Scrambling to get my shoes on, I hopped in place and tugged at the heel of my sneakers—and promptly lost my footing.
My son’s eyes widened and he rushed to catch me, but it was too late. I pitched forward, hands splayed to catch my fall, and crashed into the housekeeping cart parked in the hall outside of our suite.
The whole cart tipped over and individually wrapped rolls of toilet paper, bars of soap, mini shampoos, coffee and tea satchels, and freshly laundered towels tumbled onto the floor. I yelped as I went down with the mess, unceremoniously landing on my rear end with a grunt.
Noah hustled down the hallway and stood over me, wincing. “Are you okay?”
Grumbling under my breath, I got to my feet. “Next year, we’re not doing this anymore.”
He blinked up at me. “Knocking over maid carts?”
“Leaving everything to the last minute and rushing to get a certain someone to school,” I said, gently flicking him in the forehead.
He grinned. “You say that every year.”
“Well this time I mean it.” I poked my head in the open door of the suite across the hall from ours at Turtle Cove Resort. Our home. One of the maids, a young woman we’d hired too recently for me to remember her name, stripped the bed while listening to music in her headphones, head bobbing along to the beat. I waved to get her attention and gestured at the mess I’d made when she looked up. “Sorry!”
She smiled and waved me off.
I grabbed Noah’s hand. “Let’s go. We can’t miss your last day of school.”
We took off together down the hallways toward the lobby, the heels of my sneakers squeaking with every step.
“Holy crap! I can’t believe I’m almost gonna be in high school.” Noah flashed me a boyish smile, and my heart clenched.
“Yeah, me neither,” I said. “And don’t say that word.”
Noah rolled his eyes and gave me a wry smile. “Yes, Mom. Holy smokes. I can’t believe I’m gonna be in high school.”
My baby wasn’t a baby at all anymore. My goofy boy with a head full of dreams had recently sprouted the beginnings of a teenage attitude, but it had been just Noah and me against the world for so long. Now, he was closer to manhood than toddlerhood. That fact alone made my insides shrivel up with bittersweet grief. My sister, Aspen, was my rock in raising him, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I felt this nostalgia harder because I was a single mom. As a solo parent, it was damned hard not to make his life my whole life.
Which will leave me where once he moves on?
I shook my head, digging in my purse to find my keys. They always fell to the bottom of the clutter, and I always swore I would switch to a smaller bag. Some things never changed, like, in this instance, the mad rush to get Noah to school on time.
We lived here on the second floor of the Turtle Cove Resort. Noah had practically grown up here, and it was home in every sense of the word. He’d almost been born here, back when I was a waitress at the on-site restaurant and he decided to make his swift arrival earlier than my Ob-Gyn expected. Cue nervous customers sipping pina coladas while their young waitress’s water broke all over their open-toed sandals. Not my finest moment. But then, just like now, Noah waited for no one.
Thirteen, almost fourteen long years ago. It feels like so long ago yet not.
I grimaced, missing the slim stick of metal of my key at the bottom of my purse. I didn’t have time to get all emotional and sappy about Noah, how fast he was growing up, and where my life would go next with him as a bona fide teenager. Right now was not an opportune moment to be sidetracked with my musings.
I glanced at the clock above the elevator as we rushed to the stairs. “Crap!”
“Don’t say that word,” he singsonged back to me.
We pushed into the stairwell and jogged down the flight of stairs. I would never claim to be mom of the year, but I was usually good about watching what I said around him. When he was a toddler, he proved to be an accurate parrot with perfect hearing, never missing a slip-up or even catching profanity from strangers walking by at the resort. I did try to be the best role model I could be, but with him already towering over me, an inch taller at twelve, and his voice starting to change, I feared once again that I would only be half of the role model he needed before real adulthood.
Despite my better logic, I worried that he needed a dad more than ever.
“Noah!” The head of housekeeping tsked as she pushed her cart along a hall on the first floor. “Where you going, son? It’s summer!”
“Nope. Last day of school, Tina!”
