Bailey Cameron sipped sweet tea garnished with a fat lemon wedge as she leaned against the porch rail of her small, whitewashed house overlooking the ocean and tilted her face toward warm, late-afternoon sun. Jonquils bloomed cheerfully along the deck edge and flaming-yellow forsythia lined a neat concrete walk. Though her heart felt light with the thought of mild spring days ahead, Bailey fought the urge to cry.
Oh, how she missed the mountains of East Tennessee…and Nick Connor. Snagging the job of her dreams with Magnitude Engineering in Southern California was a great boost to her ego, but at what cost? She was here…alone, and the very idea felt like an anchor tugging at her heart. She’d hurt the person she loved more than anyone in the world—Nick.
Bailey couldn’t nudge Nick’s look of utter disbelief from her memory as she recalled how she’d explained to him she’d be leaving Knoxville—and him—following their graduation from the University of Tennessee. His blue eyes, round and so full of love for her, had grown dark and shadowed with disappointment.
“If you have to go, Bailey, I understand,” he’d murmured as he brushed a callused knuckle across her cheek, though his gaze told her otherwise. His breath was warm on her neck as he leaned across the dinner table and the scent of him—clean soap and smooth, sandalwood aftershave—consumed her as he drew her close. She pressed her face to his soft cotton T-shirt and sighed.
“But, I’m going to miss you. I don’t know if I can stand it.”
“You’ll be fine.” Nick stroked the tender underside of her wrist, and Bailey knew he must feel her trembling.
“Can’t you come with, Nick…even if only for a little while?”
“You know I can’t.” He shook his head slightly, sighing, and sat back in his chair. “I’m needed here. The business…”
“I understand.” Bailey knew his dad was counting on him to help out at the family’s construction firm, and now that Nick had earned his business degree, there was no excuse not to give one-hundred percent.
“I can’t let my dad down, Bailey. I promised him…” Nick drew her close once more, and Bailey felt safe and sheltered in his arms as he murmured, “I know you worked hard for this opportunity, Bay, and you have to take it.”
Now Bailey wondered…did she really have to take this particular job? Was leaving East Tennessee—and Nick—the only choice she had? Should she have waited for something better in Knoxville? She’d prayed about the choice at every turn, and still waited for an answer that would satisfy. But, none came. So she plodded on, doing the best she could at Magnitude and eating frozen dinners alone, with the soft murmur of ocean waves her only company.
Long months had passed, yet her love for Nick remained strong despite the distance between them. They spoke every night, and sometimes in the mornings, too. He seemed happy as he talked about the progress he and his dad were making with the construction company…or was he just as good at hiding his loneliness as she was?
Sure, she’d flourished at her job as a computer programmer while Nick took over his family’s construction business. And, yes, she excelled at her dream job. But Bailey felt empty inside—like a gaping hole had been punched right through her chest where her heart belonged. She wrapped her arms around herself and brushed a tear from her cheek as a sob escaped her lips. She wondered what Nick was feeling right now. Did he miss her as much as she missed him, or was he slowly beginning to move on—away from her and the memories they shared?
The slam of a car door drew Bailey’s gaze from the sun-kissed ocean beyond, and she turned to find a delivery truck in the driveway. She set her tea glass on the porch rail and swiped the wet from her face as she rushed to meet the skinny, teenaged boy who leapt from the driver’s seat.
“May I help you?”
“Bailey Cameron?” He checked a note attached to his clipboard.
“That’s right.” She nodded, cupping a hand over her eyes to shield them from the glare of the sun.
He removed the ball cap from his head and scratched disheveled dark hair. “I think I have a delivery for you.”
“But you’re not sure?”
He shook his head and then repositioned the cap, tugging it low over his eyes. “Our computer crashed, but the boss sent me out here anyway. I know you’re supposed to get something, but I’m not sure which package is for you.”
“How many are there to choose from?” Bailey peeked over his shoulder and into the cargo area of the truck. Cartons in a variety of sizes were stacked floor to ceiling. A few had toppled in a heap of battered cardboard.
“Oh, just two.”
“So I have a fifty-fifty chance?”
“Uh huh.” He shrugged scrawny shoulders and scratched a hint of stubble across his pointed chin. “I guess you could say that.”
“Well, I suppose I should take a look.”
“Let’s see, then.” He climbed into the truck and fumbled around while Bailey kept her distance, waiting. A moment later he hopped down from the cargo area, a flat, rectangular-shaped box in his hands. “What about this?”
The box held chocolate-covered cherries wrapped in shimmery gold and pink foil. Bailey quickly shook her head.
“Uh uh. It can’t be those. I’m allergic to cherries.” She crossed her arms over her belly, frowning. Her blonde ponytail swept the nape of her neck as she shook her head. “And, I’m still trying to lose my freshman twenty…five years later. What else do you have?”
“Let’s take another look-see.” The boy turned from her to reach into the truck again. Boxes tumbled and clattered against the metal floor as he hauled out a crate. “It’s gotta be this one, then. Be careful…it’s fragile.”
Bailey’s heart raced at the sight of brilliant long-stemmed red roses arranged in a delicate emerald vase. A sunshine-yellow bow fluttered in the slight breeze. “Oh, my…”
The boy gaped at her, his mouth tilting into a grin. “I take that as a yes.”
“Oh, yes.” The roses had to be from Nick—they just had to be. Bailey remembered what he’d whispered to her the last day they were together, as he carefully loaded her belongings into her car and she slid into the driver’s seat to crank the engine, her eyes swimming with tears.
“Don’t cry, Bay. You have to take this chance.” He’d leaned into the window and kissed her cheek, then each tear-dampened eyelid, gently. “But when it gets too much, Bailey—when I miss you so much I can’t stand to be away from you another minute—I’ll send you the most beautiful red roses you’ve ever seen, to let you know I’m on my way to you.”
“Oh, Nick…” Bailey gasped and scanned the length of the quiet, tree-shaded boulevard. Widow Robbins and Sara Hunter were both busy in their yards across the street, pruning flowerbeds blooming with an explosion of wave petunias. Mr. Reynolds rocked in his whitewashed porch rocker, a folded newspaper in his hands. Two yards down, the Taylors’s dog whined to be let into the house.
Bailey sighed and tilted her face toward the warm sunshine as her pulse began to dance. Soon Nick would be here to enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds. Together they’d make a life…an adventure they’d share together. The thought made Bailey tremble with longing.
“I’ll sign for these.” Bailey took the roses from the boy and pressed her nose to the petals. The sweet fragrance of love surrounded her—love in full bloom.
About the Author: Mary Manners is an award-winning author of inspirational romance who lives in the beautiful foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee with her husband and teen-aged daughter. She is a member of the Romance Writers of America and Smoky Mountain Romance Writers. In her free time, she likes to garden, take long walks with her husband, and read romance novels in a hammock beneath century-old shade trees.