Where I Belong
A Titan World Novella
An unexpected meeting at the beach and a young nephew who won’t take no for an answer, has Owen falling hard and fast.
Charlotte feels something too, but violently losing her mother at a young age has her afraid to take a chance.
With only five days, Owen will have to work fast if he has any hope of winning Charlotte’s heart.
This is a stand alone contemporary romance Novella and therefore shorter than my other full length novels.
CHARLOTTE LAY facedown on the padded lounger next to the deep end of the pool. Her arms hung over the end to flip the pages of the paperback on the pebbled decking. The late August sun beating down on her back was so hot, she felt more like she was lying on the sun than in Florida.
Music played from the speakers hidden behind her in the tall mondo grass, and she could just barely make out the rhythmic pounding of the ocean. She’d planned to read for an hour, go in for lunch at noon, then go to the beach from two to four, maybe five.
She just barely resisted checking the notebook tucked in her bag where she’d written down a tentative schedule for the day. Not a schedule really, more like a list of things to do. She liked lists. She disliked being bored. She kind of sucked at vacation.
The voices of mothers and children played across the water from the shallow end. It wasn’t peak tourist season, and most schools were back in session, so only a handful of vacationers were at the pool. With her cheek resting on her towel, Charlotte smiled at the sounds, their gentle coaxing, encouragement, and mommy talk.
“Good splash, but not so close to your sister.”
“She looks precious in that hat. Look at her kick her little feet in the water!”
Charlotte’s heart jumped at the sudden greeting inches from her face. She rose onto her forearms and found herself staring into a pair of winter-sky blue eyes shining out of a bright little-boy face. He looked to be about five or six. His eyes were wide set, making it obvious he had Down’s Syndrome. His light-brown hair stood out in spikes, and a scattering of golden-brown freckles covered his little nose.
“Are you dead or ’sleep?” he asked slowly.
Smiling, she sat up. “Hi. I’m not dead or asleep. I’m awake.”
“She’d awake,” he yelled to the other end of the pool.
A pretty woman waved in acknowledgement. “I’m sorry. Kyle, come back down here and leave her alone.”
“No! She my friend.” He squatted down so he was eye level with her, water dripping from his blue-and-yellow swim trunks. “My name’s Kyle. What’s you name?”
“My name’s Charlotte.” She gathered her hair back into a ponytail. It was lighter than usual and longer, reminding her she needed a cut.
“You book’s wet, Charlotte.”
“Thank you.” She saved the paperback, which was a little wet on the edges, and laid it on the lounger by her leg.
“I can swim. You can watch me swim.” He placed both hands on flat on the decking, then slowly rose. “Watch me!”
She did, and he belly flopped right into the deep end. She stood immediately, ready to go in after him, but he surfaced and, after just a few slapping strokes, came up at the side ladder, sputtering water.
“Very nice.” She clapped and smiled. He was too adorable.
“I’ll do it again.” He climbed out and did it three more times before coming back to her.
“You can swim. Come on.” He grabbed her hand, leaning back, using his weight as leverage until he was nearly sideways.
“Kyle! Leave her alone.” The woman at the other end, whom she assumed was Kyle’s mother, started to climb out with a baby girl on her hip.
“No. It’s fine,” Charlotte called, waving. “I was hot anyway.” She let Kyle drag her to the edge and barely had time to think before he counted to three and jumped. He might have been small, but his grip was firm, and she went in, too. He came up beaming.
“I’ll watch you,” she told Kyle, as she swam to the side and sat with her feet resting on the top rung of the ladder. He was such a ball of curiosity and sweetness, and so distant from her exact world of finance.
“One!” Kyle windmilled his arms, gearing up for another run off the side. “Two! Uncle Owen!”
A shadow fell over her, eclipsing the brilliance of midday. She turned just in time to see a tall man squatting down beside her.
“Hi,” he added, looking at her.
His smile was brilliant and sexy in a finely chiseled face. She could practically hear her brain click as she took a mental photo. At least she was wearing sunglasses—no one could prove she was staring like an idiot.