She shook her head. “Then move it, move it. Don’t be late.” She grinned at me, used to this morning ritual of hurrying him to school. The distance from his school and Turtle Cove wasn’t ideal, but this place was home.
“Have a good day, Noah,” another housekeeper called out as we rushed by.
I smiled at her, still frantically seeking my keys, then cursed under my breath. I know I put them in here!
“You, too, Marlene!” He turned, waving at the older woman who never failed to help him with his algebra homework.
Noah had grown up here, and all of the employees Aspen and I hired knew him. I might lose too much time and sleep worrying about the absence of a father for my son, but I was comforted by the extended family he had here. Miguel, in the maintenance department, tried to be a fatherly figure. Ricky, on second-shift security, had given him words of fatherly wisdom too. But having decent men on staff was no substitution for an actual father.
“Hey, Erica!” he called out as we rushed past the restaurant. “Have a good day!”
I smiled alongside him, knowing I’d have another chance to properly greet everyone once I was back from the frantic rush of school drop-off. We were a family here, and I swore that vibe was what helped keep the Turtle Cove cozy and more intimate than the huge high-rise places nearby that we competed with.
“Aha!” I grabbed the keys out of my purse. I finally found them, just in time as we jogged through the front lobby and past the check-in area.
“Maisie, Maisie, Mae.” Gerald shook his head at the valet area out front. He liked to think of himself as a doorman extraordinaire during downtime. “You just gotta get them school people to let a bus come by here and take him to school! It’ll save you this mornin’ rush!”
I turned, backpedaling with Noah. “I tried! It’s not ‘residential’ here to have the bus come.”
Gerald pursed his lips and shook his head.
“Besides, I’ll be driving soon!” Noah exclaimed. “I’m almost in high school now!”
I held back a wince. No. Please don’t remind me.
“Slow your roll, mister,” Gerald replied in his scratchy old voice. “You got another year at junior high yet!”
Even that felt surreal. It seemed like just yesterday Noah was starting kindergarten.
Get a grip, Maisie.
I wasn’t sure what it was about my mood this morning. It was one of those days when he was too eager to grow up and be a man, and my heart broke faster. How could he be a good man if he never had his dad to teach him how to be one? The worry of falling short ate at me as we hustled to my car.
“Will it be a normal pickup today?” he asked as we buckled in.
I started the car and nodded. “Yeah. Wait. No. Aspen will pick you up. I’ll be on a call with the tourist chamber.” The busy tourist season was almost upon us. My sister and I were more than prepared for the uptick in business at Turtle Cove, but another call wouldn’t hurt.
“Okay, Mom. But can I go out and catch some waves once she brings me home?”
I sighed. I couldn’t fault him for loving the water. I surfed when I was a kid back near Grand Isle. Surfing was in his blood, somewhat. But I didn’t know how other parents did it. The after-school time, even on the last day of school, was incredibly hard. Who the hell could manage it when the school day was so much shorter than the hours of a standard workday? It wasn’t fair.
“We’ll see. I think she’s got some things to do too.”
“But I could just go with Bobby and Marcus. Come on, Mom.”
He never whined much, but suggesting he go out with his beach-rat buddies wasn’t a good way to convince me. “Marcus seems to forget that you’re not allowed to go out as far as he can.”
“I’ll tell him. I won’t go that far. I promise.”
I turned, catching the end of a yellow light to make it on time. “We’ll see.”
He crossed his arms. “That just means no but you don’t wanna actually say no.”
“We. Will. See.” I glanced at him as I sped toward the school, ignoring the bright blue skies without a cloud in sight. It would be a perfect day full of Florida sunshine to be on the water or at the beach, but work was work. Now wasn’t the time for a full dose of mom guilt. “You’ll have all summer to get out there and enjoy your new board.”
“Not if I’m stuck inside at the resort because you and Aunt Aspen are working all day and don’t trust me to go on my own.” He turned, facing me fully as I pulled into the school parking lot. “I’m not a little kid anymore.”
But you’ll always be my baby.
