Whisper of Surrender

CHAPTER 1

“Online dating is about as much fun as getting a tattoo over a sunburn.” Jessa Myers’ statement fell on deaf ears.

Her feline companions didn’t hear a word she said. One of them, literally. Elvis Pawsley, her hearing-impaired cat, sat beside her in her breakfast nook, his tail flicking as he bathed himself while soaking in the morning sun as it streamed through the bay window. Next to him Marilyn Purroe was lounging on her throne pillow. She could hear just fine. She just didn’t acknowledge Jess’s existence unless there was food involved.

“You have no idea how lucky you are to be neutered,” she said to Elvis as she ran her hand over his head. She looked back down at her phone and tried to will herself a positive attitude.

If it was up to her, her love life would be like a John Hughes movie. She wanted to meet the man of her dreams organically, not online. But that wasn’t reality. Reality was that this was a numbers game. So, even after her dud of a date the night before, Jessa was determined to get back on the dating horse. Which in this day and age, especially living in a town as small as Whisper Lake, meant using technology.

So here she was, sitting at her kitchen table, sipping a green tea as she swiped her way through a dating app that hadn’t been particularly successful for her in the past.

Her thumb slid over her screen as she quickly moved through dozens of potential matches.

Shirtless guy with guitar.

“Nope.” She swiped left.

Guy standing in front of a sports car.

“Uh-uh.”

Duck-face selfie of a guy with better eyebrows than her.

“Oh, hell no.”

She was just about to swipe again when a face popped up on her screen that she’d never swipe left on. Her best friend, Ali was calling.

She answered, “Hello soon-to-be Mrs. McKnight.”

“That still feels so weird.”

“Really? Because you’ve been pretending to be Mrs. McKnight since you were in elementary school.” Ali had been crushing on her fiancé Kade McKnight since they were kids. Unlike other girls who played wedding day dress up and doodled their crush’s names on notebooks, Ali and Jessa would play business women and store owners, which was exactly what they were now, and Ali would always sign “invoices” and “checks” as Mrs. Allison McKnight.

Now she was going to be living out her childhood fantasy of being Mrs. McKnight. Two days ago, Kade had asked Ali to marry him.

“I know I have, but that was always make-believe. This is actually happening. I still can’t quite believe I’m getting married.”

Jess was happy for her friend. Ali had been raising her teenage nephews, KJ and Ricky, since her older brother Patrick had passed a year and a half ago due to a brain aneurysm. She was the sweetest, most selfless person that Jess knew and she deserved all the happiness in the world. And she knew that Kade was going to do everything in his power to bring her that happiness.

Jessa heard a deep male voice in the background.

“You better believe it because it’s happening.”

“Hello, Kade.”

“Jess says hi,” she heard Ali say before then hearing some very distinct kissing sounds.

“Hello!” Jess interrupted the impromptu make out session. “I’m still on the phone.”

“Sorry,” Ali said breathlessly as she giggled. “How did your date go last night?”

“I was home by seven.”

“I thought you were meeting him at six-thirty.”

“I was.”

“Oh boy, what was it this time?”

Jessa gave her the Cliffs Notes version of her most recent dating disaster.

Ali made a hissing noise. “Sorry, Charlie.”

“It’s okay, bae.” Ali might be an engaged woman, but she would always be Jess’s before-anyone-else.

“Aunt Ali!”

Jess heard one of the twins call out from another room.

“Hang on, KJ!” Ali responded before returning to their call. “I gotta go. Oh, wait! I was calling to see if you’re free for dinner?”

“Are you cooking?” Ali had many amazing gifts but cooking was not one of them. Since her friend took over parental duties after her brother passed, Jess had choked down more than her fair share of dinners that barely passed as food. Luckily, Ali was well aware of her shortcomings.

“No. You’re safe.” Ali assured her.

“Then yes, I’m free.”

“Dumbass! No!”

“I hope you’re talking to the dog,” Jess teased.

Dumbass was the name bestowed on Kade and Ali’s dog by its former owner, Kade’s late father. Ali had done her best to change the name, but Dumbass refused to answer to anything else, so it stuck.

“I am,” Ali assured her and, in the background, Jess heard one of the boys telling the dog no. “Does Lanterns at seven work?”

“Yep. See ya then.”

Just before the line disconnected, she heard her friend squeal in delight and giggle again.

Jess set her phone down and a melancholy cloud settled around her. As happy as she was that Ali and Kade were going to live happily ever after, it was hard not to wish she had someone making her giggle as she got off the phone.

She’d been trying to be positive and simply look at this time in her life as an adventure. It was proving to be much more difficult than it should be. No one online was who they said they were and people in real life only seemed to be interested in being online. Her last three dates had crashed and burned all in their own unique ways.

