’s an idea, love.” Travis thought the idea was wonderful. He knew how much she adored Jayna. He whistled and called the kids over to where they sat. “We need to get cleaned up soon guys. We’re going to dinner in a few hours, and we need to get dressed up for it. This restaurant is the real deal. Remember The Tower, girls? Very similar.”
The kids finished their sandcastles and took a quick swim in the ocean before they walked back to the room to shower. Charlotte and Travis showered together, and the kids took turns in the other bathroom until they were all cleaned up. She helped the girls into their dresses, and Travis helped Devin into a dress outfit similar to his own, a vest with a shirt and tie, and dress slacks. He laughed as they both went to Charlotte with untied ties. “Help!” he said, and she giggled.
“Someday, honey, you’ll learn how to tie this,” she laughed. Patiently, she showed Devin how to tie his necktie. “There you go, sweetie pie! You’ve got it. Now, show your Daddy!” she teased. The girls emerged from the bedroom, dressed in their velvety dresses they had worn to The Tower, and Charlotte had put on a sapphire blue dress she had found in Bella’s closet before they left.
“Everyone looks so grown up,” Travis said, admiring his family. Pulling Charlotte close, he whispered, “That dress looks amazing on you. I can’t wait for later!” He winked at her, and she blushed. “Come on, kids. Time to go.” They left the room, and Travis pulled the door closed behind him.
They walked through the courtyard, past the second large pool, and to the lobby. Rosa’s shift was just ending when the Jones family walked by, and she stopped to admire them. “What a fine-looking family you have there, Mr. Jones!”
“Thank you, Rosa! Are you on your way home for the day?” Travis asked.
“I am, but I can’t wait to be back here tomorrow morning! Have a pleasant dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Jones.”
“Thank you, Rosa,” Charlotte said, smiling. They walked to the restaurant and checked in. Even though they had no reservations, they were seated immediately.
The Maître D’ handed them menus and Travis seated Charlotte and the girls, while Devin waited for Travis to sit. “Thank you,” he said politely, motioning for Devin to sit with him. “Devin, girls, please be on your best behavior tonight. This place is top-notch, and they don’t tolerate goofing around,” Travis cautioned them. “I will take you to the room if you can’t behave, and believe me, you won’t want that, so this is your only warning.” The children nodded and sat quietly. He trusted the girls to behave, but this was the first time Devin would be expected to act like a young man and not a boy of eight.
Charlotte and Travis ordered two entrees to share, the girls did something similar, and Devin wanted a hamburger. “Are you sure, Devin? There are so many yummy things on the menu?”
“Yeah, Mama,” he answered. “I’m not that hungry.”
After the waiter took their order, Travis got the kids’ attention. “Guys, your Mama and I want to talk to you about something, and see what you think about the idea.” Their curiosity was piqued, and they listened attentively. “Do you like it here so far?” he asked them to begin.
“I love it here,” Darcey said. “The beach is so white and beautiful. And the water is so warm!”
“It’s okay,” Danae quipped. “It’s too hot for me.”
“I had fun at the beach,” Devin added. “But I don’t like this place. It’s too fancy.”
Travis thought for a moment. “What would you think if I told you that Mama and I would like to move our family here?”
Charlotte watched Darcey’s face go from happy to slightly upset. “Why?” she asked, looking ready to cry.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” Charlotte said. “We’re only thinking about it. Nothing is going to happen without your input. So I’m guessing that’s one vote no.”
“I don’t wanna move, Mama,” Danae agreed with Darcey. “I don’t want to leave my friends.”
“Okay, that’s two votes no.” Charlotte and Travis could see their dream slipping through their fingers. “Devin, honey? What do you think?”
“Our house is our home, Mama. Not here.” He colored on the placemat the waiter had brought for him.
“Well, I think that’s been summarily shot down,” Travis concluded. “We stay in Starlight Shores. At least until we retire, anyway.”
Danae looked at Travis in horror. “You would leave us and move here?”
“Not until you’re married and we retire from our jobs, honey.” Charlotte sipped her glass of water. “That’s a long time from now.”
