A Sample of Haley’s Story

Chapter 1

There was one guy I’d never date. Multiple valid reasons existed for having him on a never list, but inconveniently he was also the guy I compared all other guys to. Yes, it was weird. But I was sure it had nothing to do with why I was still single.

The day Zach Gallagher wandered into our yard, tossing a baseball up into the air, I fell in love. He was fourteen; I was ten.

I thought he hung the moon. But he never even looked twice in my direction. Big surprise there! I was, after all, only his friend’s kid sister.

Hank and Zach were best buds. Even after high school, that didn’t change. They were still friends to this day.

When I was fourteen, I’d mustered up almost enough nerve to ask Zach to the Sadie Hawkins dance—which was probably a lost cause because what senior was going to go to a dance with an eighth grader? Hank found out. That was when I learned about the rule. He wagged a finger at me and told me sisters were never allowed to date their brother’s best friend.

From that day on, Zach Gallagher was off-limits.

And Zach stayed on that never list way past high school—not that he was begging to be removed—because he treated me like Hank’s little sister and still called me Carrot. It didn’t matter that I was almost thirty.

With all that history, when Zach and his fiancée started arguing outside my apartment door, I had to eavesdrop. Lisa was my neighbor. No, it wasn’t awkward at all. I’d never actually bumped into them together. I just spied on them when they loitered outside my door.

Not tall enough to reach the peephole, I dragged the step stool close to the door. Zach and Lisa were in the right spot. I could see and hear.

“You care more about your friend than you do about me!” Lisa waved her arms, sobs making it hard to understand her.

She took a step toward her door but thankfully stopped. As long as they didn’t move any farther to the left, I could still see. My phone rang, and Zach glanced at my door.

I answered right away … mostly to silence my ringtone. It was an inconvenient time to have the Mavericks singing “All You Ever do is Bring Me Down.” But technically, it was a fitting song for the occasion.

I whispered a muffled, “Hello.”

My best friend Eve was dating a new guy and sounded so excited.

I tried to listen and engage in the conversation while still listening to Zach and Lisa. Poor Zach looked like he needed a hug.

“Remember how I told you about Zach dating my neighbor?”

“Yeah.” Eve never batted an eye when my conversation flitted from topic to topic.

I pulled away from the door to talk. The last thing I wanted was for Zach to recognize my voice. “They are standing in the breezeway outside the apartment. She doesn’t look happy.”

“Are you looking out your peephole?”

“So what if I am?” I kept my voice low so the couple in the hall couldn’t hear me.

“I thought you couldn’t stand that guy. He’s the one who treats you like a kid and calls you Carrot, right? Why do you care?”

Between answers, I watched the argument through the peephole but Eve’s voice in my ear made it impossible to hear. “I don’t care. It’s just—never mind. I’m happy for you. To me, it seems like having Adam call you from the station is an achievement unlocked.”

“It does a little. I didn’t expect it.”

With my attention divided between my friend on the phone and the argument in the hall, I stared through the peephole.

Zach threw his arms wide. “What did you want me to do? He . . . rough time.” I missed most of what he said because of Eve.

It probably made me a horrible friend, but I needed the call to end. “I’m going to let you go. With you talking, I can’t make out what the argument is about in the hall. Bye.” I ended the call before Eve could argue.

My neighbor’s door slammed, and Zach was left standing in the hall, staring at the ground. For a guy so tall and lean, he suddenly looked small.

Maybe I should feel guilty for spying. It was a good thing he didn’t know I lived here. It meant I could spy with anonymity. And this scene almost deserved popcorn. But the mention of a rough time had my thoughts spinning. Was Zach referring to my brother Hank?

When my neighbor’s door opened again and she tossed something at Zach, I pressed my eye closer. What had she thrown?

Zach bent down and picked up the small, shiny thing. I gasped when I realized it was a diamond ring.

His gaze shot to my door, and I backed away. Had he heard me? After a ten count, I leaned in again. He stuffed the ring in his pocket, and looking right at the peephole, he shrugged.

I felt horrible for the guy. His summer wasn’t going well.  Now he was also on someone else’s do-not-date list.

 

 

Chapter 2

When my brother was dating my business partner, I thought it was great, and not only because I’d been the one to introduce them. But now that they were divorced, awkward didn’t begin to describe the situation.

Thankfully, they both behaved like adults.

I packed up my camera gear before shutting down the computer. Asking about the holiday carried a risk, but I asked anyway. “Big plans for Thanksgiving?”

Nacha looked up from her computer and rubbed her eyes. “Not really. I’ll pick up a holiday plate from a restaurant.”

I hated that she’d spend the holiday alone, but since I was spending it with my brother, inviting her along seemed cruel. “Have fun. I’ll see you back here on Monday.”

She caught me arm before I stepped away. “Could you maybe not tell him I’ll be alone?”

“I won’t.” And it would be easy not to because Hank never asked about Nacha. Never. That was all kinds of weird.