Date number one had shown up thirty minutes late, claiming to have been tied up at work. Which, in his defense, might’ve been true, it’s just that Jess didn’t wait around to find out after she spotted the ring on his left finger. He turned white as a ghost when she pointed it out to him.

Date number two was fortunately both on time and ringless, but his breath was so bad she’d barely made it past introductions.

But the worst by far had been last night’s date. Date number three. He wasn’t married or suffering from halitosis. His only crime was that he gave her hope only to squash that hope like a bug beneath a steel-toed boot.

Holden was employed, attractive, funny, and smart. And fifteen minutes into their date she discovered he was also a chain smoker. Jess had been born with a congenital heart condition and breathing was far too precious to her to sacrifice for anyone; even someone as hot as Holden.

Her hand drifted over the large scar that she wore proudly on her breastplate. Without this scar, she wouldn’t be here. But because of this scar, someone else wasn’t here. Someone else had had to die so she could live. That was a sobering reality to be faced with.

She’d met the family of her donor. Alice Tapper was a grad student who was engaged to be married to her high school sweetheart when she was killed in a car accident. By all accounts she was kind, generous, and loved by all that knew her. Family was everything to her and she was so excited to be starting her own.

Maybe it was silly, but Jess felt a responsibility to Alice who would never get to fulfill the dreams she’d had. She wanted an HEA for the both of them. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t turning out to be all that easy. Nothing she was doing was working.

It wasn’t a complete shock that she was clueless in all things love. Up to this point, all of her romantic milestones had asterisks beside them.

First kiss, she’d been nine years old and overheard her parents talking after her mom got a call from the doctor who’d told them that the last stint hadn’t done what they’d hoped and without a miracle, Jess’s outlook was grave. Even at nine, she’d known what that meant. So she snuck out of her house and went down to the pier to think.

She hadn’t planned it, but she’d ended up kissing a poor, unsuspecting tourist boy that had come to check on her when he saw her crying. It had been a good kiss, a great kiss even, but she’d got embarrassed when she pulled back so she’d made some sarcastic comment about it not being that great.

She thought about that kid a lot.

Did he remember the girl that told him in one breath she was dying and in the next, leaned over and planted a big one on him?

Her first boyfriend had been born out of convenience and pity when she was fifteen. There was a boy at the children’s hospital that was even sicker than she was and he’d asked her to be his girlfriend. She’d agreed because how could she say no to a boy that she knew most likely wouldn’t leave the hospital alive. And she was glad she had because he hadn’t, and she didn’t have to live with the guilt of blowing off the dying kid. She’d spent six weeks as Tommy Clark’s “girlfriend” before he passed away. It wasn’t nearly as romantic as the movie The Fault in our Stars was, but sometimes she liked to pretend it was.

The first time she had sex was even less spectacular than these previous two milestones. Given her condition, birthdays were pretty big accomplishments back then and she’d secretly made a pact with herself that if she made it to eighteen, she was having sex and getting a tattoo on her birthday. She figured go big or go home.

She looked down and ran her thumb over the words inked on each wrist. On her left just and on her right breathe. Afterward she’d met Louis Rickman up at Star Gaze Point, the local lookout spot. She’d known Louis since grade school. He was decent looking and he’d told her he wasn’t a virgin. Looking back though, she was pretty sure he’d lied because he’d fumbled with the condom and then lasted all of two pumps.

All of those experiences had had one thing in common: they were related to her health, or lack thereof. Now, she didn’t have a ticking time bomb that was counting down the seconds until her death. She was free to live her life and date whomever she wanted with only the expectation of eventual death, just like everyone else. It was strange, but certain death did give life an odd clarity that she hadn’t realized she’d feel somewhat lost without.

But she was doing her best to figure it out. She took another sip of her tea and thought about how far she’d come. Over the past few years, she’d moved out on her own, became co-owner of a business, and started to try and dip her toe in the dating pool. Unfortunately, her life wasn’t turning out to be a romantic dramedy. Digital dating was like the Wild West, and Jess felt ill-equipped to navigate it.

She was half-tempted to call in Whisper Lake’s “matchmaking mafiosas” for reinforcements. Mrs. Dobrinski, Mrs. Chen, and Mrs. Weathersby were three women, all in their eighties who founded The Needlepoint Mafia knitting club of which Jessa was a needle-carrying member. Those three women ran the town of Whisper Lake like mob bosses, but instead of ordering hits on people they ordered meet-cutes.

The trio of cupids chose an unwitting subject and then went about creatively throwing that person into random run-ins and compromising situations with potential mates they deemed suitable. For the most part, the ladies never confirmed or denied their shenanigans. But once, after Mrs. Weathersby had had a few too many at the Christmas Festival, she’d let slip that “if” they set people up, their strategy for love connections was throwing noodles against a wall and seeing what stuck.