“Why do you love it here so much, Mama?” Darcey struggled to understand it. Sure, it was beautiful, but so was Starlight Shores.
“I don’t know, Punkin. I guess the beach speaks to me. The sound of the waves soothes my soul.” She looked at Travis and smiled, trying to hide her disappointment.
“So, what do you want to do tomorrow, kids? It’s our only day to do something together before we fly home on Monday. Another day at the beach? The town fair? Museums? Snorkeling?”
“Can we scuba dive?” Danae wanted to see the fish, the underwater sights and go into a cave with her father.
“I would love to, but it’s not safe. We wouldn’t be able to fly home so close to a scuba trip. I hate to be the one to rain on your parade, Nae.” Charlotte was prepared to offer a compromise. “How about we go snorkeling tomorrow? You’ll still be able to pick up shells and see the fish.”
“That sounds like fun, Mama,” Darcey agreed. “I vote for snorkeling.”
“We can do that at home,” Danae countered. “We can’t go scuba diving at home.”
“Nae, your mama said no, honey,” Travis said. “It’s not safe.”
“I really don’t like it here,” Danae pouted. “We can’t do anything I want to do.”
“Danae, you do not want me to take you out of this restaurant. It will not be pleasant for you if I have to.” Travis warned her sternly. “Please act like a young lady.”
She sat and crossed her arms in front of her, pouting. Charlotte ignored her, hoping that she would stop misbehaving if she wasn’t getting any attention. “What about you, little bear? What do you want to do tomorrow?”
Devin stopped coloring long enough to rub his eyes. “I wanna swim at the beach.” He yawned and went back to coloring. Charlotte hoped he would stay awake long enough to eat dinner.
“How about you, Mama? What do you want to do?” Darcey was thoughtful enough to ask.
“Well, I was hoping to look at some houses, but since everyone shot me down on moving here, a day at the beach will be just as good.” She smiled warmly at Darcey. “Let’s see if we can find some pretty shells tomorrow.”
The waiter came with dinner and extra plates for sharing. With four different things on the table, they all shared family-style, and got the chance to sample a little of everything. Devin only picked at his dinner, and fought to stay awake through the whole meal. “Come here, little bear,” Charlotte pulled him into her lap, where he promptly fell asleep. “Baby, could you have his burger wrapped up, and bring it back to the room? We’ll stick it in the fridge for him, maybe he’ll be hungry later. I’m going to bring him back to the suite.” Charlotte picked up her purse, and stood, holding Devin in her arms.
“Can you carry him back, honey?”
“Yeah, I’ve got him. Thank you for dinner, sweetie. Be good for Daddy, girls. I’ll see you back at the room.” Charlotte put Devin on her hip and left the restaurant, leaving Travis and his two daughters to talk.
“Daddy, why can’t we scuba tomorrow?” Danae started up almost as soon as Charlotte left the table. “We never get to do what I want.”
“Nae, your mother is a doctor, and she knows when it’s safe to do things, and when it’s not. If she says it’s not safe to dive and fly, then you’d better believe it’s the truth. I don’t want to hear this come up again. Do you understand?”
“But Daddy…” she tried to get in one last word.
“No Danae Elizabeth. One more peep, and you’ll be sorry.” Travis had enough of her insistence. “Darcey, are you done with dinner, honey?”
“Yeah, I’m full.” There was almost enough left to make two more meals, so Travis had them pack it up to bring back to the suite. It was nice they had a kitchenette with a microwave, and now they had lunch for tomorrow.
Travis let the waiter know they were finished, and he signed the bill to be charged to the room. “Come, girls, time to go back to the room.” They followed him like ducklings follow their mother, not speaking a word. Danae was angry, and Darcey felt guilty that she was keeping Charlotte from her dream of moving here. “Why the long faces? Are you not having a good time here, girls?”
“No,” came Danae’s one-word answer. But he expected that from her.
“I feel guilty, Daddy,” Darcey admitted. “I didn’t know Mama wanted to move here so bad. I want to change my mind.”
“It’s okay, Darce. Nothing was ever certain. I still have my job at the stadium. There’s a lot involved with moving. It’s not just as easy as selling our home and packing up.” He stopped and brought both girls in front of him, and knelt down. “What do you say we go swimming at the pool until it gets dark?”
