I walked out of the Sacramento airport and into an oven. The temperature had to be a hundred degrees or more, and even though I didn’t feel an ounce of humidity like I usually did in Boston, I felt as though I were suffocating.
On the flip side, I also felt free for the first time in over a month. I’d shut myself off from the rest of the world to brood over a breakup that had hit me right between the eyes. I was madder at myself than I was at the jerk I’d thought wanted a serious relationship—mad because I hadn’t seen the forest for the trees. I was usually in tune to the signs. After all, my dad had cheated on my mom. But I’d been so preoccupied with my job that I hadn’t been focused on my relationship. My job as a wedding planner kept me busy, especially the month before a client’s wedding.
Regardless, my ex, John, and I had never exchanged the word “love.” We’d never expressed our feelings to one another. I couldn’t say I loved him. My best friend Liza had said my ego was shattered. Maybe so. But I did like John a lot. He had a big heart. He had a great job as a sales rep for a technology company, and he’d treated me well.
Outside Sacramento Airport, the people around me were in a hurry, darting around others who were hugging loved ones, or dumping their suitcases into cars before they drove off.
I texted Liza to let her know I was standing outside baggage claim. The last time we talked, which was the night before, she’d told me she would be waiting in the cell phone lot.
Cars slowed to a crawl, and drivers scanned the crowd around me for their guests.
I waited for the ping, alerting me to a text from Liza, but there was nothing, not even the three dots that indicated someone was typing.
Suddenly, I got an eerie chill, as though something bad was about to happen, but I shook it off. The plane had landed a few minutes early, and I’d told Liza to give me thirty minutes after I got off the plane to get my luggage.
I navigated through the waiting passengers and found a quiet spot at the end of the glass building, near the taxicab stands to lean against. Then I sent Liza another text to let her know where I was. While I waited, I people-watched, which was something I loved to do. A mom scolded her five-year-old son. A businessman typed on his phone. And two lovers embraced.
I sighed. John and I had done that very thing when he’d returned after a week on the road. I missed feeling a man’s arms around me, giving me that sense that someone cared for me in an intimate way.
But as my brother, Ross, kept telling me, “John was never going to get serious with you.”
Again, I was mad at myself for not seeing the signs. Some of his actions should’ve clued me in. Granted, he traveled around the country for his job. Showing up late for our date or cancelling on me at the last minute because of a delayed or missed flight wasn’t unheard of. But toward the end, his excuses had piled up until I confronted him. When I did, he caved, spilling his guts on how he was seeing another woman who lived in Chicago.
Thinking about that still stung. Liza had recommended that I get away from the fast pace of Boston and my job. I’d debated long and hard. As a wedding planner, my job was nonstop most of the year, but busier than ever from May to September. But that August, I had only two clients getting married. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been sweating in over a hundred-degree heat, although I had two awesome assistants who could handle the big day for one of my clients while I was away.
Besides, the last time I’d seen my BFF was over a year ago when she was boarding a plane to move back to Northern California. I missed her terribly. We talked once a week since she’d left, but as of late, she’d been checking on me since my breakup.
Our plans were to kick back and see the sights of NorCal, maybe tour a winery or two, and visit Redwood Cove. Liza had mentioned there was a ton to do in the quaint town, like whale watching, great sea life, and zip lining if I was into that. But I wasn’t one for heights, testing my fate on a thin line, and flying at high speeds over some ravine or canyon or whatever. I didn’t even like roller coasters. I’d been traumatized once when I was a little girl, and since then, no one could coax me onto one; even peer pressure didn’t work.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait to wrap my arms around Liza. I couldn’t wait to talk into the wee hours of the morning and hear all about her job at a top-notch fashion company in San Francisco—Stitches Inc. She hardly talked about her job on the phone, although when she did, it was about some new design she was working on and a fashion show or two.
I was happy for her. When she’d lived in Boston, she worked for a fashion company that was eventually raided by the FBI. Her employer was one of the prominent mafia families in Boston. Liza hadn’t known that when she’d gotten hired, and she’d told the FBI that she had never seen anything illegal.
After the raid, she’d quit and searched for another job for months. Every company she’d interviewed with had been frank with her, saying, “You worked for one of the largest mafia families in the New England area. We don’t want trouble.”
She’d decided to spread her wings and look at companies around the country, concentrating on San Francisco. Most of her family lived in the NorCal area, but she wasn’t exactly close to her dad. However, she was tight with her cousin Josh, who I hadn’t met yet.