As I drove home, I called Eve. The call rolled to voicemail. She was probably too busy playing kissy face with her boyfriend to notice the phone—not that I blamed her. If I had a guy of my own, I’d be doing the same thing. I left a message. “Like I told you, I’m spending Thanksgiving with Hank. He asked, and I didn’t feel like I could tell him no. Anyway, I’ll be at his place. Tonight and tomorrow night. It’s just easier to stay over there. Call me later, k?” I ended the call.

This was the first Thanksgiving in a long while I hadn’t spent with Eve. After my parents died, her family welcomed me at every holiday meal. And her mom’s blackberry swirl cheesecake was reason enough to return every year. But I couldn’t in good conscience leave my brother all alone on Thanksgiving. He’d spend the whole day moping, and I’d feel guilty.

As I pulled into my parking lot, the phone rang. “Hey, Hank. I’m stopping to grab my stuff, then I’ll head your way.”

“Change of plans. The weather is perfect, so I booked a campsite.” He wasn’t laughing. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“How are we going to cook a Thanksgiving meal at a campsite?” I may have raised my voice a tiny bit.

Thanksgiving required turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie. Everything else was optional.

“Same way the cavemen did it.” Now he was laughing.

“Ignoring the fact that cavemen didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I’ve never cooked over an open fire. I wouldn’t know how to make your favorite dishes that way.” I was in no way opposed to bribery as a way of getting out of camping.

“We’ll all figure it out.”

All? That made it sound like more people were coming. Was it too late to wiggle my way out of the invitation?

“You’re still going to spend Thanksgiving with your favorite brother, right?” He sounded a little hurt.

“You’re my only sibling.” Deadpanning was a language he understood.

Shuffling came through the line. “Then we should definitely spend time together.” It’s what Mom and Dad would want. He hadn’t said that last part, but the implication was there, veiled in the humor. “Oh, and Zach is coming. Can you maybe not follow him around with that silly grin on your face?”

“I haven’t done that since middle school.” My gut said there would be significant regrets about agreeing to this camping trip.

“Be ready by two. I’ll pick you up.” He ended the call before I could argue.

Sighing I trudged to my door. Hopefully the internet would offer guidance on what to pack.

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting on my suitcase, trying to latch it. Hank would laugh at me for overpacking, but it didn’t matter what he thought.

Right at two, there was a knock at the door.

“Come in. It’s unlocked.” I bounced one more time, and the latch on the suitcase finally caught. “No cracks about how heavy my stuff is. You didn’t give me much notice, and I wasn’t sure what to take.” I looked up, ready to slap down his comments.

Zach lifted his cowboy hat and smoothed his hair. “Hey there, Carrot.”

“What are you doing here?” My heart used my stomach as a trampoline then tried to come up my throat.

His eyes narrowed. He glanced at my bags then at the neighbor’s door. “Let’s get your stuff and go before she emerges from her den. I didn’t bring any bear spray.”

“Sure. Okay.” Horror metastasized as I remembered him looking at the peephole. Maybe he wouldn’t remember.

He picked up my suitcase and groaned. “Did you pack rocks?”

“Very funny.” I locked my apartment and followed him out to his truck.

We were both buckled in before he spoke again. “You still have that stuffed dog I gave you, huh?”

Was he some kind of super spy? His focus had been on my luggage most of the time.

I was twelve when my dog Comet died, and I’d cried for a week. It felt like my world had ended. I loved that dog. Zach had shown up with a stuffed animal that looked like a mini of my dog. He’d handed it over with hardly a word, but to me, the gesture meant the world.

I planned to keep that dog forever. It was almost always nestled into the corner of my couch. “It makes me think of Comet.” That was partially true. And you. That was the part I didn’t say.

“He was a good dog.”

“The best.”

Seemingly allergic to serious conversations, Zach changed the subject. “Your brother said he’d meet us out there.”

“I didn’t know you were camping with us. Shoot, until just a bit ago, I didn’t know I was camping.” I tried not to spit out the word camping with the distaste I felt.

“Really? Hank called me about it last month.” He crinkled his nose. “Sorry. I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”

“I can’t wait until Hank shows up.”

We passed familiar landmarks and headed out of town.

“Don’t be too hard on him. He’s excited about taking you camping.” Zach drummed on the steering wheel. “I’m sorry he didn’t tell you. I thought he had.”

“How long until we get there?”

He chuckled. “We’ll get there when we get there.”

“Where is Hank? Why didn’t he pick me up?” Crushing on someone I’d sworn never to date was weird, and because of that, I didn’t like being around Zach … especially not alone. His green eyes and deep laugh tied my emotions in knots. And when he tousled my red curls and flashed his patronizing smile, irritation jabbed me like a pebble in my shoe.

“You’re making me feel bad, Carrot. It’s almost like you don’t want me around.”

“That’s not it. It’s just …” I couldn’t exactly tell him the truth.

“Hank got a call from work, and I volunteered to babysit until he could join us.”

I wanted to crawl under the seat. “Gee thanks.”

His patronizing grin begged to be slapped. “You still working with Hank’s ex?”

“She was my partner before he dated her, before he married her, and before she divorced him. Just because they broke up, doesn’t mean my business partnership exploded.” I crossed my arms, wishing I’d tempered my snark.