“I’m tired, Daddy,” Danae said.
“Darce?” Travis looked at her.
“Not tonight. You and Mama can have the night together.”
“This is a family vacation. We’re supposed to have fun together. But I know a plane trip is tiring, and we’ve been on the go since we got here. Let’s all go to bed early, and we’ll be fresh and rested in the morning.” He hugged the twins and stood up. “Come, girls.” He took each twin by the hand, and they walked back to the room together.
Charlotte shushed them when they walked into the room, chattering. “Devin is asleep on the couch. I can’t move him another inch.” She was sitting on the floor, where she collapsed after she laid the boy on the sofa.
Travis walked to Devin and picked him up, carrying him to the kids’ bedroom, putting him into one of the beds. “Girls, go wash up and get ready for bed. We’ll tuck you in in a few minutes.” Travis kissed Danae’s head and patted Darcey on the back. “I love you girls,” he said.
“Are you okay, honey?” Travis walked to where Charlotte sat on the floor. “Are you stuck?”
“You could say that. My legs gave out when I got to the door, but somehow I managed to not drop our son between the door and here.” He bent down to pick her up, as she put her arms around his neck, trying to give him some leverage. “Careful, baby,” she said as he struggled to lift her.
“Wow, either you’ve gained 100 pounds, or I’m getting old,” Travis joked. “I know it’s not the first option.” She shoved him gently.
“I’m okay down here,” she said, pulling him down to her, and they laughed. Breathing heavily from exertion, he struggled to catch his breath and laid his head in her lap. She sat for a moment and stroked his face, his eyes full of love for her.
“We have the night to ourselves,” he said. “The kids are exhausted.”
“Let’s go tuck them in. Then we’ll pop open that bottle of complimentary champagne and get silly,” she flirted.
“I love how you think,” he flirted back.
A cool, tropical morning breeze blew gently through the curtains in Charlotte and Travis’ bedroom. Covered only by a sheet, they slept tangled up in one another. Travis was partially asleep, smelling the wild jasmine that grew outside the room, when he felt someone staring at him. Opening one eye, he spotted Danae and Darcey standing by his bedside.
“Daddy, we’re hungry,” Danae greeted him without so much as a ‘good morning’.
“What time is it?” he mumbled, checking his watch and pulling the sheet completely over himself. Six o’clock in the morning. “Girls, it’s too early. Go watch television or something.”
“I don’t understand the language,” Darcey countered. Travis huffed and rubbed his eyes.
“Give me a minute to get dressed, girls. I’ll be right out.” He shooed them from the bedroom and pulled on a pair of pajama pants, making sure Charlotte was covered as he left the room. “Okay, what would you like for breakfast?” He removed the room service menu from the table in the living room of the suite, and let the girls pick out what they wanted. For Charlotte and himself, he ordered a pot of coffee and some croissants and muffins, figuring that would be good for Devin as well. For the girls, he got some fresh orange-pineapple juice and an omelet for each of them, with some homemade toast and butter. Room service was prompt, delivering everything piping hot in less than twenty minutes. Travis poured Charlotte a cup of coffee, prepared how she liked it and brought it to her in bed.
He set the coffee on the nightstand and climbed back into bed with her, kissing her awake. “Good morning, my sweet Charlotte,” he cooed. “I brought coffee for you, my love.” She opened her eyes and smiled, giggling as he kissed her nose.
“Coffee sounds good,” she said, noticing the bedroom door opened a little. “Travis, I’m naked! The door is open!” she laughed.
“At least you didn’t have two little girls looking at you with half of your butt hanging out of the sheets.” He knew they saw him and was thankful they didn’t say a word.
“Oh, they didn’t!” she snickered. He nodded, laughing. “I suppose there are worse things they could see.”
“Breakfast is waiting for us, my love.” She pulled a robe on and grabbed the mug of coffee Travis had prepared.
“Good morning girls!” Charlotte was cheerful and well-rested. “How did you sleep?”
“Good morning Mama,” Darcey said. “I slept really good! The air smells so clean outside.”