Anyway, since I’d made the decision to come two weeks ago, the airlines didn’t have many flights available to choose from among the airports in the NorCal area. So I had to settle on Sacramento and fly out on Thursday instead of Friday like I’d wanted to. Besides, Fridays were a busy day for travel. John had always complained about how airports were packed and flights were overbooked on Fridays.
A taxicab driver wearing a San Francisco Giants ball cap came up to me. “Do you need a ride?”
The baggage claim area was thinning out, and the sun was dipping behind the three-story parking garage across from me.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m waiting on my ride.”
He quietly went back to his cab adjacent to me.
I called Liza, and the line went straight to voice mail. Odd.
As long as I’d known Liza, she wasn’t the type to be late. That eerie feeling I’d gotten earlier came back with a vengeance. I didn’t have a backup plan, although I could get a rental car easily. In fact, I’d suggested to her that I would do just that, but she’d insisted on picking me up. “The drive will give us more time to catch up,” she’d said.
Don’t panic. She’s twenty minutes late. She’ll show up.
Someone coughed as they walked past me, snapping me back to the present and making me shed some of the cold chill that seemed to be seeping into my veins.
I peeked around the building for no other reason than to take a breath and tell myself nothing had happened to Liza.
Blood orange colored the horizon in the distance.
My off-the-shoulder blouse was starting to stick to me as the sweat trickled down my back and stomach. It was time to go back into the air-conditioned building while I decided on my next move.
Once inside, the aroma of coffee hit me, and my taste buds perked up. Suddenly, my body was starting to feel the three-hour time change.
My phone rang as I was about to get in line for some much-needed caffeine. I answered it without looking at the screen. “Liza, where are you?”
“Sis,” my brother, Ross, said. “You sound panicked. What’s going on?”
My twin brother knew me sometimes better than I knew myself, although it wasn’t hard to detect the hitch in my voice.
I slid over to a quiet spot near the elevator. “I can’t get ahold of Liza. She’s late. Like thirty minutes late now.”
“I knew I should’ve come with you,” he said.
“I’m a big girl.” I tried to fill my tone with confidence, but with the panic coursing through me, I was failing badly.
One of my flaws was that I jumped to conclusions too quickly and immediately thought the worst. I couldn’t help it, though. I had grown up in a rough neighborhood, with a cheating dad, then a single mom after she had kicked out my cheating dad. Plus, our house had been robbed several times. Looking over my shoulder had become the norm, especially when Ross wasn’t with me.
“Besides, I’m on a girls’ trip with my bestie. No men allowed.”
“What are you going to do, then?” Ross asked.
“I’m going to call her office first, and if I strike out, then her cousin Josh.”
“You mean the ex-Navy SEAL?” Ross asked a little excitedly.
My brother was into military and war movies. He even loved to watch those programs on how Navy SEALs train. He’d wanted to go into the military but had decided against it when Mom and Dad had gotten a divorce. Ross hadn’t wanted to leave Mom and me alone.
My phone alerted me to an incoming call from a number I didn’t recognize. “Hold on. This might be Liza now.” I switched over to answer.
“Hi, Riley. I’m Taylor, Liza’s assistant. She’s stuck in a meeting with an important client. Is there any way you can rent a car and head to her cousin’s bed and breakfast in Redwood Cove? I’ll text you the address. She also said she would call as soon as she can.”
I guess I was renting a car after all. “I’m supposed to stay with her at her apartment. I can meet her there.”
“No. She insisted that you head to Redwood Cove Inn. It’s going to be a late night for her.”
A bed and breakfast sounded so much better than an apartment in the city anyway. “Okay, but have her call me as soon as she can, though.”
“I will.” Then the line went dead.
I switched back to Ross. “Liza got stuck at work. I’m going to rent a car and make my way to Josh’s in Redwood Cove. I’ll check in with you when I get there.”
“You better. Or I’m taking the next flight out.”
I laughed, even though he was serious. He’d always been so protective of Mom and me.
“I have my mace if that makes you feel better.” Mace wouldn’t completely stop an attacker, but it would slow someone down, allowing me time to get away.
“Call me as soon as you get there,” he said. “Do you hear me?”
“Loud and clear.” I hung up before he could give me his speech on “Make sure you look at what’s around you. Don’t forget to use the mace and knee them in the groin if you have to.”
While I was a confident woman, I was a little leery about finding my way to Redwood Cove. Not because of getting attacked, but because darkness would set in soon, and I wasn’t a great nighttime driver.