“Are you happy?” my friend Lucy asks, and I instinctively tighten my fingers around my cell phone as I put my bare feet up on the wooden rail in front of me. I’ve lived most of my life in the city, surrounded by skyscrapers and the constant sound of chatter and traffic, with air clogged with the scents of food and exhaust. Now, sitting on the back deck of my studio apartment in a small coastal town in South Carolina, with the ocean mere feet away, the sun warming my skin, and a slight breeze playing in my hair, I wonder how I survived in Chicago for so long.
“I’m getting there,” I answer, smiling as I watch a young family laughing and playing in the surf nearby.
“Even living in a small studio apartment and working at a bakery?” She sounds skeptical, and I remind myself she just doesn’t understand. Like everyone else back in Chicago, she doesn’t get why I’d choose to go from making over $60,000 a year, living in a beautiful penthouse apartment, planning a wedding to a good man—who also happens to be gorgeous—to moving to a town where I know almost no one. Where I’m renting an apartment the size of my old bathroom and working a job that pays in a month what I used to make in a week.
“Even living in an apartment and working at the bakery,” I reply, keeping my tone neutral before adding quietly, “I do miss you, though.” It’s not a lie: Lucy has been in my life since I can remember. Our parents were friends, so we practically grew up together.
“I still don’t get it,” she says with a sigh, and my heart sinks. I keep hoping she will, but as the months pass, it’s becoming more and more clear that she won’t. None of my friends or family do. They don’t understand that I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to give everything up. Every day for years, I woke up and looked at myself in the mirror, disliking the materialistic, shallow woman I was becoming. Until one day I decided to do something about it.
“I should let you go. I’m sure you have stuff to do, and I promised Edie that I’d go with her to bingo.”
“Bingo? You’re playing bingo?” She laughs.
I can’t help the smile that tips up my lips. “Yeah, it’s actually kind of fun.”
“If you say so,” she says, sounding distracted, and then a moment later, a distinctive male voice in the background asks her something, and I know it’s Lance, my ex-fiancé, who’s a partner at her firm. “Sorry, I gotta go, Anna.”
“No problem,” I tell her, feeling nauseous. “Bye.” I hang up before she has a chance to reply and then sit forward, dropping my head into my hands as I think back to the look on Lance’s face when I gave him back his ring and told him that we were over. He didn’t say a word and walked away, looking devastated.
The hardest part about leaving Chicago wasn’t the lifestyle I was giving up; it was losing him. Even though I wasn’t in love with him, he was my friend. For the five years we were in a relationship, he was a constant in my life, someone I depended on for support, and he was one of the few people who understood the dysfunctional relationship I had with my parents and encouraged me to take a step back from them when they hurt me with their carelessness.
Not wanting to spend the day dwelling on something that would leave me depressed, I pull in a deep breath, expecting to inhale the fresh sea air, but my nose wrinkles when the distinct scent of pot hits me. I open my eyes, get up from my lounger, and stop midway across the deck when a big puff of smoke floats up from the porch below. I walk quietly to the edge and look over the rail, wondering if someone from the beach has decided to hide out and get high.
But then I shake my head when I see Dixie and Pearl, my landlady Edie’s best friends, who are in their seventies, standing at her back door and sharing what looks like a joint: an object that seems out of place, given their grandmotherly appearance. Both women are dressed like they’re about to go golfing, in their pastel polo shirts and khaki capris, all capped by white hair that’s styled, like always, in an array of curls.
“Isn’t weed illegal?”
Both women jump, and Dixie, who’s holding the joint, tosses it away, yelling “Oh shit!” while Pearl screams, searching until she finds me on the deck above.
“Anna!” Pearl says, glaring. “You scared the dickens out of me.”
“Dickens,” Dixie says with a giggle as the back door opens.
“What on earth is going on out here?” Edie asks, stepping outside wearing a white linen outfit with her short hair feathered back from a gracefully aging face.
“Anna tried to give us heart attacks,” Pearl says accusingly, pointing up at me, and Edie tips her head back, smiling when she spots me.
Edie was the first person I met when I moved to South Carolina. She had an apartment for rent in her house, and when I answered the ad, she invited me over to view the space. I fell in love with it because it was right on the beach, but after spending an hour with her, I also wanted the apartment because it would give me an excuse to spend time with her. I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to her at first, but something about being in her presence made me feel hopeful.
Then one night, over wine, she opened up about her past and told me about her ex-husband, who she was with for more than twenty years before she found the courage to leave him. And when she did, she found a way to be happy, even when he and her family were all sure she would come back with her tail tucked between her legs. I guess her story gave me the hope to fight for my own happiness.
“They’re smoking weed,” I inform her, waving my hand at both women.