She tried not to stare at his dark hair, just long enough to move in the ocean breeze. Charlotte forced herself to look at the pool and Kyle. Not the dark gray T-shirt stretched across the man’s chest or his muscled arm, so close it would brush her bare skin if she moved an inch.
And that was way more than one picture.
“This is my Charlotte,” Kyle shouted. “That’s my uncle.”
“Your Charlotte, huh?” he asked Kyle, though he was looking at her.
Then he pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head, and even if she had thought of something to say beyond hi, she would have been silenced by the stunning green eyes staring back at her.
“Yeah, I found her, but she wasn’t dead or asleep. She was awake.”
She laughed lightly at that, and Owen shared her smile.
“Is that right? Hi. You’re Charlotte.”
“I’m Owen,” he said, still smiling at her. “Obviously.”
“I came to save you.”
Her first thought was that he’d come to save her from him. “Um… what?”
“From Kyle,” he said, bringing her back. “My sister, Trish, said to thank you for playing with him.” He pointed to the other end of the pool, at the woman who’d yelled at Kyle earlier. The baby on her hip squealed and kicked at the water.
“I don’t mind.”
Another woman with short brown hair waved. “And that’s my cousin’s wife, Mia,” Owen said.
Kyle jumped again then came to the ladder where she sat at the side. He started his climb before she could move out of his way.
“Whoa, little man. Watch out for your Charlotte.” Owen shifted, caught Kyle’s arms, and swung him up and out.
“You have to play. Come on.” Kyle tugged on Owen’s black swim trunks.
“I have to, huh?”
He was stripping the T-shirt off over his head even as he spoke, making the muscles in his upper arms and shoulders bunch. Then he launched himself over the side and dove into the water. He came up smiling, and she smiled, too.
“Let’s play I jump to you,” Kyle said, pointing to Owen. “And then you. Charlotte, you have to get in.”
She dutifully swam out to tread water a foot from Owen.
Owen held out his arms and waited for Kyle to count to three. Kyle landed within inches, and Owen brought him up.
“Don’t let this little squirt boss you around,” Owen said then heaved Kyle over his head toward the side.
“I don’t mind.”
Their eyes met. His smile could have knocked a girl sideways, but with the water beading on his lashes, his green eyes sparkling in the light—
“Charlotte!” Kyle leaped and splashed down very nearly on top of her, wrapping his arms around her neck.
Unprepared for his sudden weight and tight grasp, she went under. She felt a split second of panic before Owen grabbed her around the waist and took his nephew with his other arm.
“Got you!” Grinning, Kyle pushed away from his uncle and swam to the side.
She looked at Owen, who was a little blurry through the water droplets covering her sunglasses. “Thanks, um…”
Owen’s arm remained around her, hard around her back, his face just inches from hers. The heat of his skin and the cool water were enough to give her chills.
“He did get you,” Owen said, smiling.
All she could manage was a weak “yeah,” because it was feeling more like Owen had gotten her, especially when his fingers curled around her side, grazing her stomach, sending a shiver up her spine before he let her go. They swam over and joined Kyle where he sat on the side.
“Where do you live?” Kyle asked her.
He looked at the condo units, shading his face, and pointed. “Which one is New York?”
Silver Dunes wasn’t a high-rise, but a two–story row of condominium units, sea-weathered to a pale gray. “Oh, no.” She laughed then shared a grin with Owen over Kyle’s head. “New York is far away from here. When I’m at the beach, I live there. On the bottom.”
“With your mom?”
“With your dad?”
That was who she was supposed to be with, and hopefully, in just a few days, her father would join her like they’d planned. Truthfully, she wouldn’t even be there if he hadn’t demanded that they both take a few vacation days. “Nope, I stay there all by myself. But just for a week.”
“Oh.” Kyle took a second to process that then moved on. “We live there.” He pointed to a second-floor balcony. “See my Batman towel?”
“I do. Do you like coming to the beach?”
“Yes. I love coming to the beach.”
“Kyle, time for lunch.”