The matchmaking dons’ current target was the one man Jess knew she’d never end up with who also happened to be the only man she’d ever dreamed of a forever with.

Ethan Steele.

For years, Jess had been battling a private, internal war over what she felt for the man whose caramel eyes, strong shoulders, and deep voice made her insides turn to mush. Where her friend Ali had always admitted to being in love with Kade since they were kids, Jess had always chosen to hide her infatuation with Ethan.

It was a cruel twist of fate that her brain and body were at such odds as to what was good for her where Ethan was concerned. As much as she’d love to give into her base desires, she knew she couldn’t.

Would she and Ethan be compatible between the sheets? If the fireworks she felt every time she saw him, or even thought of him, were any indication, then yes, they absolutely would.

But would they make each other happy? Well, if the frustration and irritation she felt every time she saw him or even thought about him were any indication, she felt safe to say that no, they would not.

He was too overbearing. Too overprotective. Too over…everything. He was just too much.

The way he looked at her was unnerving. He watched her every move, every breath, every smile. He was living out the Police song, but not as stalkery. More like in a concerned friend way. The problem was that she’d spent her whole life being watched with concern. Between her parents and her doctors, everything about her had been studied since she was a small child. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life under that kind of scrutiny, even if it were Ethan doing the scrutinizing.

Plus, she was still holding a grudge from when he narked on her the first day of high school. She’d left first period to go get her oxygen tank, which she’d stuffed in her locker but should’ve had with her, and on the way passed out in the hall. Of course, he’d been the one to find her. He promised her he wouldn’t tell anyone but then she was called to the nurses’ office the next period. It might not be a big deal to other people, but trust was something that she took very seriously. She’d looked in his eyes when he’d promised her, and he’d lied.

So, as much as she’d love to experience Ethan’s single-minded focus between the sheets, she wasn’t going to let that happen.

“Moving on,” she announced aloud to Elvis and Marilyn who could’ve cared less as she scrolled through the icons on her screen.

She’d heard of a new dating app and decided there was no time like the present to fill out her profile. She’d heard good things and the ads with “real people not actors” had sucked her in.

The white logo punctuated with a heart popped up on her screen.

What are you looking for? Jess silently read the question.

“What am I looking for?”

Even to her own ears, it sounded like a loaded question. She clicked the boxes that provided the most general terms of her qualifications.

Gender: Men. As much as she’d sometimes wished she could bat for the other team because it would give her more options, she was strictly dickly.

Age range. She hesitated before selecting. At twenty-eight she had no desire to date anyone younger than her, nor did she want to date anyone that much older than her. She chose twenty-eight to thirty-two, but then she worried she was limiting her options too much.

Online dating was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Some people, like those “not actors” on the commercial, were lucky and got pricked on their first attempt while others (herself included) couldn’t seem to get pricked no matter how much searching they did.

But what was her alternative? Not only was the Whisper Lake dating pool the size of a dog bowl, it was also limited to people that she’d either known her entire life or knew everything about because any newcomers were immediately vetted and their life stories were loaded on the gossip train and distributed through town.

This time of year there was always a new crop of tourists, but she considered them more of a fling-type situation. They generally didn’t come to the lake to find true love. She checked out the drop-down menu options. Her choices were committed relationship, casual relationship, or just here for fun.

It was an odd thing to ponder considering up until a couple of years ago, she’d been living on borrowed time. When you never expect to see thirty, planning for the future isn’t necessary.

But since receiving her new heart, and lease on life everything had changed. It had taken a little bit to adjust. But she was starting to.

The honest answer was that what she wanted was the kind of true love that was as rare as a unicorn. Some people didn’t believe that the magical beasts existed, but she’d grown up in the same house as the single-horned creature in the form of her happily married parents.

John and Bonnie Myers were hashtag-relationship-goals. People always commented on how strong their relationship was. Some had even asked her if they were really like that or if they were different at home. The honest answer was yes, they were different at home. At home, they were worse. They were even sweeter and showed even more PDA.

Jess couldn’t count the number of times she’d seen her dad playfully swat her mom’s rear or how many times she’d witnessed her mom snuggle up to her dad on the couch. They were like teenagers who couldn’t keep their hands off of each other, and they were celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary in two weeks.

It was an incredible relationship to witness, but they did set the bar high.

Her phone buzzed, and she looked down to see the man whose face lit up every time her mother walked into a room.

“Hey, Daddio!”

“Hey, baby girl. Did you get my message?”

“Do you mean the one you left at nine-sixteen on Tuesday night?” Jess lowered her voice to mimic, okay mock, her father.

John Myers was a man of habit. Each voicemail he left, he made sure to include his name, the day, and the time of the message because that was what he’d done in the days of answering machines, new technology be damned.

