Piper was exhausted. The long security lines at the airport had been stressful, not to mention the kids fought all the way from Miami to Key Largo. Of course, her husband was no help at all.
Since they’d left Cincinnati that morning, Joel was either on his phone with the office, staring at his computer on the plane, or driving the rental car, oblivious to what was happening around him.
But Piper wasn’t going to let Joel see how upset she was. She figured this vacation was a last-ditch attempt to bring her family together and keep her husband.
He hadn’t wanted to come, but Piper had pressed the issue. She knew the many texts and calls today were to his girlfriend from the office.
Believing Joel was thinking about leaving her, Piper was determined not to give up without a fight.
Months before, Joel’s secretary tipped her off about the budding romance. Sally was an older woman who had been through a difficult divorce. She blurted out the truth after Piper called the office a dozen or so times without being able to contact Joel. Not understanding why she could never reach her husband, Piper pumped Sally until the beleaguered secretary confided that he had taken up with a young colleague.
Shocked, Piper discovered it was true by secretly going through Joel’s text messages on his phone. At first she hoped the affair would burn out, but after six months Piper worried that Joel might actually be serious about this woman.
To play for time, Piper planned this trip to celebrate Christmas in the Florida Keys. A friend and her family had stayed at the Pink Flamingo Motel, raving about its restorative powers. So Piper hoped the motel would work its magic on her failing relationship with Joel.
First, Joel must not know she knew about the affair. Piper did not want a confrontation that might make matters worse between them.
Second, Piper felt she had a short window of opportunity to turn things around. She wanted to save her marriage.
She stole a furtive glance at her whiny kids, Trevor and Sophie. They were certainly part of the problem. Hitting the bumpy preteen years, they grew more argumentative and
stubborn, especially Trevor. He tested her every day with his rebellious attitude. She tried to be patient, but Trevor was wearing her out.
Piper loved her children, but at the moment she didn’t like them very much. Their misbehavior was certainly driving a wedge between Joel and her.
Joel blamed Piper for their disrespectful behavior. He wouldn’t acknowledge Trevor and Sophie’s defiance was a stage in their development. Their behavior was normal, wasn’t it? All the parenting books said so.
Lecturing them about their attitude before the trip had obviously fallen upon deaf ears, so now Piper found herself in the front office standing before Eva Bishop, the owner of the Pink Flamingo Motel aka the Last Chance Motel, while her kids bickered outside the office door.
Eva bent over the counter and peered out the door at Piper’s arguing children and noticed their father on his cell phone, oblivious to the commotion.
Piper felt the heat rise to her cheeks. “I’m so sorry,” she declared. “It’s been a long trip. I’m afraid my children are cranky.”
“I would get those kids in the pool as soon as possible and wear them out swimming. For dinner, order some pizzas. No soft drinks. Nothing with sugar. Plain water to drink. That’s the ticket. They’ll go straight to bed and sleep through the entire night. You and your husband can have a moment to yourselves,” advised Eva, smiling.
“Sounds like you’ve lots of experience with kids yourself,” replied Piper, returning a smile for the first time in hours.
“No,” confided Eva, bringing up Piper’s reservation on the computer. “Not really. I’m lucky to have a wise mother-in-law.”
“I’ll give it a try.”
“Your reservation states you’ll be staying ten days.”
“Yes,” confirmed Piper. “We wanted the three-bedroom bungalow by the ocean.”
“It’s ready for you. Just need a credit card, please.”
Piper handed her card over the counter and waited patiently as Eva ran it through the machine.
Eva handed it back along with two old fashioned keys attached to large wooden flamingo-shaped paddles. Piper regarded the keys in surprise as she took them.
“Most people leave them at the office when they go out,” offered Eva. “We try to keep everything as authentic as possible.”
“Does the bungalow have Wi-Fi?”
Disappointed, Piper bit her bottom lip in dismay. “Oh, I see.” She was hoping the motel had no Wi-Fi, so Joel would stay off his computer.
Eva glanced out the door at Piper’s husband who was still on his phone, ignoring his rambunctious children. “Let me know if you need anything. There’s someone in the office 24/7; however, we lock the front gates at midnight. If you’re going to stay out later, just inform the office.”
“I hope you enjoy your stay with us.”
Piper nodded and hurried back outside to her waiting family.
“What the Sam Hill are those things?” asked Joel, glowering at the flamingo paddles.
Piper answered, “These are our room keys.”
Rolling his eyes, Joel replied, “You gotta be kidding.” “It’s part of the Pink Flamingo experience.”
“Where do we park?”
Piper pointed. “Over there.”
Joel raised his voice. “You mean we can’t park by the front door? I’ve gotta lug all our luggage over to where we’re staying?”
A handsome older man in a golf cart pulled up. “Howdy folks. I’m River, and I’m going to help get your luggage to your bungalow. Just point me to your car.”
