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After dropping her son off at school, Joy Lee returned to Cooper's Charm, the RV resort where she worked and lived. It was backtracking since she had an appointment near the school later this morning, but it wouldn't do to show up a half hour early.
Actually, nothing in the small town of Woodbine, Ohio, was too far away. In fifteen minutes she could drive to the school, the park, the grocery ... or visit the new owner of the drive-in, who she'd be meeting today.
Hopefully Mr. Nakirk would continue to work with her. As the recreation director of the park, she and the past owner had put together various events with a lot of success. Halloween was coming up and she didn't want to have to completely restructure a tried-and-true camper favorite.
Coming through the grand entry of the resort, Joy couldn't help but admire the beauty of it. She'd been seeing the same gorgeous scenery for six years now, yet it never failed to soothe her.
She'd found peace here, a kind of peace she hadn't known existed. Now she couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
Large trees, currently wearing their fall colors, lined the property and served to add privacy to the costlier campsites.
A wooden walk bridge divided a pond from the large lake. Wooden cabins were scattered about, with plenty of lots for RVs and level, grassy areas for campers who preferred a tent. Even the playgrounds were well maintained, colorful and attractive.
Deciding a cup of coffee wouldn't hurt, Joy headed for Summer's End, the camp store. Maris Kennedy, a woman close to her own age, always had coffee ready. She also worked nonstop and treated everyone like a friend.
When Joy came into the camp store, Maris was busy wiping down the tops of the dining booths. She glanced up and said, "Hey."
In so many ways, Joy admired Maris. For one thing, the woman never seemed to tire. She opened early, kept it open late and rarely slowed down throughout the day. During the busiest season, Maris employed part-time help, but she handled the bulk of the responsibility herself.
Maris apparently preferred it that way.
Another admirable thing? Maris always managed to look fantastic with her dark blond hair in a high ponytail and a shirt at least a size too large over her jeans.
Unfair, but Maris was so incredibly nice, and she took such great care of all the employees, Joy forgave her the perfection. "Good morning."
"Is it?" Maris turned her gaze to the window. "Ah, sunshine. Better than rain and clouds, right? Coffee?"
Joy hated to pull her away from her task. "Yes, but I could —"
"I'll get it." Toting her little carrier of cleaning supplies, Maris headed to the kitchen. Joy heard her wash her hands, and then a moment later she reappeared with two cups. "I just made a fresh pot."
Of course she had. Smiling, Joy shook her head.
The café in Summer's End offered a menu of sandwiches, soups and daily specials. Positioned on the walls behind the seating area, packed shelves held basic grocery necessities and emergency items, as well as things like pool floats, sunscreen and fishing tackle. Campers didn't have to leave the park once they arrived, and if they didn't want to make use of the grills, Maris always had something to eat.
Joy took a sip of the coffee, fixed just the way she liked it, and sighed.
Instead of moving on to another chore, Maris stood there with her own coffee. "I'm wondering something."
"Oh?" She and Maris were friendly; Maris was too nice for anyone not to be friendly with her. But Joy wouldn't say they were close.
Sadly, it had become Joy's habit to keep some measure of distance from everyone.
"How the hell do you always look so put together?"
Surprised by the question, Joy looked down at her cotton skirt and button-up sweater. "It's a casual skirt." At least five years old, like the majority of her wardrobe. She'd updated only a few pieces since moving to the park.
"Yeah, but everything you wear looks like it came from a fashion magazine. Always, no matter what, you're styled head to toe. There are days I can barely get my hair into a ponytail, and yet you never have a wrinkle."
Feeling suddenly self-conscious, as well as amused by the irony, Joy laughed.
"Why's that funny?" Maris asked, looking genuinely curious.
It wasn't like Maris to linger, so Joy hastily explained, "I was literally just thinking how great you always look. Especially your ponytail! No matter what's going on, you ... glow."
"Me?" Maris snorted. "Glow?"
Even more embarrassed and feeling completely out of her element, Joy continued. "You don't need makeup or anything. You always look fresh, even when you've been working all day. There's an energy about you." A wholesomeness that few other women could pull off. It was probably attitude as much as appearance that was responsible for that vibe. Maris personified friendliness, but she owned the space around her in a way Joy could never manage. "Believe me, the natural look works for you."
When Maris laughed, it made her even prettier, but before Joy could say so, she asked, "So what are you up to today?"
Hmm. Had Maris just deflected? Maybe she was as uncomfortable with compliments as Joy. "Meeting the new owner of the drive-in."
"That's right. I heard it changed hands."
"Very recently," Joy confirmed.
"Heard the new guy was a gorgeous hunk, too."
"You ... what?" Joy sputtered. A gorgeous hunk? Definitely not what she'd hoped for, although it absolutely wouldn't matter. A man's appeal meant nothing to her — and good thing, since the guys at the park were all very handsome in varying ways. "Who told you that?"