“You think you’re real funny, don’t you?”

“What?” Jess asked innocently.

“You know you have an appointment with Dr. Richmond tomorrow.”

“Yes, dad. I know. I’m the one that told you, remember?” It had been three months since her last appointment, and although everything had been good then, she still got butterflies thinking about going in.

“I can take you.”

“It’s okay, Dad.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I know, but it’s fine.” As much as Jess appreciated her father’s unending support, it could be a little much sometimes.

Growing up, her dad was always watching her, just waiting for her lips to turn blue or her breathing pattern to change. As a kid, she just wanted to be a kid. She didn’t want to be reminded all of the time that she was sick, even if she felt sick all of the time. She didn’t need it reflected in the faces of the people around her.

Of course, she knew that it hadn’t been his intention to upset her, but there were times it had felt almost as suffocating as her condition.

“You know, just because you’re an adult now doesn’t mean you have to do this alone. Your mom and I are here if you need us.”

“I know.” And she appreciated it.

“Speaking of your mother, she said something about some questions for a game at the party.”

“Yes! You and mom are going to play the Newlywed Game. Brynn is coming up with the questions.”

Brynn was her other best friend. The third musketeer. When Jess had mentioned that she was throwing her parents an anniversary party, Brynn immediately offered to help.

“I don’t understand why we’re even doing it. Your mom and I are not newlyweds,” her dad complained.

John Myers was a fun, outgoing guy that had no problem being in front of a crowd if he had a speech to give or some other purpose, but he was also shy and hated unnecessary attention. When she’d mentioned the idea to her mom, who was also shy but not in the same way, she’d thought it would be fun.

“Yes dad, you’re not newlyweds. Mom’s been putting up with you for forty years so if she wants to play a game. I think it’s the least you could do.”

“She’s been putting up with me? Oh, and I guess because your mother’s perfect it’s been a walk in the park for me?” he teased.

It was a running joke in the family that Jess thought her mother was perfect. She did, but that was because she was.

“You’re right.” Jess agreed, knowing exactly how to push his buttons. “I’m sure it’s been torture being with her all these years. I can’t believe you lasted this long with her—”

Her dad took the bait and cut her off, “I don’t know what I would do without your mother.”

He talked a big game, but he worshiped her mom and could never follow through on any derogatory statements about her, even as a joke—even though he did maintain she wasn’t perfect.

“Good, so I guess playing a game isn’t too much to ask?”

“Jessa Nicole.”

She knew she’d won when her dad used her first and middle name.

Figuring it was getting close to time to leave, she glanced over at the clock and gasped. She was late. “I gotta go. I’ll call you tomorrow after I see the doctor.”

“I can take you. I don’t mind.” He tried again.

“I’ll call you tomorrow, Dad. I love you. Bye.”

“I love you, baby girl.”

The phone disconnected and she stood, downed the cocktail of prescriptions she’d be on for the rest of her life, rinsed out her cup, and grabbed her purse as she hustled out the door. As much as people liked to tease Jess because she was always late, it wasn’t intentional. She tried to be on time, but somehow it never quite worked out that way.

Take this morning. She’d gotten up on time and had been right on schedule until she sat down to have her second cup of coffee. A couple of phone calls later and she was fifteen minutes late.

Thankfully, she was her own boss as co-owner of The Mane Attraction, so the only person that could fire her was her business partner Amelia, who was very aware that she was punctually-challenged before they decided to take over the salon.

Technically, the salon was supposed to be open from ten to six, but she never scheduled a client before ten-thirty because, like Ali and her cooking, Jess was well aware of her shortcomings. Thankfully, Amelia, was punctual, organized, and had a head for numbers. They were the perfect pair.

Even though she was in a hurry, she paused after opening her front door and did a quick scan down both sides of the street. The coast was clear.

She hurriedly stepped onto her porch, then shut and locked the door behind her. She hightailed it to her car, making sure to keep her head down until a magnet force caused it to raise, and she saw the one person she’d hoped to avoid.

Ethan Steele in his basketball shorts, tennis shoes, and no shirt. He ran with the grace of a cheetah and the power of a lion. The sunlight shone down on him, highlighting the thin sheen of sweat that covered his shoulders and torso. He looked like he belonged at a Men’s Health cover shoot.

Jess cursed beneath her breath even as her mouth watered from the sight.

Damn. Now, she’d spend the rest of the day with visions of his muscular calves, rippled abs, and chiseled back popping up in her head like computer viruses.

He’d been running by her house several times a week for over a year now. And although she couldn’t prove it, she was sure that Ethan was orchestrating his morning workout to coincide with the time she left for work to mess with her.

The most frustrating part about that was, it was working.