He looked at his mom then back at her. “It’s time for my lunch. I love lunch. Do you love lunch?”
She laughed softly. “I do.” Could he be any cuter?
Owen stood and used his shirt to wipe his face before returning his sunglasses.
Kyle ran to his mother, who wrapped him in a towel. Owen stayed where he was. Water dripped from his dark hair onto his wide bronzed shoulders, sliding and spreading into tiny droplets that glistened in the sun. His wet swim trunks clung to his thighs and other places she shouldn’t have been looking.
Charlotte grabbed her own towel from the nearby lounger just to be sure she didn’t. She knew she wasn’t much to look at in a modest two-piece suit—or any kind of two-piece, really. Not tall enough to be considered long and willowy, and not curvy, with her barely B-cup breasts. Not that she was looking to show them off.
“I’m taking our boat out this afternoon,” he said. “But maybe I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Yeah, maybe? Not “I hope so” or “sounds good” or “nice to meet you”?
He started toward his family then stopped and turned. “How about tonight?”
She swallowed, nearly choking on her own spit. “Tonight?”
“Seeing you. Tonight. My family’s going out for dinner. You should come.”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t intrude, but thank you.” And she didn’t do spontaneous invites. Didn’t do spontaneous anything.
She was more likely to sit at home with a good book than hunt up outside entertainment. But Owen was smiling and waiting… and she wanted to say yes.
His smile widened, his lips curving up more on one side than the other. “I only said family to make you feel more comfortable, but…” He walked back until he was right in front of her. “It’s more like a big noisy group of people who know each other. My aunt and uncle, my parents, probably my parents’ friends, and then…” He gestured toward the other end of the pool. “All the rest of them. I think you’d have fun.”
A drop of water slid from his throat then tracked lower.
Heat flooded her cheeks, heading swiftly toward her neck. “Um… I don’t think…” She didn’t take chances. She followed the rules. Always opted for predictable. Always took the safest route. Seconds passed, and even though she wanted to say yes, old habits won out. “I mean, I’m sure I would have fun, but no. I can’t. Thank you, but I can’t.”
“Hmm.” He studied her, his head slightly tilted as if she were a puzzle he was trying to figure out.
Funny, because she was about as simple as they came. Boring even.
“Okay then,” he said after another moment. “I guess later will be later.”
She couldn’t help being a little disappointed in herself as she walked to her condo. Gorgeous man, sweet with his nephew, a smile that gave her the sexy tingles she’d read about but never felt for any of the perfectly nice men she knew in New York.
And still, she hadn’t said yes to dinner because… because she didn’t know him. Because she hadn’t had time to think about it, to sit down and make a list, and to plan it all out. Because she was just boring enough that she didn’t say yes to dinner at the drop of a hat.
And how’s that working out for you?
FIVE HOURS later, Owen quickly showered off hours of sun and sea. It’d been the perfect day. Sparkling water, biting fish, and family he knew he was lucky to have. God had given him an older sister, by two years. And a cousin, Colby Winters, whom he’d idolized as a child and loved like a brother. Winters was a former Navy SEAL and still had a job where he got to blow things up.
He also had a brother-in-law he genuinely liked: Neal West, who was married to Trish and removed wisdom teeth for a living. All in all, it was a pretty good deal.
But as he dried off, his thoughts drifted to Charlotte. There was no shortage of women in Greenville, South Carolina. He never had too much trouble getting a date if he wanted one. Problem was, he hadn’t wanted one in some time. Definitely hadn’t met anyone who’d made him want to get to know her better.
Charlotte’s shy smile made his heart turn over. And she had a body that made a man look twice. Look and linger.
And then he’d asked her to join his family for dinner. Okay, so that hadn’t been his smoothest move. Asking her out on another night would have been better, but that hadn’t occurred to him. He hadn’t wanted to wait, and her ease with Kyle made it feel natural somehow to include her.
He dressed in jeans and a black polo and joined the men on the deck for a beer before dinner. The sound of the ocean pounding in the distance was almost as relaxing as the feel of it beneath the boat.