“Awkward, huh?” Zach ran his fingers through his short brown hair. “Sorry he put you in that position.”

“Yeah.”

The conversation died down after that. The rest of the drive was quiet. Time to think was not what I needed. Why hadn’t my brother said something about camping? Would Eve drive out and pick me up if I asked nicely? What did Zach look like without a shirt?

Ugh! My thoughts were dangerous.

Zach showed the gate attendant a pass then drove through the campground. We passed the restrooms, and it dawned on me that I’d have to walk there. At least I didn’t have to hide behind a tree.

We passed clearing after clearing with numbers etched in wooden posts.

Finally, he turned and parked.

“What was wrong with all those spaces? The ones closer to the restrooms.”

“You don’t want to be by the restrooms. Besides, this is the spot we were assigned.”

I hopped out of the truck, scraping together a good attitude. “What now?”

“Let’s walk a bit before I unload and start dinner.” Zach picked up his cowboy hat off the dash an popped it back on his head. “I’ll show you the lay of the land.”

“You mean there is something out here other than trees and dirt?” After his comment about babysitting, I didn’t feel compelled to be nice. I didn’t have enough good attitude for that. Not yet.

“Wildlife, flowers, and your favorite deputy.” He patted his chest. “Grab your camera. You’ll like it.”

“I thought you were an investigator now.” I debated about which lens to put on.

“I am. It’s kind of sweet that you’ve kept up with my career.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” I opted for a telephoto lens. “I’m ready.”

“Somebody didn’t get a nap today.” He nodded toward a trail that disappeared behind a stand of trees. “Let’s head that way. I’ll show you the river.”

Throwing my hands into the air, I stomped. “That’s enough already. I’m so sick of you and Hank treating me like I’m still ten. I’m not.” I hadn’t been camping even five minutes, and I’d completely embarrassed myself by acting like I was two.

To make matters worse, Zach gave me a once over. Seriously?

He quirked an eyebrow. “Clearly.” Without looking back, he took off down the trail.

I followed but didn’t race to keep up. The sun was still well above the trees. How hard could it be to find my way around?

Sunlight flickered through the canopy of branches. My camera clicked as I captured images of the beauty around us.

Zach stopped ahead, waiting. With his cowboy hat and boots, he made quite the picture … the perfect photo opportunity. My camera clicked again as I snagged that moment in time.

He looked back over his shoulder. “You coming?”

“I’m going to wander in here a bit. That stump is calling my name.” A ray of light spotlighted a weathered stump. I shoved through a few vines and made my way closer to what was left of the old tree.

“Carrot, stop. Be careful!” Zach maneuvered his way through the trees. “You don’t want to get into poison oak. It’s best to stick to the trails.”

“What does poison oak look like? I’ll avoid it.”

He pointed toward the vines I’d just pushed through. “That’s poison oak.”

“Crap.”

Leaves rustled right behind me, and I spun around, startled by the noise. My ankle twisted, and gravity took over. Pain exploded in my side.

Fighting tears, I tried shoving myself off the ground. “Ouch!”

“You’re a special kind of talented, aren’t you?” Zach reached down. “Give me your hand—the one without the cactus spines in it.”

Landing in a cactus only added insult to injury.

“But I managed to save my camera.”

Zach shook his head. “Let’s get you back to camp.”

I waved away his help. “I’ll be okay.”

“Don’t be stubborn. You have cactus spines sticking out of your arm and your side.” He stepped closer. “And you can barely stand up.”

That gave me the gumption to prove him wrong. I shoved up off the ground. Putting weight on my foot made my ankle scream in agony. “But I can walk.” I was nothing if not stubborn.

“Let me at least pull the spines out.”

I looked over my shoulder, trying to get a look. Resigned, I nodded.

He was much too close. “It’s going to hurt.”

“Do it already.”

He lifted my shirt, and I jumped away. “What are you doing?”

“I have to pull them out of you, not your shirt.”

I moved back toward him again. “Oh.”

With my shirt up, and my super pale skin exposed, Zach plucked out each spine. I set my jaw and managed not to scream. He ran his fingers over my skin, and I had to fight a different urge.

I lost the battle. Giggles exploded, and with tears flowing, I wriggled, unable to stop laughing.

Zach furrowed his brow. “Are you crying or laughing?”

I’d never seen a more confused man. “Yes. It hurts, and I’m super ticklish.”

He jerked his hand away. “That’s the best I can do right now. I hope that wasn’t your favorite shirt.”

“Why? Are there holes in it now?”

“I’m not sure the blood will wash out.”

“Blood?”

“In my line of work, I’ve learned that people typically bleed when stabbed.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” I limped toward the trail. “Thanks for yanking them out.”

He walked along beside me, and I think he had to walk backward every third step to keep up with me. “You realize that we’re being outpaced by that snail.”

“I’m sorry. This is as fast I can move right now.”

“We’ll get back to camp a lot quicker if you let me carry you.” He gave me the once over again. “You’d be pretty easy to carry.”

Staring down the trail, I traded my last shred of dignity for a break from the pain. “All right.”


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