Just a Touch Away
by Chris Paynter
When a family tragedy strikes, successful children’s book author Lindsey Marist withdraws from her world. Barely coping with day-to-day living, she isolates herself in her cabin. Her troubled mind seems unable to write another uplifting children’s story.
Artist Cloe Parsons struggles to sell her work. She supplements her income by helping out at her parents’ grocery store. Trips to deliver Lindsey’s groceries spark a friendship between the two women that evolves over the course of a summer. When the longtime illustrator of Lindsey’s books retires, the door opens for Cloe to step in and be hired to illustrate Lindsey’s next release.
As they work together on each page of the new book Cloe has urged Lindsey to try, Lindsey and Cloe grow closer. Will Lindsey be able to break free from her sadness and follow her heart? Will Cloe finally take a chance on love that is just a touch away? A relationship between the two seems ideal, but will it happen? Can it happen?
Chapter 1 Excerpt
The water surrounding her grew darker with each foot deeper that she plunged. She flailed her arms, kicked her legs, and fought with every ounce of her strength. But that strength was waning—fast. She looked above. Light from the surface pierced the blackness with shafts of hope. She grasped at that hope.
Pushing her arms and legs against the water’s density, she refused to give in to despair, refused to let this kill her. With another stroke of her arms and kick of her legs, fearing they’d be her last, she struggled for those last inches to the surface. Just as her fingertips reached the air above that would save her life, her desperate need to breathe forced her to open her mouth and gulp in water. She gagged and choked as it filled her lungs. . .
Lindsey Marist gasped and sat up against her headboard. Her heart pounded hard. She tried to catch her breath and clutched at her chest. As her heartbeat returned to a more normal pace, she noticed her dog, Fred, had stirred from his bed on the floor. He placed his nose on the mattress and whimpered.
“It’s okay, boy. It’s okay.” She patted the mattress. “Come on. I know you’re worried.”
With Lindsey’s help, he pulled himself up with his stubby legs. He had the perfect beagle face and lemon-spotted coloring, but Lindsey thought the other half might be basset because of his long body and short legs. Regardless, he was a noisy hound and made it known right away if he wasn’t getting enough attention. Howling was an art form to Fred. He tried to stay upright on the mattress as he hobbled over to Lindsey, put his head on her lap, and stared at her with his light-brown, soulful eyes.
“I’ve been having that dream a lot lately, huh, Fred?”
He licked her hand.
Pain shot through her heart. God, she knew why she had the dream. She didn’t need a therapist to interpret the symbolism. The dream mirrored her daily struggle to overcome the living nightmare that visited her family starting three years ago. The inevitable tragedy weighed her down like a heavy, black cloak that she couldn’t discard. Despite the best efforts of her family, she gradually withdrew from life, which included Elise, her ex.
For the past year, Lindsey insulated and isolated herself in her cabin getaway. Located on Lake Monroe, the cabin wasn’t that far from Bloomington, Indiana. Not that it mattered. She rarely ventured into town anymore. Luckily, as a children’s book author, she could work from home.
So, here she sat. Alone in her cabin. Alone in her bed. She stroked Fred’s soft ears. Well, except for her dog who never judged her, never asked why she couldn’t move on from the sadness. He also never bugged her to see a therapist, as her family encouraged her to do.
“You’re my therapist, aren’t you, boy?”
He gazed up at her, and she could swear he understood.
Lindsey glanced over at the bedside clock. Three a.m. She should at least try to get to sleep. Maybe some milk would help. Heck, maybe even cookies and some milk. She jumped out of bed and headed to the kitchen, Fred right on her heels. She smiled down at him. “You know the routine, don’t you?” Fred accompanied her on many early-morning cookie runs after she awakened from a nightmare.
She grabbed the package of Oreos from the cabinet, pulled out two, and poured herself a glass of milk. Fred stared up at her as she dunked the cookie into her milk.