“I have glaucoma.” Pearl plants her hands on her hips.
“Really?” I ask, and her eyes narrow on mine in challenge.
“It’s time for us to go anyway,” Edie announces.
“Found it!” Dixie shouts, and Pearl breaks her stare-down with me to turn to her friend, who holds up the joint like it’s a trophy.
“Anna.” My eyes move to Edie. “Meet us at the car. I want to get to the bingo hall before Carol so she doesn’t take our table.”
“That woman is annoying,” Dixie mutters.
“She’s such a show-off,” Pearl says, taking the joint from Dixie and wrapping what’s left of it in a tissue she pulls from her bra. “Who cares that you have five grandkids when they don’t even like you?”
“Right!” Dixie agrees while opening the door for Pearl to go inside before her.
“Meet us in the driveway,” Edie says, and I narrow my eyes on hers. “What?”
“I notice you’re not saying anything about them smoking pot. Did you smoke with
“Not today.” She winks, then disappears inside. I watch the door close behind her, unsure if she’s joking. She, Pearl, and Dixie might all be older than me, but you’d never know by the way they act and the things they say.
“Well, today should be interesting,” I sigh to myself before going into my apartment and shutting the door. I walk between my bed and the open kitchen to the closet and slide my feet into a pair of flip-flops before grabbing a plaid button-down shirt and tying it around my waist.
I learned the first time Edie dragged me to the bingo hall that they keep the room a degree above freezing—something that wouldn’t have been bad if I hadn’t dressed for the heat and humidity outside. I stop and grab my keys, along with my purse, then lock up before taking the stairs down to the driveway, where Edie, Dixie, and Pearl are waiting.
“I can drive.” I hold up the keys to my Ford, and they all turn in my direction.
“Where’s the rest of your shorts?” Pearl asks, and I look down at my denim cutoffs, which are short but not any shorter than what girls wear nowadays.
Still, they’re shorter than anything I would’ve worn a year ago. “Oh, stop. If you had legs like hers, you’d show them off too,” Edie scolds, and I glance up, catching her shaking her head at her friend before she looks at me. “Anna, you drive like an old lady. You’re riding shotgun. Get in.” She presses a button on her keys, and the doors unlock.
“I don’t drive like an old lady,” I say to defend myself as I open the door to her red BMW convertible and pull the seat forward for Pearl and Dixie to get in the back.
“The last time I rode with you, you drove thirty in a fifty.”
“It was a construction zone. I was following the rules.”
“It was after eight at night. They weren’t even working.”
“Whatever.” I push the seat back into place and get in. I reach for my seat belt as she starts the engine and lowers the roof. As soon as the top locks into place, she backs out of the driveway, and I’m reaching out for the handle on the door when I hear her laugh.
“Relax, child. I’ve never gotten in an accident.”
“Really?” I glance at her quickly, not wanting to take my eyes off the road,
even though I’m not the one driving.
“Well . . . maybe I should say I have never gotten into an accident that was my
“That sounds a little more believable,” I reply, then pull in a sharp breath as she turns onto the on-ramp for the highway and presses her foot more firmly on the gas. I hold my breath as she merges into traffic and then squeeze my eyes closed as she zooms forward to pass in front of a semi. I feel the car start to slow and open my eyes.
I release the breath I’ve been holding as we take the next exit and stop at a red light. When the light turns green, my fingers tighten on the handle of the door, turning my knuckles white as she takes a right and presses the gas once more. I start to pray when she hugs the bumper of the car in front of us, and then my heart drops into my stomach when I hear the distinctive sound of police sirens.
“Oh shit,” comes from the back seat as Edie pulls over and places the car in park. I look over my shoulder and watch Pearl reach into her shirt, pull out a white tissue, and shove it under the seat in front of her.
Oh my God. “Was that your joint?” I shout, and Pearl glares at me.
“Just be cool. This isn’t a big deal.” Edie wraps her hand around my upper leg,
and I focus on her and nod, not feeling cool at all. My leg starts to bounce as
we wait for the officer to get out of his car, and by the time he gets to Edie’s window, it’s jumping like crazy.
A deep voice greets us, and I turn my head, noticing first the long, masculine fingers wrapped around the top of the door, then dark jeans, a black belt with a badge attached, and a form-fitting blue button-down that’s tucked in, making it clear the guy is fit. I slowly lift my head as I take in his broad shoulders, and my heart starts to pound for a different reason when I reach his face. Holy wow, even with his eyes covered with a pair of silver aviators that look amazing on him, he’s still heart-stoppingly gorgeous. I stare at him, unsure if it’s his dark hair, sharp jaw, or full lips that have me entranced. All I know is it’s a good thing he has those glasses on. I don’t think I could handle seeing all of him at one time.