"I'm like a bartender, you know?" Maris bobbed her eyebrows. "Everyone talks to me. You should try it sometime."
Generally the small town shared everything about everything. If a squirrel dropped a nut, someone announced it and the gossip spread like wildfire — though Joy was usually the last to hear it since she didn't cultivate those close relationships. Maybe she should chat with Maris more, if for no other reason than to keep up on current affairs in Woodbine. "I don't know about the hunk part since I haven't met him yet, but it's not an issue. My only interest is —"
"In recreation for the park, I know." Maris rolled her eyes in a playful way. "But there are all kinds of recreation, and I'm thinking you should try the kind that involves a man."
A nervous laugh trickled out. Since when was Maris Kennedy interested in her lack of a love life? Joy's next thought was whether or not the lack was that obvious.
Did she seem ... lonely? Or, oh God, needy?
No, Maris more than anyone else at the park understood that a woman didn't need a man to complete her. Joy's life was already full, thank you very much.
To keep things friendly, Joy said with a smile, "Jack gets all my free time. I don't even know when I'd fit in a date." Just to clarify, she added, "Not that anyone is asking."
"Hello," Maris said. "You realize you have a big old blinking not available sign on you, right? Guys would —" she pinched the air "— if you'd give them just a teeny tiny bit of encouragement."
"But I don't want to encourage anyone. I mean, not for that reason."
"Why not? Jack's in school now, so don't tell me you can't eek out an hour or two."
"Hmm. Well, I guess technically I could ..." Joy sat at the counter, and finished with, "But I won't."
"Spoilsport." Maris joined her, taking the stool to her left.
Well, that was new. Sure, Maris conversed with Joy, but usually while she worked. She didn't sit down and join her.
She didn't focus on her.
Unsure what was going on, Joy said, "I don't mean to hold you up ..."
"Already got through my routine, so I was ready for a break."
Curious, she asked, "What type of routine?"
"Coffee first — that's as much for me as it is for anyone who might drop in. Then I turn on the oven so I can make cookies from the dough I prepared the night before."
"I dust again, make sure all the chrome shines. Face up the shelves so they look orderly." Maris looked around her store with obvious pride. "There's always food stuff to prep, too. Soup to get in the pot, tea to make. Oh, and I have to put money back in the cash register. I like to take inventory each evening before I head home, so I know what I need to replace the next day. That means sometimes I have to restock the hot dogs or condiments."
Joy shook her head. "I have no idea how you do it all."
"Listen to who's talking, Super Mom."
"I'm not —"
"Yup, you are. I see plenty of moms here at the park, but you make it look effortless."
"Oh. Well, thank you." What else did someone say in this situation? Joy had no idea. Before moving to Woodbine, she hadn't had any friends like Maris. Her social group had been superficial, not down-to-earth. They talked about the latest high-end fashions and the next important social function. None of her so-called friends would have ever owned a wonderful little camp store like Summer's End — and none of them would have ever ended up as a single mom. Losing them hadn't been a hardship.
Other things had been hard. So very, very hard.
Like finding herself alone.
Over the years she'd adjusted, but now she shied away from getting too personal with anyone. Life felt safer that way.
"So." As if she'd been privy to her innermost thoughts, Maris gave her a direct smile — one filled with warmth and sincerity. "I'm just saying if you ever want to go out, or even if you just want some time to yourself, let me know. I'd be happy to help."
Touched by the offer, Joy laid a hand to her heart. After all her effort to keep real friendship at bay, Maris still reached out to her. It meant a lot and made Joy rethink some of her choices.
Honestly, since turning thirty, it had played on her mind, anyway. Perhaps she should begin to open up a little.
Jack certainly had. Then again, her son was one of the most personable, engaging, adorable people ... and maybe she was just a tiny bit influenced by the incredible love she had for him.
Jack liked Maris a lot, and vice versa.
That didn't explain why Maris was suddenly so keen on Joy dating. "So ... what's going on?"
Maris lifted her brows. "What do you mean?"
Ha! That innocent look didn't cut it. "You're up to something. We've known each other five years now and you've never asked me about dating."
"Sure I did. You just didn't answer much, so I let it go."
Ouch. That could be true.
"Gawd, don't look guilty," Maris said. "Here's the thing. You were quiet, I was swamped, so we let it go, right? But know what? I'm thirty-one now. Freaking thirty-one."
"Oh my God," Joy said, amazed that their thoughts seemed to be on the same track. "I'm thirty now, so I know exactly what you mean."
"Yesterday," Maris said, "this lady came in with three kids, one of them a newborn. She and her husband were frazzled and happy, and they said it was their first vacation after buying their house. Guess how old that woman was."
Joy said, "Um ... thirty-ish?"
"Twenty-nine. Two years younger than me."
"Younger than us," Joy corrected.