Joel gave River the once-over and snorted.
Piper blushed, saying hurriedly, “Thank you. That would be nice.”
Eva stepped out of the office and said, “River will help you get settled in and show you where everything is.” She turned to River. “They are in Bungalow Seven, River.”
“Three bedrooms, right?” Joel asked with an edge to his voice.
“You guys have Wi-Fi here?” Joel shot back.
River gave Eva a quick look before responding to Joel. “We have all the modern conveniences. I’m sure your stay will be very enjoyable.”
“You mean all the modern conveniences except for these ancient room keys,” Joel complained as he held up the flamingo key paddles.
Eva silently counted to three before replying. She had heard these complaints before. “We think the keys add a touch of old Florida.”
“It’s going to be a damned nuisance lugging these silly birds around,” barked Joel.
Eva calmly answered, “Most guests leave the keys in the office, and if the electricity should go out due to a storm, which frequently occurs in the Keys, you won’t be locked out of your bungalow as happens with the electronic card key systems. We learned the hard way that electronic keys have issues down here.”
Joel grunted, looking away.
“River, show Mr. and Mrs. Hathaway to their Key Largo home away from home.”
“My pleasure. This way, please.”
There was an awkward silence as Joel stood sulking.
His children stood behind him with their arms crossed and the same expression on their faces.
Obviously, Joel didn’t pick up that his children were, at times, mimicking his bad behavior.
“Thanks so much. Ah, I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten your name,” stuttered Piper, embarrassed at Joel’s churlish nature.
“River, ma’am. The name’s River.”
Piper briskly handed one of the keys to Joel. “You get the luggage out of the car. The kids and I will go ahead.”
Joel grabbed the key and turned away.
Sighing, Piper gathered her whining children and made way to Bungalow Seven. Each step deeper inside the lush grounds left Piper almost speechless as she took in all the holiday decorations and the gorgeous subtropical plants. The grounds were tastefully landscaped with bromeliads, heliconias, and hostas, with palm, banana, orange, and lime trees in every direction.
Strands of white lights covered the bases of all the palm trees and framed the roof line of each bungalow nestling in the luxuriant vegetation. The buildings looked like they had
been built in the fifties, but were restored to their original glory. A large pine tree painted sparkling white and dressed with flamingo shaped ornaments colored hot pink stood in the middle of the courtyard.
“It looks like fairies live here,” commented Piper, stopping to gaze at the festive decorations in the middle of the courtyard.
“What’s that, Mom?” asked Trevor.
“Don’t you think the grounds are beautiful?” Piper asked.
Typical of a young boy, Trevor answered with a shrug.
“I do, Mom,” Sophie replied. “It’s very pretty.”
Piper smiled at her blossoming daughter. “We are going to have a wonderful Christmas here.”
Trevor admitted, “It’s not so bad. Not as awful as I thought it would be. That pool is cool, and look–we have our own little beach too. I can’t wait to get into the ocean.”
Piper grabbed Trevor’s arm as he started to run off. “Hold on there, cowboy. Let’s settle in first and then we’ll swim. Here comes our luggage now.”
River and Joel reached Bungalow Seven just as Piper and the kids stepped up on the wide deck that overlooked Florida Bay.
River commandeered the luggage. “You folks go in. I’ll get your luggage for you.”
Joel hopped out of the golf cart, joining Piper and the kids on the bungalow’s front deck.
Piper unlocked the door and stepped inside. “Oh, this is charming,” she commented. “Don’t you think so, Joel?”
Joel scanned the cool color palette of the living room and its comfortable, modern furniture before inspecting the bedrooms and upscale bathrooms. He came back with a grin on his face. “Much better than I expected in the way of accommodations. Looks like you did something right for a change, Piper.”
Piper’s smile vanished. Embarrassed that Joel insulted her in front of River and the children, she swiftly turned and said, “Kids, we get the master bedroom, but you each get your own room. Go pick yours out, and no fighting, or I’ll pick for you.”
River shot Joel a distasteful glance, but quickly masked it when Joel turned toward him.
“I guess you’ll be wanting a tip?” said Joel, delving into his pockets.
“Not necessary, sir. Happy to help you. Paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes are free. Boats and jet skis can be rented from the office as well. Fishing gear is available at the office. You can fish right off the pier. One more thing, we have many animals living on the premises and in the lagoon. We ask that our guests leave all land and sea creatures alone. We have a manatee which likes to hang around. Please don’t bother her. She’s very sensitive. Well, that’s about it. If you need anything, contact the office. Someone is always there 24/7. We aim to please.”
“Thank you, River,” said Piper. “I think the thing we most want to do is get out of these travel clothes and take a nice swim.”
