One last summer, p.1
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       One Last Summer, p.1

           Jo Noelle
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One Last Summer
Chapter 1

  Jenna Brennan

  The loud-speakers crackle over the noise in the concourse. “Flight number 211 from Anchorage to Seattle has been delayed for approximately two hours. Please watch the flight monitors for updates.”

  A collective moan permeates the air as travelers at our gate realize they’ll miss all their connections. Apparently, our plane has been grounded, which does not inspire confidence in air travel since that same plane just landed an hour ago, and we will either board a different plane being sent here, or we’ll have to wait while a new part is installed. New plane, please.

  The woman next to me pulls out an iPad as I take out my phone to text Cole. You’ll have to miss me for a couple more hours. Something niggles my brain—I hope he’s missed me, but I have some doubt. I wonder how he feels about me working there this summer—we’ll be around each other a lot. He’s probably fine, and I’m worrying over nothing.

  And really, I’m only going because Uncle Walter called me every day for a week suggesting, then asking, then begging me to come out and work one more year.

  Each time, I could see Uncle Walter in my head. When I first met him, he was tall and strong, his hair salted with gray. Over the years, he’s aged when I’ve returned. His wrinkles deepened and multiplied. The gray overtook the brown, and his thick hair receded at the temples. The features of his face are still there in his square jawline and classic nose. His smile is large, but his lips are thin, matching his dry sense of humor. I wonder how he’s aged this time. That’s why I couldn’t say no—I want to be around him before I can’t anymore.

  I finish my text to Cole and send it. The plane broke. I’ll send you the new arrival time when I know.

  My phone pings right away with Cole’s reply: Better late than dead. See you soon. The lighthearted response calms my nerves about being around him again.

  I start scrolling through Facebook, but there’s nothing really new to look at since I checked it five minutes ago. Out of the corner of my eye, I glance at the iPad. That’s Gwyneth Paltrow. I love Emma! I should have downloaded movies. Maybe I have a new email. Nope.

  My fingers drum on the back of my phone. I toss it in my bag, deciding to make a new friend, then tap the woman on the shoulder. “Can I watch with you?” I try to give her my most sincere I’m-not-a-crazy-person smile.

  She pulls the earbuds from the speaker jack. “Oh, sure, honey. Scoot close.” She turns up the sound surprisingly loud, holding the device between us.

  Near the end of the movie, they announce that our flight will be boarding in twenty minutes. We’ll have just enough time to finish, and I return my eyes to the small screen to watch as one of my favorite scenes comes on.

  Emma is praying that if she cannot have her Mr. Knightley, then he should remain single all his life and never marry, and neither would she. Their friendship would last forever.

  The woman whispers loudly, “How can she not see that she’s in love with him? They’ve been friends forever. But she’s in love.” Then she covers her mouth. “I’m not spoiling this for you, am I?”

  “No. I’ve seen this one a few times.” It makes me laugh how crazy things were in Regency times.

  The credits roll, and boarding is called for my section. “Thanks for letting me watch. That movie never gets old.”

  “Nice to have company. Enjoy your trip.” She gathers her bags and joins the line for first-class passengers as I move to the general boarding line. She must have stayed past her call to let me watch the end of the movie.

  The plane is almost full when I approach my aisle, marked by a balding mid-forties man sporting a slick black comb-over. One of my mom’s so-called proverbs jumps forward in my mind: Never judge a man’s looks until you’ve weighed his wallet.

  My own thought is quick to snap back. But I can judge him by his lecherous eyes roving over me top to bottom. She would have noted that his clothes were casual but not wearing out on the knees or hem, that his shoes were new, that he wore an expensive watch. She would have given him a chance to be my next dad. Eww.

  I’m glad he’s sitting on the aisle. Apparently, no one told him that you shouldn’t eat onions before you board a flight—the odor hovers around him as I scoot past the middle chair and drop into my window seat.

  A few minutes later, a woman hobbles toward us with a crutch under one arm, checking and rechecking her boarding pass. “I think you’re in my seat,” she says to the man.

  He looks down at her right leg in a knee brace. “Looks like you won’t want to switch seats with me,” he says, but still sounds like he wants her to.

