“But why can’t you find my luggage?”
“It happens, miss. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, when you are taking a connecting flight -- as yours is -- the bags just don’t make the connection.”
“I know it happens, I’m a bloody travel writer for Jimmy’s sake.”
“Well,” the bloke behind the counter said, “There you go then. Don’t worry, it will probably turn up eventually. Until then, here’s a voucher on us. You can replace your basic necessities, and we will contact you the moment your bags arrive.”
“That, like, sucks,” said the California-tanned teen who had been Melissa’s seat mate all the way from Vancouver, British Columbia.
The girl, who’s name -- believe it or not -- was Barbie, had chattered non-stop for the entire four hours of their flight. Now, Mellie had a champion headache and no clean clothing. Hardly an auspicious beginning to the surfing school dream vacation she had hoarded for herself when she’d booked Christmas trips for herself and her twin sister.
She’d sent Isla off on a snowy ranch holiday -- insert evil laughter here -- and slotted herself into the Santa Cruz, California, surfing vacation. She supposed losing her luggage might be karma. Except, of course, Isla actually liked all that horsey ranch stuff.
And hey, Isla could just have easily done the bookings. It was her idea, after all, for the sisters to take separate vacations as writing fodder for their travel magazine, Near and Far Magazine. Her sister should have seen the writing on the wall the instant she’d delegated bookings to Melissa.
If Isla could only see her now. Her sister would be laughing all the way to the -- well, barn, Mellie supposed.
Now, Mellie let out a deep, dark sigh -- the very best kind of sigh, really -- and attempted to smile for the Barbie. She might find it hard to take her name seriously, but she was already envying the girl’s tan. Which was when she remembered that her favourite white polka dot micro bikini was in her suitcase. So, here she was in sunny California with a headache, no luggage, and no favourite bikini. Her half smile turned to a definite scowl.
“It sucks, indeed,” she said, but Barbie was no longer listening. Instead, the girl gave a little squeal -- so California -- and sprinted into the arms of the quintessential California surfer dude. He picked her up, swung her around, then planted a long, enthusiastic kiss on the girl that made Mellie go brows up.
That, right there, was how you started a surf vacation.
It gave her some perspective. She had her lap top slung over her shoulder with her wallet and passport and camera all safely inside the laptop bag, so really, it wasn’t the end of the world. Apparently, she was going to get to go shopping. The only question was, should she go here in San Jose, or wait until she picked up her rental car and drove the thirty miles to Santa Cruz?
She brightened at the thought and let the buzzing excitement of the airport take her mind off her own predicament. Airports, after all, were one of Mellie’s favourite places.
This one was packed full with Christmas travelers. Barbie and her surfer-dude had disappeared, but they were far from the only embracing couple she walked past on her way to the Envoy Rental Cars stall adjacent to the airport’s exit. The whole place was filled with an air of expectancy as family, friends and lovers greeted each other.
It all made Mellie smile, and she was still smiling at the rental counter -- right up until the moment the young Hispanic woman behind the counter squinted down at her computer screen and shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Miss Samms, but we simply have no record of your reservation.”
“Surely, you must be mistaken,” Mellie said in exasperation, “Or joking,” she added hopefully.
“No ma’am,” the girl said.
There was a hint of fatigue in the girl’s voice, but not even the slightest trace of sympathy. That alone stoked Mellie’s temper and knocked her resolve to retain perspective for a sideways loop. Grinding her molars slightly as she worked at keeping her mood from disintegrating completely, Mellie decided to move on from the mistake and simply take control of fixing the problem.
“Well, then I’d like to rent one.”
“Surely, we can take care of that for you. Would you prefer a Mustang convertible, or a Ford crew cab?”
“Excuse me? Neither. I simply want a standard economy vehicle.”
“I’m sorry, miss, but we don’t have any left at this location. If you would like to wait we can get one driven over from our car lot.”
“When you say wait, how long, precisely?”
“Oh, shouldn’t be more than fourty-five minutes to an hour.”
The girl shrugged. “That’s why it’s a good plan to reserve a car in advance, ma’am.”
“I did!” Mellie glared at the girl, then slapped her credit card down on the counter with all the aggression she was feeling clear in that one motion. “I’ll take the Mustang.”
And she’d write a scathing review once she was settled into her hotel in Santa Cruz. Which, she thought with an internal grumble, better be as she expected. Bad things did tend to happen in threes, after all.
Her mood took a distinct turn for the better when she laid eyes on the car she’d be driving for the next several days. It was black, and shiny, and sleek, and so beautiful.
The young man who led her to the car and gave her the rundown on all its special features was barely taller than her own 5’6”, but he was all swagger as he showed her how to put the top down on the convertible. She slipped behind the wheel with a grin on her face -- and found her toes would barely touch the pedals.