“Good morning Nae,” Charlotte looked at her. “Are you still mad at me?”
“No,” Danae said, still pouting.
Charlotte giggled. “Glad to hear it.” She grabbed a croissant and some blackberry preserves and sat down at the table on their balcony, with Travis joining her.
“Do you still want to look at houses, sweetheart?” Travis asked her.
“No, I don’t want to get my hopes up. I knew it was a long shot before we brought them here.” She sipped her coffee. “Besides, Dev wants to go to the beach, and I want to show Danae how much fun snorkeling is here.”
Devin walked out onto the balcony, rubbing his eyes, and crawled up into Charlotte’s lap. “Good morning Mama,” he said sleepily.
“Good morning, little bear. Do you want some orange-pineapple juice?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” he answered simply. Travis got up and brought back a small glass for him, and watched his face as he sipped it. “Ooh!” he squealed. “This is good!” Charlotte kissed his cheek as he squirmed out of her grasp. “Can I have a muffin?”
“That’s what they’re here for, sweetie,” she said. “We’re going to the beach this morning, so get into your swim trunks, okay?”
“Yes mama,” he said happily, eating his blueberry muffin.
“Did you bring that bikini?” Travis asked Charlotte, hoping.
“Nope, but I do have that one piece you like so much.” She winked at him.
The kids finished breakfast, and everyone got into their swimsuits. Charlotte and the girls put shorts on over theirs, while Travis and Devin just put shirts on for the walk to the shuttle. Charlotte had a bag full of fruits, water, sunblock and gum over her shoulder. Anything else they needed, they could buy at the vendor by the beach.
The kids stayed up on the sand for the first part of the morning, close to Charlotte, while Travis went to get some snorkeling supplies for the girls. But when the sun really started getting warm, the family retreated to the cool relief of the ocean. Travis helped the girls put their masks and fins on, and showed them how to snorkel in shallow water. Charlotte and Devin sat in the surf, playing with the wet sand, and looking for seashells. Compared to how the beach was so crowded the last time they were there, no one was really around them, either in the water or on the sand. But Charlotte did notice a woman with dark hair and darker skin eyeing Travis, as though she might have recognized him, not that it would have been unusual with his celebrity status. And unbelievably, the woman approached him, with Charlotte standing right there with him, as though she was invisible.
“Travis?” came the question, as she looked him in the eye.
“Talia?” He looked at her, not believing his own eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here with my husband, Rick,” she said. “You might remember him from school.”
“Rick…” Travis searched his memory, but could not remember someone named Rick. “Nope, the name doesn’t ring a bell. Is Emmitt still in town?”
“No, he passed away two summers ago. I’m sorry no one called you, Travis.” Talia looked around for her husband. “I need to go. I thought that was you. I wanted to say hi.”
“Yeah…” he said, his voice trailing off. Charlotte walked to him, noticing the stunned look on his face.
“Who was that, sweetie?” Charlotte asked him.
“My sister.” He fell to his knees, more upset to hear about Emmitt than he was to see her.
“Your sister? Talia?” She was incredulous.
“Yeah. Emmitt… I guess he died a couple of years ago.” Travis’ sadness was not hideable. “I never got to say goodbye.”
She only knew of Emmitt by name, but she knew who he was. “Oh honey, I’m sorry.” She hugged him.
“It’s that place. It’s a death trap. Dragon Valley should change its name to Death Valley.” He shook his head. “He should have gone to college with me. He might still be alive.” Since Neil’s betrayal, he hadn’t missed Emmitt more than he had in the past week. Hearing the news devastated him in ways he couldn’t have guessed.
“You can’t do that to yourself, honeybear. He did what he had to do, and so did you.”
“Daddy, who was that lady?” Danae watched the dark-haired woman, noticing that she resembled her father.
“That was my sister, your aunt Talia, Danae. My twin sister.” He shook his head, trying to lift the funk. “Who wants to go snorkeling?” he chirped. Both girls excitedly cheered, and he took their hands, wading into the water with them.
Charlotte sat back down in the surf with Devin, filled with more questions than answers.