“Calvin, how’s your mom?” Pearl asks sweetly from the back seat, and he turns his head just slightly to look at her while I keep my eyes on him. Calvin—that name fits him. It makes me think of those old Calvin Klein ads with Marky Mark that my friends and I used to drool over.
“Tell her I say hello.”
“Will do.” He dips his chin before shifting his attention back to Edie. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“I have no idea,” Edie says. Then she asks, “Was I speeding?”
“You weren’t speeding. But I followed you onto the highway and off, and I’m a little concerned with your lack of turn signals and the way you tend to test the boundaries of your brakes when driving behind someone.”
“My car has great brakes,” she informs him with a smile.
“That might be, but I doubt you’d feel that way if the person you followed so closely had to hit their brakes and you, in turn, hit them.”
“You’re absolutely right.” She places her hand on her chest, looking surprised.
“I never thought of that.”
“I’m sure.” His jaw tics, making my fingers, still on the handle, clench. “If I see you driving like that again, Edie, I’ll give you a ticket. And you and I both know you can’t have any more points on your license.”
Points? She already has points on her license?
“How many tickets have you gotten?” I blurt, and all eyes rest on me, including a pair covered with a silver tint.
“I still have my license,” Edie tells me.
“One more ticket and you won’t,” Calvin adds.
“One more ticket” meaning she’s gotten a few? “I knew I should have ignored my need to respect my elders and demanded to drive. First, Pearl and Dixie smoking a—”
“Pardon?” Calvin rumbles, cutting off the word joint, and my eyes widen. Oh crap. My mouth goes dry. I wave my hand in his direction and shake my head once more.
“They were smoking a cigarette. Even at their age, they should know those things kill.” I can’t see his eyes, but I still feel them bore into mine. I shift in my seat but try to keep my expression neutral. “I’ll make sure Edie’s more careful when she’s behind the wheel.”
He acknowledges my statement with a grunt and comes out of his bent position, which forces me to tip my head back. “This is your last warning.” He taps Edie’s door before he walks back toward his car. I turn to watch him, thinking even from behind, his broad shoulders and slim waist are attractive.
“I can’t believe you were going to tell him that we were smoking a joint,”Pearl hisses.
“She didn’t and she covered for us,” Dixie mutters. “I don’t blame her for getting weird. He’s handsome, and that happens when you’re talking to a handsome man.”
“Do you think he’s handsome?” Edie asks me, and I look over at her, noting a calculating look in her eyes.
“Of course she thinks he’s attractive. She’s female,” Pearl says from the back seat.
“Well?” Edie asks.
“Um . . .” I shift under her stare. “He’s okay.”
“Okay?” Dixie snorts. “That man is not just okay, darling, and if you think that, you need to be checked by a doctor to confirm you actually have a pulse.”
“Whatever. Shouldn’t we go? Aren’t you the one who didn’t want to be late to bingo?”
“Fine, you win this one,” Edie says after a long moment, and then she puts the shifter in drive, flips on her turn signal, and checks her mirror. The moment she starts to pull away from the side of the road and into traffic, the car is jolted to the right, and the sounds of metal crunching and scraping fill the air.
With wide eyes and my heart pounding, I turn and meet a pair of mesmerizing blue eyes belonging to Calvin. Holy cow, we just sideswiped a cop! I drag my eyes off his and focus on Edie. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Are you?” Her eyes scan me from head to toe.
“I’m good.” I look over my shoulder and see Calvin backing up behind us, then look at the two wide-eyed women in the back seat. “Are you two all right?”
“I’m okay,” Pearl says shakily.
“Just a little shook up, but I’m okay,” Dixie replies.
“I’m going to make sure Calvin is all right.” I unhook my belt and open my door.
With my legs shaking, I walk around the back of the car, but I stop short when I see Calvin bent over and looking in the open trunk of his cruiser. Without even a glance in my direction, he booms, “Get back into the vehicle.”
“Back in the vehicle.” He doesn’t move except to turn his head, and his eyes come to me. “It’s not safe for you to be out here.”
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” I tell him, and he comes out of his bent position and walks toward me slowly.
I should back away. I want to back away, but I hold my ground until he reaches out and wraps his hand around my upper arm.
“What are you doing?” I look at where he’s holding me and automatically try to tug free, but he doesn’t let go. Instead, he starts walking, forcing me to go with him. When we reach the passenger side of the car, he opens the door and urges me to sit.
“Stay,” he orders, and I blink up at him in disbelief.
“I’m not a dog you can just order to do something,” I hiss, tucking my feet into the car.
“Yeah, I know. My dog actually listens.” He slams the door and walks away, leaving me fuming.