“Excuse me,” she called, and the young man turned back towards the car, “The car’s brilliant, for sure, but do be a dear and show me how to push this seat forward.”
The kid grinned and sauntered over. Leaning into the car, his fingers grazed her calf. At that moment, he looked up into her eyes, and Mellie saw it -- the touch had been deliberate. Cheeky bugger, and not what she had in mind for company on her holiday.
“There’s this bar here under the seat, ma’am,” the kid drawled, “You just pull up on it and scootch the seat on forward.”
“Right,” Mellie said, made an adjustment. “That’s hunky-dory, right there.”
The kid snorted at the expression, but Mellissa just grinned and shrugged his opinion away as she slammed the heavy door shut and wiggled her fingers in a little wave.
“Cheerio, then,” she called, and squealed the tires slightly as she accelerated out of the parking garage. In her rear-view, she saw the attendant standing there shaking his head, but she was too busy grinning with delight at the way the Mustang handled to be remotely concerned.
The sun was blinding, and hot on her exposed shoulders, but that only made Mellie grin more. California, baby. She’d made it. Now this was what a vacation was meant to be like.
The smells of exhaust were strong in her nostrils as she idled at the stoplight. While she waited for the light to turn green, her fingers ran over the leather of the steering wheel in a kind of awe. This machine was ace, and she planned to enjoy every moment behind the wheel. Sure, she’d never generally splurge on a luxury vehicle like this when an economy model would more than do, but then again, it was Christmas. Certainly, she deserved a treat?
And in that spirit, Mellie thought as she accelerated out of the intersection, she would do her shopping in Santa Cruz. For right now, behind the wheel of this car was precisely where she wanted to be.
She cruised past a stone mural of hands and powered down Airport Boulevard onto the offramp that would take her onto Highway 17 headed towards the ocean. The land around her was flat, and even this close to Christmas it looked as sunbaked as the cement barricades lining each side of the highway cutting through the residential districts of the city. The sky was cloudless blue, and as the wind whipped her hair and sent it flying, Mellie felt a giddy joy bubble inside.
It had been too long since she had been on a trip. Starting Far and Away Travel Magazine with her sister, Isla, and their long-time friend, Augusta, had been a dream come true. It had also taken Mellie’s wild and carefree ways and forced her to learn way too much about adulting. Now, she was a true business woman, with profit margins and appropriate conduct to consider. That was more work than she’d expected, if she were being honest. But this, sun on her nose, wind whipping the skin of her cheeks, this was glorious. This was where she was meant to be.
Isla might be content at home choosing fonts and playing with graphics, and Auggie was happiest tinkering with her profits and losses columns, but the truth, Mellie had discovered over this past year, was that her restless spirit was born to explore. She was meant to roam, needed -- if she was going to remain interested -- to hop on a jet plane for destinations unknown where adventure was certain to follow. It was a conversation, she knew, that she and her sister needed to have.
Her sister was a wordsmith, a craftsman. Mellie, though, just wanted to feel. She wanted the sights and sounds and tastes and smells to melt over her and around and into her. She wanted to capture them with the lens of her camera, to tell a story inside a simple frame. If all life contained was her and her Nikon, she’d be happy as a clam.
She pressed her foot on the accelerator, felt the power surge from the engine in immediate response. It didn’t take long at all before the flat, urban streets faded away and were replaced with gently rolling hills covered in grass and low-lying trees and shrubs. She sped through the shadows of underpasses and whipped past the forested Glenwood area. By Scott’s Valley, she had to reduce her speed as the traffic picked up inside the city limits.
Mellie figured she got her first whiff of ocean on Chestnut Street. She was well and truly in the centre of Santa Cruz by then, but still, the hint of salt in the air gave her a happy little buzz. The first glimpse she had of the ocean, while driving along W. Cliff Drive, gave her a positive hum throughout her entire central nervous system. It was glorious and so blue with the sun shining and adding to the water’s brilliance where waves met blue sky horizon.
She was so enthralled with the glimpses of the ocean peeking out at her between buildings that Mellie came close to driving right on past the hotel. At the last moment, she recognized the tall, boxy, cement structure for what it was -- The Dream Inn. With only the smallest squeal of her tires, she cranked the wheel and turned left into the hotel driveway -- missing a pair of cyclists by far too few inches. Mellie waved an apologetic hand, but the bikers had already moved on. Perhaps it wasn’t possible to hold onto a grudge on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The inside of the Inn was decorated in cool shades of blue and cream. Surfboards were hung decoratively along the walls and in places, on the ceiling. The vibe in the long, slim building was calm, and the focus was definitely on the stretch of ocean beach where the Inn was built.
Surfer chic, Mellie thought with an internal smile. Who knew that was a thing?