“I know, buddy.” I braked and reached into the backseat for his lunchbox. “We’ll figure it out. Promise.” I smiled wide, and I was happy when he returned the sentiment, grinning with so much innocence it thawed my heart that much more.
“Love you, Mom. Bye!” He rushed out of the car, used to the frantic pace of the car line at school. If we lingered for a millisecond longer, someone was liable to honk.
As I drove back to the resort, I heaved out a deep breath. How will I figure it out though? It didn’t matter if Noah was in school or not. I couldn’t ever stop working. Aspen and I were both workaholics, but that was just the way we were. We truly came from nothing and built a fabulous life together over the past decade. That was all possible from our hard work, and not a day went by that we took it for granted.
Still, every day was the same. Drop Noah off at school, or over break, hopefully a camp or something he won’t be bored with. Then run the resort with my sister. Then pick up Noah. Dinner. Mom mode and facing my nemesis, AKA helping him with homework. And last, after his bedtime, slumping on the couch and going through emails to be on top of the next day of work.
The same old. It was a daily grind I’d gotten used to, but for some reason, it was getting to me. I never, ever made time for myself, and with Noah already groaning about what he could do in the summer, I knew it would be even harder for me to lose the guilt long enough to focus on any me time. It was fraying at my edges, though, and I feared something would have to give sooner or later.
The minute I returned to the resort, I grabbed coffee from the check-in and hurried up to the third floor where Aspen and I kept our offices. Hers was messier while she did her thing of handling marketing, but my workspace was organized and tidy, all the better to make sure running the operations half of the business went smoothly. She waited for me there, sipping her coffee.
“Late night?” I teased of her tired look. I heard her coming in past midnight. Her apartment was just across the hall from Noah and me.
“Meh. Just couldn’t sleep. Let’s do this.”
I nodded, shelving further questions about her date that didn’t impress her, and sat down to have our meeting about the upcoming season. Afterward, though, she turned the tables on me.
I sighed. When she used that serious big-sister tone that reeked of curiosity, I knew a tricky question was coming. Aspen was only two years older than me, but with our parents passing away from an accident when I was six and she was eight, she was always a motherly person in my life.
“We’re solid with this place for the season, but what about you?”
I furrowed my brow. “I’m confident about it too. What do you mean?”
“You.” She pointed at me. “Are you going to take time off this summer?”
First, Noah. Now you. I sighed again.
“What if you sign up for some dating sites?”
I huffed a laugh. “Be serious.”
“I am!” She took my phone and unlocked it. “Maybe you can have some adventures with a handsome man instead of being alone and miserable.”
“I’m not miserable.” I balked at the idea of seeking out a man. Like I have time for that. If she wanted to actively date, fine. She could. She was the “fun” aunt Noah needed, but while she was free to date, I wasn’t sure if I ever would be.
She leaned in toward my desk. “Maise. When’s the last time you even had sex?”
I bit on my lower lip and thought about it. “I, uh, I honestly don’t remember.”
Aspen raised her brows and tucked her pin-straight blonde hair behind her ear.
“Look, it’s not the same. You can date and it’s just whatever. If I date someone, I’ve got Noah to worry about and—”
“Hold up.” She lifted her hand. “If you date, you have to worry about who you might bring into Noah’s life. Sure. But as his aunt, and someone who lives near him, I worry about that too. Please don’t make excuses for the sake of arguing with me on this. You need to focus on yourself, too.”
It’s just not the same.
“Come on, please?” She waggled my phone and gave me that teasing smile that always won me over.
“Fine.” I rolled my eyes. She could download all those apps but that didn’t mean I’d have to use them.
“Okay, I’ve got your profile on here.”
I dropped my jaw. “Already?”
“It doesn’t take long to transfer info from your other apps.” She lit up and showed me the screen. “See! You’ve already got matches.”
I narrowed my eyes then deadpanned. “Because you used a picture of me in a bikini top as my profile image.”
“So? You’ve got a killer rack.” She stood and handed my phone back to me. “Happy hunting.” She winked and left me to it.