Where I BelongBy: Claudia Connor
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.