With her Nikes making a soft squeaking sound as she crossed the wood floor, she headed directly to the recessed reception desk and the lone attendant standing behind the desk. Even as she was smiling at the man and introducing herself, Mellie was mentally cataloguing the photos she would shoot early tomorrow morning before there were any other guests in the lobby.
“Oh, Miss Samms, I’m so sorry. We usually only do check-ins after four.”
The man looked stricken, and Mellie felt sympathy well inside her. It wasn’t the first time she’d had this effect on a hotel employee. You tell some people what you do for a living and that’s the last normal interaction you ever have. Well, especially if you happen to write reviews and articles for a travel magazine, and they are the concierge at a hotel.
“I’m Shane, ma’am, and we are just so thrilled to have you staying here at Dream Inn with us. I’m sure you will enjoy your stay. I’ll phone up right now and see if your room is ready. If not, we will make it our first priority. Or, we can simply give you a different room if you prefer.”
Mellie smiled. He was kind of cute, even if he was mildly panicked at the possibility of offending the hotel’s VIP guest.
“Four o’clock will be perfectly fine, Shane. Don’t go to any special trouble on my account. I’m just chuffed to bits to be here this week. There is one thing, though. The airport lost my luggage. If you could just point me in the direction of some ace shopping, I’d be in your debt.”
“Oh, of course, ma’am.” Mellie watched as he ducked down and rummaged under the counter a moment, then stood up holding a handful of pamphlets and a street map. “Right now,” Shane said, pointing to the inn on the map, “We’re here. Now, there are some shops just at the end of the wharf, you see?”
When Mellie nodded, he continued.
“Truth is, their prices are ridiculous. You’ll do better if you head downtown and shop there. There are some special clothing stores if that’s your thing, or if you’re more a chain store type, there are some of those, too. You’ll even find goodwill if you are looking for a bargain. Not,” he coloured, “That you’d need to shop at goodwill or anything like that. I mean, clearly not. You just never know these days. Even my sister shops there sometimes. Says she can get the brand names for bargain prices, and…”
“Shane,” Mellie interrupted as she snagged the brochures from his hand, “I knew what you meant.” She smiled at him easily. “I’ll see you at four.”
It was no hardship climbing back behind the wheel of the Mustang, and she found the downtown shopping district easily enough. Driving the slower city speeds did mean she felt the sun broiling down on her every time the car idled in traffic. The denim of her jeans started to stick to her legs, and she shrugged out of her jersey as she drove, enjoying the rush of wind over the skin her tank top left uncovered.
She drove up and down the streets a few minutes until she found a parking spot just off Pacific Avenue. It took her a moment -- and one or two frazzled curse words -- but Mellie eventually managed to put the top up on the Mustang before slipping the strap of her bag across her chest. As a precaution, she popped open the trunk and slid her laptop and her discarded sweater inside, then locked the car up tight.
For the next two hours, she meandered her way in and out of shops along Pacific Avenue trying outfits on as the mood struck. She passed museums and galleries, casinos, theatres and clubs, yoga studios, martial arts training centres and dance studios and made mental notes about which ones to visit while she was here.
At a store named Retro Paradise, she fell in love with a vintage dress with soft green, polka-dotted fabric. The dress had spaghetti straps and a fitted bodice with a flared skirt that floated just above her knees and made her smile and feel inherently female with every swishy step. It also definitely carried a boutique price tag. Needing other items more urgently and knowing there were two equally adorable sundresses packed in her bag, Mellie walked away with a sigh. She promised herself that if her suitcase didn’t show the next day, she’d come back for the flirty little dress.
At Urban Outfitters, she picked up several pairs of cheeky bikini panties. They were plain cotton and not nearly as interesting or lacy as the hopeful selection she had packed, Mellie thought with a sigh, but she was going to need them. The Rolling Stones t-shirt she found was an exact replica of a t-shirt she did have packed, so that was the bee’s knees, for sure.
Even better, she got lucky enough to hit a sale at Rip Curl. She picked out a couple pairs of shorts and a crop top that told her to Keep on Surfing. Since it made her smile, she added it to her pile of purchases, then tossed in a pair of yoga pants she figured she could always sleep in, and a classic black tri-bikini that crossed over in back up top and left half her cheeks hanging out down below. That made her a touch doubtful, but she did a quick jog in the change room, and the mirror revealed no cheek jiggle. That made up for losing her luggage right then and there.
Running the figures in her mind, Mellie tossed in a second bikini -- this one in blue -- and a long sleeve shirt with the Rip Curl logo emblazoned on the arm. She wandered past the wetsuits and debated.
In the end, she turned away. She couldn’t get over the fact that there was a brand new, never-before-used wetsuit packed with her luggage.
She was hoping she could make the lost bags show up by sheer force of will on her part. Every other item she carried over her arm she would still use after this holiday. At home, there would be very little chance for her to use one wetsuit -- there would definitely be no need for two.