“Okay, okay.” Lindsey finished one cookie and got Fred a couple of treats. “You might as well join me.” She poured a small scoop of dog food into Fred’s dish. While she dunked the other cookie, she thought about her manuscript that was due back to her editor in three weeks. “Jesus, three weeks and I’m not even halfway done.” And she feared it was too depressing for a children’s book. She already sent in the preliminary pages for her editor’s feedback. She’d yet to hear from Sylvia Goldman who could be a hard-ass. She dreaded that call.
Lindsey finished her early morning snack and went back to bed. She tucked herself under her covers and sighed. Fred settled on his own bed. He let out a long sigh to echo hers. She stared up at the ceiling and thought about her writing. Yes, she was a best-selling children’s book author with a longstanding series of books. But how could she continue to write cheery, upbeat stories when her inspiration was gone?
She rolled onto her side, punched her pillow, and tried to go back to sleep. She hoped no more nightmares would disrupt her slumber.
* * *
“Mom, where do you want me to stack these empty crates?” Cloe Parsons yelled from the storage room.
Waiting on a customer at the front of the store, her mother, Fiona, shouted to her, “In the back. You’ll see the other ones but bring one crate out here.”
Cloe lugged a wooden crate to the counter. She waited for her mom to finish with an older customer.
“How is Chuck, Fiona?”
“Fine. Out fishing with his buddies this afternoon.”
“Let him know that my Ted is ready to beat him at poker Friday night.”
“I will, Alice.” Fiona sacked the last of her groceries. “Do you need Cloe to help you with these to your car?”
Alice picked up both bags. “No. I’ve got this, thanks.” As Alice passed Cloe, she said, “Sweetheart, you get prettier with each passing year.”
Cloe felt the blush hit her full force.
Alice chuckled. “No need to be embarrassed. It’s the truth. I’ll see you next week, Fiona.”
Cloe watched her leave and turned to her mom. “What’s with the empty crate?”
“Lindsey Marist called in her grocery order this morning.”
“Lindsey Marist? The children’s book author?”
“Now, how would you know that? Do you read children’s books?”
“I happened to be walking past Book ’n Cranny in Bloomington and saw that she was having a reading that day.” Cloe didn’t add how attracted she’d been to the author’s photo from the poster in the window. She knew author head shots were supposed to be complimentary, but damn. The woman was gorgeous. Short dark hair that fell over her eyes. Blue eyes the shade of the Caribbean. She was aware her mother had said something. “Huh?”
“Do I want to know where you just went?”
For the second time in less than two minutes, Cloe felt her face heat up.
“I asked if you attended the reading.”
“I had an appointment to get to, so I didn’t go in.” Cloe had wanted to, though. “I didn’t realize she was a local.”
“She’s originally from Bloomington. She owns one of the cabins on the Pointe and has lived there for the past year or so.”
While I was away, Cloe thought.
“She used to come in for her own groceries when she first moved on the lake, but that changed over time. We hardly ever see her out.”
Cloe wondered what happened to cause the woman to become reclusive.
Fiona handed her a list. “This is what she needs. She’s already paid.”
Cloe scanned the list that consisted of basics. She smiled when she spotted the Oreo cookies. Must not be too big of a health nut. She quickly made her way up and down the familiar aisles. Her parents had owned the store since Cloe was a kid. They did well since they were the only store close to the lake. The locals were faithful in returning for their groceries time and again. She put the last of the list—the Oreos—on top and approached the counter.
“I think I got all of it.”
“Great. Can you drive it to her cabin if I give you directions?”
Fiona scribbled a map. “Can you make that out?”
“It’s not hard, Mom. I know where the cabins are.”
“Listen. This is important. She doesn’t like to be disturbed. She’s expecting the groceries this afternoon. She has an enclosed front porch. Leave the crate by the inside door. Don’t knock.”
Cloe wanted to ask about the routine, but seeing her mom’s serious expression, she decided to let it go.
* * *
Cloe stopped her truck at the crossroads leading to the cabins. After glancing at the directions to refresh her memory, she made a right and followed the long road to the very end. Only one cabin sat back from the road. She pulled into the paved drive and shifted into park. She gazed at the rustic log cabin for a long moment then lifted the crate off the seat of her Ford pickup.