  She shakes her head, and he moves to the middle. “Doesn’t hurt to sit between two attractive women.” In the process, he flips up the armrest between his seat and mine. “That’ll give us a little more room,” he adds with a wink.

  Only if he plans to sit on my seat. “No, thanks.” Suppressing a shiver, I pull it back down. I’m not a thigh-touch kind of person. I give him a bright smile so he doesn’t take offense. Even if the flight from Anchorage to SeaTac is less than four hours, we still have to be neighbors for that long.

  “Want a mint?” he asks, holding a small box toward me, where there are only three mints left. If his breath were animated, there would be gray and brown worms slithering through decaying roadkill. He’s going to need them all.

  “No.” I squeeze out the word and reach above me to twist open the air jet to dilute the smell before I have to inhale. It’s either freeze or gag—I’ll take the Arctic air.

  When the pilot announces that we’re ready for departure, I pull out my phone and send a text to Cole before the cabin door is shut: Already had a border dispute. My flight lands at two twenty this afternoon. See you. I hit send, then set the phone to airplane mode.

  I miss Cole. We’ve spent every summer together since we were ten, when I began visiting Uncle Walter at the cottages. His nutmeg-brown hair never quite short enough to stay out of his eyes, Cole was there doing odd jobs while his mom cleaned the cabins. He was all knees and elbows, running through the trees and cabins or racing me to the beach. Cole always had a scab somewhere, and a harrowing story to go with it.

  We made forts out of the clean sheets—more than once, even though Walter yelled every time—and wandered around in the forest for hours.

  Near the end, a week before we said good-bye, Cole gave me a story he wrote about a beautiful (aww) seagull named Jenna (me) who married an otter named (yup) Cole.

  His mom and Uncle Walter got a kick out of teasing us about that. I tried to shrug it off, but when I got home, I put the papers in my wooden treasure box.

  The year we were thirteen, we made plans to have a fishing business, harvesting clams and oysters until we had enough money to buy a boat and shrimp cages. We’d make a fortune, and it would cost us nothing. We sat on a boulder and wrote out ideas in a notebook.

  With our heads bent together and our arms or legs brushing against each other’s, I noticed that Cole was a guy, and dreamed of getting my first kiss on this beach from him.

  The next summer when I came back, he’d noticed girls. His friends from school came down to the cottages often, and if I wanted to be around Cole, I had to go with the group.

  The day of the bonfire broke my heart. After eating hot dogs, throwing fries, and shaking soda cans so they’d explode, he’d slipped off with one of the girls, but not far enough away that I couldn’t watch them kiss. My heart shriveled while they stood on our beach lip to lip.

  Who falls in love when they’re fourteen, anyway?

  I thought I had.

  I ran across the seagull story the other day, and homesickness for my best friend kicked in. I hope that’s what he still is. Two summers ago, we were dating, but after
last summer, I wouldn’t blame him if he shifts my status to coworker.

  Last year, I didn’t go to Washington because of an internship in Colorado I needed to complete my hospitality degree. I’m lying to myself, and I know it. I wasn’t ready emotionally, but he was, so I ran. While it’s true that I had an internship, the reason I arranged it was to stay away from Washington, and away from him. Before I can consider those thoughts too deeply, I tuck the feelings away—far, far away.

  And now that we’ve both finished college, this will be the last summer we spend together. I’ve taken a job managing a lodge in Idaho, starting in September.

  The plane pushes back from the gate, and soon we’re rumbling down the runway to take off. The lecher beside me pretends to be looking out the window, but he’s clearly eyeing my shirt. I slam the window shade down, so he doesn’t have the excuse to look this way, and fold my arms across my chest tightly to reduce the jiggle.

  “Bumpy takeoff, huh?” Lecher-guy gives a creepy laugh.

  Ugh, I hate that. My mom’s voice interrupts again. Let a man appreciate your body—it’s your most powerful weapon. That might be some of the worse advice my mother ever gave. I turn away and stare out the widow by the seat in front of me.