It could wait, Mellie decided. Like the cute little polka dot dress, she put a new wetsuit on the if-the-bags-don’t-show list.
With her purchases paid for, all Mellie really needed was a pharmacy where she could buy the little necessities like toothpaste and deodorant, then she’d be set. Which, she decided, was a good thing, since her stomach was starting to talk.
When her mouth started to salivate over the smells coming from a little sandwich shop, Mellie veered into the store and stared up at the menu board. She ordered The Seabright -- turkey, avocado and cream cheese -- on sourdough, and when she took a bite as she ambled in the direction of her parking spot, Mellie moaned.
Literally moaned. Out loud.
Licking her lips, she wolfed down the rest of the deliciousness. She was chewing the very last bite as she walked past the Cold Stone Creamery. Ice cream. She stopped dead in her tracks. When she emerged moments later holding a bowl full of frozen calories, a plastic spoon sticking out like some jaunty sail flying proudly, her taste buds were positively dancing.
Wandering down the street, Mellie completed her shopping. At least, she thought so. When she saw the rash guard surf shirt hanging in the thrift store shop front, she gave an interested grunt and detoured inside.
With her hands full of shopping bags and ice cream, Mellie didn’t worry about trying the shirt on. It had long sleeves in swirls of bright colours, and it was her size. For the five-dollar price tag, it was a steal. She snagged it, letting the rubber drape over her forearm.
The plan was simply to buy the thing and get out, but the mannequin beside the till was wearing her dress. With a squeal of such girly delight that she turned heads, Mellie snagged an associate and together they stripped the mannequin of the polka-dotted dress. Then she slid her fingers through the straps of a super cute pair of sandals that looked brand new, and she made her purchases with her heart soaring. She dropped her Visa on top of the little pile of items, paid, and left smiling.
The skin on the inside of her knuckles was red and sore by the time she found the Mustang and tossed her many purchases onto the car’s back seat. She flexed her fingers and grinned her satisfaction.
The baggage gods may have intended to do her wrong, but Mellie was feeling just a touch smug. She’d completely reoutfitted herself for just a bit over two hundred dollars. All’s well and all that. She’d even filled her stomach scrumptiously in the process. Turning on her signal, she did a U-turn and pointed the Mustang in the direction of the hotel.
It was just past four when she pulled into the lot for the second time, organized her many bags, retrieved her laptop from the trunk, and walked back into the cool interior of the inn. Shane was still manning the desk, and he looked over and smiled when he saw her bags. Professional that he was, he made no comment as he looked back at the man standing at the counter, a single overnight bag neatly strapped over his shoulder.
The man had his back to Mellie, but there was something about him… Mellie’s eyebrows puckered as she tried to puzzle it out.
His hair was blond and cut in a military precision buzz. It showed the strength of his neck, the width of his shoulders. He wore a t-shirt with sleeves stretched tight over well-developed muscles, and a pair of O’Neill surf shorts in stripes of blue and red that hugged a very tight ass nicely enough that Mellie realized she was staring, her eyes travelling from his tight cheeks to his tapered calf muscles.
He really did seem familiar, and the happy buzz her shopping trip had given her slowly evaporated. The ice cream seemed to sour in her stomach, and Mellie pitched the melting remnants into a nearby garbage receptacle. She was thinking about bad things happening in threes as she walked towards the reception desk, and she wasn’t even sure why.
“There you are, Mr. Rossi,” Mellie heard Shane say, “Room 226.”
Shane continued to speak -- something about enjoying his stay, Mellie was pretty sure even though she only kind of heard the words. Her breath had hitched into her throat and seemed to be trapped there, a tight little knot blocking the back of her windpipe and blocking off her air until she couldn’t seem to breath.
Rossi? Had he really said Rossi? It couldn’t be.
The man at the counter turned, and the bluest eyes she’d ever seen locked onto hers, first in surprise, then with a quick flare of heat that the man instantly banked. He said nothing -- not a single thing at all -- but he didn’t move away either, just blanked his expression carefully and continued to give her the coolest of stares. Because, of course, it was him.
“Travis Rossi,” Mellie said, her own eyes traitorously drinking the sight of him in with a yearning she thought she’d gotten past long ago. “Well, dammit. That’s three.”
For just a moment, his eyes crinkled at the corners the way Mellie remembered. He’d always been able to understand her without explanation. She’d always managed to spark his humour with the simplest of exchanges. Now, though, the humour in his eyes died so quickly she had to wonder if she’d imagined it. The look that remained was as cold as the snow at the ranch Mellie had found for her sister’s vacation.
He lifted his hand to the strap of his overnight bag and hefted it further up on his shoulder. Without a single word, he stepped around Melissa and left the room, leaving her staring, open-mouthed, at his retreating back.