Striding up the gravel path to the door, she took in the immaculate landscaping. She wondered if Lindsey Marist had a green thumb or if she had it professionally done. For some reason, she hoped Lindsey, at the very least, enjoyed working with Mother Earth.
Cloe slid the crate into the crook of her left arm and pulled open the screen door to the covered porch. A deep “woof” greeted her, and she almost dropped the crate. A funny looking hound, what her dad would call a “two dogs long, half dog tall” dog, trotted up to her, his tail wagging a mile a minute. Cloe set the crate next to the front door and knelt.
“Hello there”—she ducked her head to check the sex—“little guy.” She held her hand out to let the dog sniff her. “You look like you might be part beagle, huh?” He licked her hand. Cloe scratched behind his ears which caused him to groan in appreciation. “Doesn’t that feel good? Yes it does. It feels good.”
The front door swung open. Cloe looked up to find Lindsey Marist frowning down at her.
Cloe scrambled to her feet. “Uh. Hi.” She held out her hand. “Cloe Parsons. I’m Fiona’s daughter. I know I was supposed to leave the food here, but your dog—”
“Fred,” Lindsey said in a husky voice. She didn’t reach for Cloe’s hand.
Refusing to let the tall, dark-haired woman intimidate her, Cloe decided to hold her hand out until Lindsey acknowledged her.
Lindsey finally gave in and shook Cloe’s hand. “Lindsey Marist.”
“I know.” Cloe gave Lindsey her best smile but barely received a response. She tried to observe the woman without being obvious. Her first thought was Lindsey looked washed out. These were not the clear blue eyes that had drawn Lindsey’s attention from the bookstore poster. Whatever had beaten Lindsey down had hammered her hard.
Cloe motioned at the beagle mix who gazed up at Lindsey. “Fred wanted my attention.” She leaned over and scratched his head. “He’s pretty demanding.”
Lindsey finally cracked a smile. “He can be.”
Cloe ran her hand through her hair, something she did when she was nervous. “Anyway. Mom gave me your list, and I made sure I put everything in the crate.”
“You’re Fiona’s daughter?”
Lindsey peered into the crate. “Looks like you got the most important thing.”
Cloe saw what Lindsey focused on. She laughed. “The Oreos?”
Lindsey’s smile grew. “A staple for me.”
Cloe couldn’t help it. She raked her gaze from Lindsey’s face, down her body, and back up. She met Lindsey’s pointed stare, obviously noticing Cloe’s blatant appraisal.
Cloe pushed on to hide her embarrassment at being caught ogling. “Oreos are my favorite, too. Nothing like a cold glass of milk and an Oreo.” She winced. God, I sound like a kid.
They didn’t speak for a few seconds. Cloe gave her head a little shake. “I should head back. My mom’s probably wondering where I am.”
“I’ve never seen you in the store.” Lindsey stared down at her feet. “But it’s been awhile since I’ve come in.”
“I was finishing up graduate school at IU, so I haven’t worked there until recently.” At Lindsey’s curious look, Cloe said, “Kind of a late bloomer. I took some time off before going back for my master’s in art.” She ran her hand through her hair again. “Even though I enjoy sketching, I haven’t found anything to do with my degree yet. I like helping out my parents.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
Cloe wanted to say something else to get Lindsey to smile again but was at a loss. She motioned at her truck. “Like I said, I better head back. It was nice meeting you, Ms. Marist.”
“It’s Lindsey. I’m not that old, although I probably look like it.”
“You don’t. You look great.”
This time, Lindsey’s blue eyes sparkled with amusement.
Cloe covered her face with her hand. “God. Okay. Gotta go before I embarrass myself more.” She quickly spun on her heel and opened the screen door. Lindsey’s voice stopped her.
“Thanks for bringing out the groceries, Cloe. Tell Fiona I said hi.”
Cloe gave a little wave and hustled to her truck. She opened the door, slid into the driver’s seat, and started the engine. Lindsey waved back then picked up the crate and entered the cabin with Fred on her heels.
Cloe backed onto the road, muttering, “‘You look great’? Jesus, Cloe.”
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