  The minutes pass slowly, but I’m learning some life lessons. Always download enough movies to keep you looking busy for the entire length of the flight. Earbuds don’t completely mute unwelcome flirting from the guy next door. Generosity is not expected—no, I don’t want your mints, magazine, peanuts, overpriced cheese snack, or the rant that goes with the airline gouging you for said snacks.

  From the air, the Cascade Range resembles a green shag carpet sculpted in an indecipherable pattern instead of the valleys and towering peaks I’ve spent my summers exploring.

  Maybe if I keep staring out this window, the guy in the next seat will take a hint and stop flirting, although now I feel sorry for the woman in the aisle seat. When he’s not trying to get my attention, he tries to get hers. Apparently, he doesn’t like to fly and has kept a steady stream of drinks coming his way.

  Suddenly, a completely new pungent odor assaults me. Of course it’s the guy—he’s kicked his shoes off.

  The flight attendant responds to my call light. “May I help you?” he asks as he pushes the signal off.

  “Is there a vacant seat where I could move?” I smile sweetly. Is it appropriate to slip him a twenty?

  “Hey, you can’t leave. We were just getting to know each other,” Dirty-sock Lush says.

  I recoil at his comment and try again. “Anywhere? I’ll even sit by the bathrooms.” Oh, please, please, please.

  “I’m sorry. Every seat is full.” The flight attendant gives me an understanding look, then moves away.

  “See there—ith’s a sign. Maybe you should—maybe you should give me—your number, and we could spend a little time together in Seattle. How long are you staying?”

  Ew, no! “I won’t be seeing you after this flight.”

  The woman seated on the other side of him adds, “And put on your shoes. You stink.”

  A flash of shock crosses his face, but thankfully, the speaker crackles to life with the pilot’s voice. “We’re making our final approach to SeaTac International. We’ll be landing at two seventeen p.m. local time. The temperature is fifty-eight degrees. Flight crew, please make your final check of the cabin and prepare for landing.”

  Yay! Home stretch.

  Puget Sound sparkles like diamonds out my window, but there are too many low clouds to see my beach farther west on Hood Canal. There’s no green like here, and I’ve missed it. What I love about Washington in the summer is that the part of the earth that isn’t covered with water, is covered with trees and grass.

  Alaska has this for a couple of months were everything goes crazy before it gets cold again.

  I can hardly wait to take my first breath outside—the air is fresh with a hint of salt. I lean back against the headrest to gaze out the window. Peace. Home. That’s what this place brings me, and I haven’t felt it for two years.

  When people ask me where I grew up, well, that’s not an easy question to answer. Before college, I lived in California with my mother. During college, I lived in Anchorage while attending the University of Alaska. Soon I’ll be moving to Idaho—I imagine I’ll do some growing up there too.

  When they ask me where’s home, that’s easy—my heart answers, Washington, and Misty Harbor Cottages specifically. The first time I saw them, I thought they all looked like dollhouses. Of course they’re bigger than that.

  Each one had a unique personality. One oldest one had a log cabin look and another was dressed up with frilly gingerbread adornments along the roof and porch. Since they stood near each other on the property, I thought they must be married. The smallest cottage was covered in steel blue shingles—it, of course, was their baby. The other three were trimmed with bright colors—green, blue, red. I imagined the six of them to be great friends. Each year as I drove up to Misty Harbor, the cottages were first to welcome me home.

  I knew Uncle Walter and Aunt Belle had a special love. My mom spoke of it. She always looked a little confused about it when she did. There was something at Misty Harbor to think about, maybe learn from because Uncle Walter loved me from our first meeting. He just decided to and has kept it up all these years.

  I think it was Thomas Wolfe who said you can’t go home again—I hope he’s wrong.

  It was thirty-nine degrees when I left Anchorage this morning, which felt like spring, and I considered not bringing my coat at all. Glad I did. As we make our descent, I pull it out from under the seat in front of me and wrap it across my chest to make a lecher blind. I’m hoping for a smooth landing, but take precautions anyway.

  As soon as I turn my phone back on, it dings with a message from Cole. I’ll be there in case you’re early.

  I send one more text as we taxi to a stop at the gangway. Meet me at the baggage claim.