Since the encounter with Talia at the beach, Travis was different, almost withdrawn, and she hadn’t been able to pull him out of it. He stayed at the resort and skipped dinner, while Charlotte walked next door to the Spanish restaurant with the kids. When they returned back to the resort, Charlotte tried to engage him in conversation, but he acted as though he didn’t hear her. The kids missed him at bedtime when she tucked them in by herself, and she didn’t know what to say to them when they asked what was wrong with their father.
He was standing on the balcony, watching the stars, engulfed in sorrow when he heard Charlotte pad quietly behind him. “A penny for your thoughts?” she asked, hugging him tenderly. He said nothing, but reached for her hand, massaging her fingers. “How can I help you if you won’t open up to me, honeybear?” she asked him. She felt him sigh deeply and watched his shoulders heave. She turned him around to see tears in his eyes, obviously tortured by the death of his best friend. “I’m sorry about Emmitt, baby.” She snuggled into his embrace, feeling his hot tears dripping onto her head.
“Why didn’t she call me? I would have gone.” He finally broke his silence, sobbing. “I would have gone…”
“I don’t know, honey,” she said, holding him.
“I was always going to call him. But I never did. He never even knew about you.” He sniffled, holding back sadness.
“Shhh, it’s okay, love,” she tried to comfort him.
“It’s not okay. I failed him in so many ways. I should have called him. Maybe he would have come to our wedding. If only I could have gotten him away from that place…” He hugged her tightly, so tightly she couldn’t breathe.
“Travis, you’re… holding me too tightly…” she tried to squirm away from him, but she couldn’t break his grasp. “Travis… let me… go.” she struggled to breathe. She pushed his arms, tried to break him out of his sorrow, but he held her tightly. “Travis…” she whispered.
He suddenly realized where he was and what he was doing… “Honey!” he gently shook her, and she gasped for breath. “Baby, I’m so sorry.” He held her face in his hands and kissed her. “Charlotte. I’m sorry.”
“Oh Travis, you don’t know your own strength, baby.” She heaved, trying to catch her breath. He picked her up and carried her into the suite, and laid her on the bed.
“Did I hurt you?” He looked her over and saw that she didn’t appear injured. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’ll be okay in a minute.” He realized at that moment how fragile she was, and how easily he could overpower her. As her breathing normalized and she felt better, he sat on the bed with her.
“I’m so sorry Charlotte,” he apologized. “It never occurred to me that I could actually hurt you like that.” He caressed her cheek. “I’m sorry I’ve been so away from myself, honey. Seeing Talia was a shock, and then she dropped that news on me like a bomb. I wasn’t prepared.”
She nodded her head. “It’s okay, baby. I understand.”
“It was almost like the last part of my childhood died today. The only good parts of it are gone. Talia was different, almost like I didn’t know her. And then, Emmitt. Amy. They’re gone.”
“But I’m still here. Your three children are here. Your family. I love you so much, Travis. Come back to me.”
“He was my best friend. I have no one left.”
“Aren’t I your best friend, baby?”
“Of course. It’s not the same, though. You have your friends you grew up with at home. I have absolutely no one left. Emmitt is gone. Neil betrayed me in the worst possible way. After what Paolo said, I can’t trust anyone else on the team or at work…”
“What about Trey Smith?” Charlotte remembered the only other guy on the team who Travis seemed to have any fondness for.
“Yeah, Smitty is a good guy. He likes you, and he seems to respect me enough that he didn’t talk about you like that.” She kissed him and hugged him close. “I just don’t know which way is up anymore.”
“It sounds like a good old fashioned mid-life crisis, Travis.” Psychology was not her forte, but she recognized the signs of it from her male co-workers, triggered by the death of his friend. Except she was secure knowing he would not step out on her.
“You think so?” He chuckled a little. “You know, that means I get to trade you in for two 20s and upgrade that fancy sports car.”
She shoved him and laughed. “You can have a sports car, but you’re stuck with just one of me.”
“I’m never stuck when it comes to you, my love.” He kissed her. “I’m sorry I was in a funk all day.”