"Right, but you have a kid. A great kid." Maris propped her head on her hand. "My point is, I can't do the whole family and home thing — but you can. Heck, you're already halfway there."
Family? Joy almost choked, since her family didn't want anything to do with her. She knew that wasn't what Maris meant, though. "You can't do it ... why?"
"It's not my thing." Maris shrugged that off with haste. "You're great at being a mom. Heck, you're great at everything you do. So the least I can do is lend a hand, and maybe give you a push."
After all that, Maris smiled, as if she'd explained everything to her satisfaction and Joy should be jumping on board.
When Joy just blinked at her, Maris said, "Consider this your push."
It was almost laughable, but also very sweet. Joy said with feeling, "Thank you so much. Even though I don't have any hot prospects, I appreciate the offer."
"That's what friends are for, right?"
Joy had no real idea, but she nodded, anyway. "The same from me. If I can do anything for you, please just let me know."
"Great. Know what you can do? After you meet with the new owner, let me know if he's as gorgeous as everyone says he is. I'm dying of curiosity."
"Right, okay. Sure." Wondering if she'd misread this entire conversation, Joy offered, "If you want, I could mention you to him ...?"
Maris blinked at her, then laughed. "We're talking about you, not me, but thanks." She nodded at the coffee. "Good?"
After another, more cautious sip, Joy sighed. "Mmm. Of course. You make the best coffee."
"True story." Maris suddenly sniffed the air. "Be right back."
So much for Maris's break. "Whatever that is smells delicious." Through the last five years, Joy had taught herself to cook by trial and error, but she didn't come close to Maris's skill in the kitchen. From full-blown formal dinners to the soup of the day, Maris worked magic.
Less than a minute later, Maris returned with a plateful of warm chocolate chip cookies. "Fresh from the oven. Want one?"
"I wish I could, but if I don't get going, I'll be late." Joy prided herself on her professionalism. Showing up tardy for an appointment was unthinkable.
"We stay too damn busy, don't we? We should carve out more time to visit." Maris wrapped two in a napkin. "For the road, then."
Joy's mouth already watered. "They won't last five minutes. Thank you." Smiling, she stood and slipped her purse strap over her shoulder. Hesitating, she said, "This was nice. Us talking more, I mean."
"Right?" Moving the cookies under a covered dome, Maris remarked, "We need to do it more often."
Surprised by the idea, Joy nodded. "That would be terrific."
She loved her role of recreation director at the park, and she appreciated all the wonderful people. She thought she did a good job — and yet, she'd never truly fit in. This morning, for a few minutes, Maris had been much more like a friend than an acquaintance. She didn't know if it was seeing the other couple with the three kids, or because Maris was suddenly more aware of her age.
Whatever the reason, Joy liked it. She liked it a lot.
Twenty minutes later, cold and miserable, Joy peeked in the small door window of the concession stand at the drive-in.
How had things changed so quickly?
The meager overhang barely shielded her from the pounding rain of the pop-up storm. Not that it mattered since she was already soaked to the skin.
If you could see me now, Maris ...
There wasn't anything fashionable about her drowned-rat persona. Joy couldn't remember a time when she'd been more of a wreck.
Freak rainstorms could do that to people.
Instead of knocking, she peeked inside again. People didn't usually catch her off guard like this, but for once, she felt totally flummoxed.
Royce Nakirk was everything Maris said he'd be — and more.
He stood over six feet tall, his body very ... fit, and his dark hair reflected the blue of the concession lights.
Didn't matter. Men, attractive men in their prime, held no significance to her.
She was a mother.
A dedicated employee.
A once-burned, never-again divorcee.
My, oh my, the gossips hadn't exaggerated.
Joy wanted elderly Mr. Ostenbery back. She could deal with him. She could charm and bargain and coerce him without noticing his thighs. Or his shoulders.
Or his ... butt.
All she'd ever noticed on Ostenbery was the impressive size of his nose and his genuine smile and kindness.
But this new owner was a different animal. Denim companies should pay him to wear their jeans. The way his T-shirt fit his body — snug in the shoulders, loose over a flat midsection — caused her ovaries to twitch. Until this moment, she'd forgotten she had ovaries.
The mantra marched through her brain without much effect. She wondered what Maris would say when she told her about this.
Would she tell her?
Yes. It might be fun to share her shock. No doubt Maris would have some witty comment to contribute.
With his back to her, the owner squatted to rinse a cloth in a bucket of soapy water.
Biting her lip, Joy let her gaze track over him.
Stop it, she silently demanded, and she wasn't sure if she spoke to herself or the new, much too young and attractive owner.
When he turned, she saw his intent concentration as he scrubbed at a corner of the counter.
Joy almost envied the counter. How long had it been since she'd garnered that much concentration from anyone? Five years? Closer to six?
Scowling, he glanced at the clock, a jolting reminder that she was already fifteen minutes late.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sisters of Summer's End"
Copyright © 2019 Lori Foster.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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