He’d barely sat down before Winters started in. “Heard you met a nice girl at the pool.”
“What?” Owen took the cold bottle from the cooler.
“Girl. Pool.” Chuckling, Winters tipped back his beer. “Golden hair, pretty smile.”
He studied his cousin’s shit-eating grin. “How would you know?”
“Have you met my wife?” Winters shook his head, still laughing.
“Word gets around. You know how they are.” Neal shrugged. “Married women love a project.”
Owen scowled and took a long drink from his bottle. “I don’t want to be anyone’s project.”
His father chuckled. “And you think you get any say? Especially in this family.”
Right. Owen pictured Charlotte’s golden hair dripping down her back, the blue-and-white two piece, and her smooth golden-brown skin that he hadn’t gotten enough of a look at before Kyle dragged her into the water.
But her shoulders had still been bare, her throat visible as she bobbed in the water. And she’d been sweet to Kyle—not everyone was. Neal hadn’t mentioned that, but surely, he knew, if he’d gotten the lowdown from Trish.
He should’ve pushed harder for her to join them. Was she eating alone tonight? Hell, he’d known her for five minutes and had tried to get her to eat with him. Good chance someone else had tried harder.
“Don’t look so down,” Neal said. “She could be a loon.”
Winters went on even as he scooped up his son, Ace, and opened the box of Dots his son handed him. “Neurotic, disturbed, gassy…”
Owen opened his mouth then decided that defending someone he didn’t really know would only incite more harassment.
Winters gave Ace a gum drop and downed a handful himself. “Your mama’s going to kick our butts for this. Where’d you find these?”
Neal shook his head. “I’d expect better from you, Winters. Every kid in this place knows where you hide the Dots.”
“Is that true?” Winters tickled his son. “Do you know where my stash is?”
“No!” Ace laughed and kicked before scrambling away in a fit of giggles.
“Well”—his father glanced at his watch—“time for us to do our thing.” He stood and dropped his empty bottle in a trash bag someone had hung on a nail. The rest of them followed.
As was protocol, the men went ahead to wait for a table, leaving the women and kids to follow shortly. The system worked for everyone. The men relaxed at the bar, the women had more time to get ready, and most importantly, the kids didn’t destroy property while waiting for a table.
He was almost to the door when his phone buzzed in his pocket. “Owen Anderson. Yes. Hi, Carol. No, no problem at all.” He hung inside the door as the others walked out, signaled one minute to the men. “Okay.”
She wanted a cost estimate to change the laundry room to a mud room entrance and move and expand the laundry room. It would take a bit of rearranging, but she was the customer, and he wanted her to be happy. “Sure, let me get to my laptop, and I’ll be able to tell you the difference. You’re welcome.” He held the phone away from his ear and mouthed to the guys to go ahead.
He ended up being fifteen minutes behind the women and kids, who’d left a good twenty minutes after the men. He walked the short distance down the private drive from his beachfront condo to the main road.
He passed maybe fifteen houses before he reached the entrance to the little beach community, went through the gate, and crossed the road to the restaurant. He found his thoughts wandering back to Charlotte. Does anyone call her Charlie? he mused, thinking he might like to. Then he had to laugh at himself.
He was almost thirty–two years old and acting like a preteen who’d just noticed his first pretty girl. Owen opened the door of the restaurant and looked around. He’d barely talked to her, shouldn’t even be thinking about her or picturing the way she’d looked…
The thought died, because there across the restaurant, sitting right across from his sister and next to his nephew was Charlotte. If anything, she was prettier without the sun shining in his eyes. She wore a white sundress with tiny straps that left her shoulders bare.
Her thick wavy hair had dried to a lighter golden brown with even lighter highlights. It fell thick and long with just a hint of wave several inches past her shoulders. There was a little more color added to her face, not a lot, and something subtle and glossy on her pretty lips.
He made his way across the room, and when he got close enough, he saw that her eyes were brown—a warm, sweet melted-chocolate brown that matched her smile. He didn’t stumble, even if his heart thumped a beat out of step. And in that instant, he felt like someone had punched him in the chest.