“It’s all good, sweetie. The only bad thing is, we are leaving tomorrow afternoon. The time with the kids is lost on this trip. I know things happen. We never expected to see your sister.”
“I’ll make it up to them somehow.” He pulled her close. “But now, I’ll make it up to you,” he said, kissing her.
The phone in the master bedroom rang at six o’clock in the morning, and Rosa’s cheerful voice sounded on the other end. “Good morning, Mr. Jones! This is Rosa with your wake up call.”
“Thank you, Rosa,” Travis said, fumbling to place the receiver back on the hook. “I forgot to tell her not to call me this morning.” He wrapped himself around Charlotte and accidentally tickled her.
“Hey now!” she giggled. “No tickling until noon!” She sighed, realizing there was much to do and not much time to do it. “I guess we should wake the kids.”
Travis yawned. He and Charlotte stayed up most of the night talking, and he was sleepy. Without thinking twice, he dialed the number for the concierge desk, and Rosa answered.
“Hey Rosa, Travis Jones. Could you kindly send up some coffee for Charlotte and me, while we get these ornery kids out of bed?” He giggled, knowing she would laugh.
“Of course, Mr. Jones!” she beamed. “I’ll wheel a cart out there personally. It would be my pleasure.”
“Thanks, love,” he told her, and hung up the phone.
Charlotte gave him the look. “And who are you calling love, besides me, hmm?”
“My other girlfriend, Rosa,” he laughed. She picked up the closest pillow and socked him with it, and then threw it on the bed. He wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled her. “Have I told you lately how much I love you, Charlotte?”
“No, do tell,” she said, flirting with him. He was about to kiss her neck when Rosa knocked on the door. “Saved by the door,” she teased.
“Good morning Rosa,” Travis said happily. “Thank you for your personal service and attention. You’ve outdone yourself on this trip.”
“Oh, Mr. Jones,” she blushed. “I’m just doing my job.”
“Please, call me Travis.”
“I would feel funny, Mr. Jones. How about I call you Mr. Travis?”
“Fair enough!” he laughed. “We’ll see you in a bit to check out.”
“Okay, Mr. Travis!” She beamed, almost skipping from their door.
“I’ll go get the kids up, you pour the coffee, love.” Charlotte sang as she walked to the kids’ room.
They all ate breakfast together, everything that had been leftover from the previous morning, with fresh juice that Rosa had brought for the kids, with the coffee. Charlotte set out clean outfits for everyone and as they got into the shower, she packed what they had been wearing into the suitcase, until everything was packed away and ready for the bellhop to retrieve. Anything that was left got stashed into their one carry on bag, and after Charlotte had done one last look around to make sure everything was packed and taken, they walked to the front to check out and catch their shuttle to the airport.
Rosa saw the family coming and was already teary-eyed by the time they all got to her desk. “Oh, Mr. Travis, thank you for coming back and bringing your lovely family with you this time. I will still never forget you.” She hugged him, and then Charlotte.
“Thank you for having us back, Rosa. Hopefully, this won’t be our last time here. We plan on making it back at least once a year,” Charlotte told her. “That will make it seem like our second home is here.”
“You are welcome any time! Your shuttle will be here momentarily.” Travis gathered the kids in front of Rosa’s desk, and took pictures of Charlotte, Rosa, and the kids together, and then Rosa took pictures with him in them instead of her. “Such a beautiful family,” she fawned over them. Two minutes later, the shuttle driver came in to gather the Jones family, and Rosa gave them all one last hug.
“Please tell Jayna we said good luck!” Charlotte said. “And that I’ll be in touch.”
“I will do that Mrs. Charlotte!” Rosa waved as they left the lobby, wiping her tears.
Once they were on the shuttle, Travis spoke up. “Kids, I’m sorry about yesterday. I wasn’t expecting to see your aunt, and she had some bad news for me. I’ll make this up to you the next time we come here. Maybe you’ll appreciate it a little more, and I promise, we’ll come long enough to scuba dive, okay, Danae?”
“It’s okay Daddy,” she said. “And I can’t wait to come back.” The other two kids nodded in agreement, and they all held hands on the way to the airport, talking excitedly about the next trip.