  Since Comb-over is the middle seat, he’s supposed to go out before me, but instead, he steps back in the aisle and motions me to exit first. When I leave the gate and head to baggage claim, he’s a half-step behind me.

  He taps the small of my back and says, “Let’s get a bite to eat before we leave the airport.”

  “No.” I shiver with an inner cringe and take longer strides, hoping to outpace him.

  He catches up at the corner and stands behind me on the escalator, right behind me—like the very next tread. “You wanna share a cab?” he slurs over my shoulder.

  If he weren’t so drunk, he’d know I’m avoiding him. “No.” Who says you can’t walk down the down escalator? Since there’s no one in front of me, I do.

  Near the bottom, I see Cole standing by a luggage carousel, his camera raised, and his lips in a wide grin behind it. When the camera drops, he gives a small wave, and his smile is still huge as he walks toward me.

  Am I forgiven for last summer? My heart surges, and I can barely breathe—oh, I’ve missed him. Cole’s wearing his hair shorter than before, making his dark eyes stand out. I must be an eyes girl. His wiry frame has been replaced by lean muscle. Oh, maybe I’m an arms-girl.

  When my feet hit the tile floor, I’m practically speed walking toward him.

  The man’s voice behind me sounds shrill. “I’m staying at the Sheraton. Downtown.”

  Ignore. Ignore.

  I fall into Cole’s arms. Safe. His face is buried in my hair. When my chin lifts, his firm lips capture mine. His hands move to my cheeks, and I can’t help but tighten my arms around his neck. Home.

  The first crushing kiss has melted into a slow dance of his lips with mine. Then with a low growl I’m not positive I hear, he breaks the kiss, but thankfully doesn’t move away. I doubt I could stand with the dizzying spin in my head.

  Oh, that should never have happened. I swallow back confusion dipped in embarrassment. What was I thinking? It’s just that we’re so familiar
with each other. And I was trying to get away from the creep. If I were interested in loving one man for a lifetime, that kiss would have me considering marriage. But I’m not. And… how do I… just pretend it’s no big deal.

  His musky scent invites me to draw closer. I’m tempted to go with it, but knowing we have history that could jump right back into place, I’m afraid I’d end up running away from him again.

  I can still appreciate the kiss. I so did not know Cole well enough all these years. Ten minutes ago, Cole was just a boy I’ve known forever. Now, I can only think of him as a man. I’m sure he’s been that for years, but he’s a new person to me—and wow! I want to stand in his arms and feel him holding me to him. A part of me—not the rational part—wants us to give it another try.

  “Welcome back.” With a chuckle and an impish smile that looks so much like twelve-year-old Cole. He sounds as breathless as I feel. “I guess I missed my best friend more than I thought.” His words blow lightly across my cheek.

  Slight pink tinges his neck, but his arms relax, and I realize my fingers are twined in the hair at the base of his neck as he takes a step back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” Cole’s voice trails off.

  It’s been two whole minutes, and I’ve already kissed him. I can’t start up a relationship and then leave. Focus, Jenna. “Yeah.” I give a slight shake to my head as my pulse thunders. His kiss is complete pleasure, but with a memory of pain. “Me neither.” Unless I did.

  I stamp down the emotion from two years ago that’s threatening to break the surface as I turn toward the luggage carousel. Immediately, another one of the proverbs my mother lives by slithers into my thoughts. Never fall in love, only in like-a-lot, because one day, you’ll leave. “Let’s grab my bag and head out.”

  “I already got it.” Cole lifts it from behind him and beams toward me.

  Don’t look at his lips. I accidently just kissed those lips. “We literally landed five minutes ago, and I practically ran off the plane. “How did you get my bag?” Oh, I looked at his lips. “The luggage isn’t even on the carousel yet.”

  He shrugs casually. “I know a guy.” His voice sounds confident, but he’s still got a little blush to his ears.

  I probably still look pink too. “A guy can’t give you my bag. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”

  “He did. I win. Again.” He laughs and seems like a kid. Except in a hot twenty-three-year-old body.

  “We weren’t competing.” A powerful relief fills me. He’s still my friend.

  “I was. You owe me a drink.”

  We can both use one of those.

 
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