“I’ll leave you to it then. Good day,” River said, tipping his hat to Piper. He turned to Joel. “Sir.” Fortunately, Joel and Piper couldn’t hear River muttering as he exited the bungalow, “What an asshat!”
Piper closed the bungalow door. “Well, honey. Do you really like it?”
“Yeah, it’s actually nice. Look, I’m bushed. All that driving from the airport in Miami. I really want to take a nap. You take the kids for a swim. Okay?”
Piper hid her disappointment. She wished Joel would try meeting her halfway on something, but she wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it. She needed to make this trip work. “You might feel better if you take a dip. Spend a little time with us. Then you can take a nap.”
“I told you I’m tired. Now quit nagging me.”
Piper sighed. “I was simply making a suggestion. I wasn’t nagging.”
“Sure sounded that way,” Joel snarled.
“Suit yourself,” uttered Piper, grabbing one of the bags and heading to the master suite. “I’ll get your suit out in case you change your mind.” She closed the door gently, but she really felt like slamming it into Joel’s head. This trip was going to be more difficult than she anticipated. Piper had hoped getting Joel away from his usual surroundings might alter his typically sour mood and encourage him to focus on what was important–his family. She just needed to keep her cool. Yeah. Keep her cool.
Piper had settled into a comfortable chair with a Josiah Reynolds Mystery book by Abigail Keam when she was distracted by a commotion in the pool. Of course, it involved Trevor.
“Hey, watch where you’re going! You jumped on my head.”
Piper looked up and saw Trevor confronting a little girl in a white bathing suit dotted with pink flamingos. She looked like she was a couple years younger than Sophie.
Trevor made mocking gestures he typically reserved for his sister.
“You’re not supposed to jump into the pool like that,” the little girl protested.
Trevor laughed, splashing water in the girl’s face.
Piper’s heart sank at Trevor’s behavior. She set her book on the table beside her lounge chair, got up, and started toward Trevor, but before she could intercede she heard someone else speak up.
“Whoa there, partner. That’s no way to treat a lady,” said River.
“Hey, you’re not my dad. You can’t tell me what to do,” sassed Trevor with a defiant look on his face.
Piper strode over to the side of the pool where Trevor and River were. “Excuse me. I don’t believe you have the right to discipline my child.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but actually I do. Jumping pell-mell into the pool, yelling, and splashing people are not allowed. The rules are posted right over there in very large letters. This little lady certainly can demand not to be jumped on as a guest in the pool, but she’s also the owner’s daughter, Jenny.”
“I don’t care who she is. You are only an employee, and you are not to correct my children.”
River raised his left eyebrow. “As you say, ma’am.” He tipped his hat and lifted the little girl out of the pool. After wrapping Jenny in a towel, he gathered her sandals and robe. “C’mon honey. Let’s get you dressed for dinner. I believe your grandma’s making fried chicken.”
River turned toward Piper. “Oh, by the way, ma’am. I’m married to Eva Bishop’s mother-in-law. So yes, I’m an employee, but I’m also family.” River took Jenny’s hand and started walking toward the office when Jenny turned and stuck her tongue out at Trevor.
Piper returned to her lounge chair to gather her things as well. She noticed a few people leaving the pool area gave her disapproving looks. Piper was flummoxed. She did have the right to tell an employee of the hotel not to correct her children. Didn’t she? She was protecting her kids. Why couldn’t the other guests realize that?
Confused and angry, Piper ushered her kids out of the pool and back to the bungalow. She would order a pizza as Eva had suggested, and get this evening back on track.
Hearing Piper, Trevor, and Sophie rush in the front door, Joel hurriedly cut his call short and stuffed his cell phone in his pants pocket.
Piper’s heart sank when she saw Joel do that. She had sincerely hoped he had been taking a nap. Still, she acted as though she hadn’t noticed and cheerfully announced, “We decided we are hungry. We’re going to order pizzas for dinner.”
“Make sure they deliver. I don’t want to have to go out and get them,” Joel said, turning on the TV and switching to a golf channel.
“Sure, honey,” replied Piper. “Whatever you say.” Trying to act nonchalant while thumbing through a restaurant menu left by the landline phone, Piper realized this was not working out as she had planned. Joel might as well be back home in Cincinnati, and the kids were so unruly she couldn’t control them. In fact, their behavior embarrassed her. She suddenly felt ashamed she had been confrontational with River. After all, the man was just doing his job. Now she had angered a family member of the owner, Eva Bishop.
Thank goodness Joel had not witnessed the scene at the pool. There was no telling how it would have affected his attitude. He blamed her for the children’s rudeness. “Well, aren’t you their mother?” he always quipped.
What was she going to do?
The MERMAID’S CAROL
Series: A Last Chance for Love Romance, Book 5
Publisher: Worker Bee Press
Length: 102 pages
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