West Loon Bay Series
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The wedding reception of Annika Nilsen and Alexander Lange
Morganville, Enchanted Island of the United States
East Caribbean Sea
The warm August evening enveloped Carly Strand with a delicate breeze as she sat at the head table at her best friend’s wedding reception, listlessly picking at a slice of cake.
Annika’s small but intimate wedding had unfolded like a scene in a fairytale. Walking down the aisle on her father’s arm, she glowed with happiness and the promise of a wonderful life to come. A diamond tiara gleamed on the crown of her shimmering blonde hair. Her ivory silk dress, long and gently flared, swayed gracefully as she walked. Her bouquet, a large cascade of white and mango calla lilies accented with white jasmine and ribbons had been almost too large for her to hold.
As Annika’s maid of honor, Carly should have been enchanted and inspired by such a magical evening. Why then did she feel so drained? So empty?
Anxious to avoid attention, she glanced around looking for an inconspicuous exit to disappear through once the dance started. People would be having so much fun, it would be easy for her to slip away unnoticed and retreat to her room.
She glanced around, looking for a spot in the shadows to sit, making her getaway that much easier. Overhead, purple bougainvillea vines grew along the balconies lining the interior walls of the open-air courtyard of the historic Morganville Hotel. In one corner, flanked by potted palms and ruby hibiscus, a carved stone fountain quietly bubbled. Soft lighting ribboned with flowing white tulle under the balconies cast a romantic glow across the small group of family and close friends. The sweet, exotic scent of jasmine and the music of steel drums filled the balmy evening air with enchantment.
She sighed. Just short of crawling under the table, there was nowhere to go until the music started.
Seating for the wedding party at dinner followed the male/female tradition. Alex, the groom sat at the center of the head table. Annika sat at his left and the best man sat next to her. As the maid of honor, Carly sat on the groom’s right which suited her just fine. The farther she sat from his best man, the better!
From the corner of her eye, she watched curiously as Alex whispered a few words to Annika and then promptly left the table. Annika slid onto his empty chair and leaned toward Carly, curving her arm around Carly’s shoulders.
“Hey, sweetie,” Annika said with care in her voice, “is something wrong? You don’t seem like yourself tonight.”
“I’m just tired, that’s all. It’s been a long day,” Carly responded. She put on a cheerful expression, but behind her forced smile, tears threatened to fall. She loved Annika dearly and was delighted that her best friend had finally found her “happily ever after” with the man of her dreams. Sadly, nothing could fill the deep well of Carly’s loneliness. Nothing short of a miracle, anyway.
“Where did Alex go?” Carly asked, deliberately changing the subject.
Annika stared across the room to where her new husband stood in a black tuxedo talking to the lead singer of the Jamaican band. “He wants to change the song for our first dance, but he wouldn’t tell me what he’s chosen. It’s a surprise.” She laughed. “Get your dancing shoes on, girl. The entertainment is about to begin.”
Carly suspected what Annika had on her mind. “About the wedding party…” She swallowed hard. “Paired together as couples, I mean—”
“It’s just one dance, Carly.” Annika grabbed a knife and cut a small piece off of the corner of Carly’s cake. Picking it up with her fingers, she popped it into her mouth. “You and Erik can put your feud aside for that long, can’t you? For me?”
“It’s not a feud,” Carly argued. “We just don’t…have anything to say to each other.”
She glanced past Annika to Erik Nilsen, Annika’s older brother, who also happened to be Alex’s best man. Sitting at the opposite end of the table, Erik looked tired and bored as he checked his watch for the umpteenth time. A gentle breeze blew his thick hair across his forehead. The frown on his face suggested he would rather be lying on one of Enchanted Island’s beautiful beaches in shorts and a T-shirt instead of sitting here in a hot tuxedo. If so, she heartily agreed with him, but she had no intention of telling him so. What was there to say to the guy who long ago had shattered her heart into a million pieces?
“That’s not really what I intended to talk to you about,” Annika said sincerely. “I’ve said this before, but I want you to know how very sorry I am about canceling our girls’ trip out west at the last minute. I mean it, Carly. I know it deeply hurt your feelings when I backed out. I promised you with all my heart that I’d go and then I let you down.”
“It’s okay, Annika,” Carly replied, eager to show that she held no grudge. “If a guy like Alex had fallen in love with me and asked me not to go, I’d have done the same thing.”
The puzzled look in Annika’s wide, blue eyes indicated she found that statement puzzling. She leaned close. “What about Erik,” she whispered as she angled her head in her brother’s direction. “He keeps asking me about you, but I don’t know what to tell him. He doesn’t understand why you’re avoiding him. You guys used to be sweethearts.”
Carly shook her head as her ire rose. “That will never happen again.”
Alex suddenly appeared at the table, wanting his chair back. Tall, dark-haired, and ruggedly handsome, Alexander Lange’s past relationships included high-fashion models and Hollywood starlets, but from the moment they met, he’d only had eyes for his best friend’s little sister.
“Only because you don’t want it to,” Annika muttered. Licking a glob of frosting off her finger, she smiled at Alex and slid back to her own chair.
A drum roll garnered everyone’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Let’s welcome Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Lange to the dance floor!”
Alex took Annika by the hand to a raucous round of applause and led her to the center of the stone floor. He took her in his arms and gazed lovingly into her eyes as he pulled her close and began to dance to the music of Unchained Melody.
Carly sat with her hands gripping the edge of her chair, dreading the moment she and Erik would have to dance in front of the entire group. The thought of his long, muscular arms around her, holding her close made a cold sweat break out on the back of her neck.
Ever since Erik and Alex moved back to their small town of West Loon Bay, Minnesota, Carly had managed to avoid Erik. Now she was forced to reunite with him in the worst possible way. Dancing cheek to cheek.
I can’t do this, she thought desperately as a lump formed in her throat. I feel sick.
A sip of water helped calm her down through the bride and groom’s dance but when the lead singer announced that the wedding party would join the newlyweds and their parents, Carly’s heart began to slam in her chest.
Strong, gentle fingers encircled her arm, urging her to rise from the chair. She looked up and found Erik’s tall, brawny form towering over her. Physically, he hadn’t changed much since they dated in high school. An offensive lineman on their school football team, he’d been quite the catch back in the day with thick reddish-brown hair and deep blue eyes. He leaned forward, his eyes reflecting a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty. “It’s okay, Carly,” he whispered. “I don’t bite. I just want to dance with you.”
With his help, she stood, but her knees shook so badly they threatened to buckle underneath her. He led her to the dance floor and tentatively slid his arms around her, supporting her. Slowly, they moved in unison to the music.
I can’t breathe… she thought as she allowed him to guide her around the stone floor. He has no idea how much damage he has done to me. To my life.
“You look beautiful tonight,” he commented with a sincere smile as if trying to distract her from her unease. His remark had been uttered as a compliment but even so, it made her feel self-conscious in her strapless mango-colored gown.
“I’m sure you say that to all your women,” she replied and sucked in a deep breath, acutely aware of his large palm resting on the small of her back. The touch of his fingers on her skin tingled, creating an earthquake of tiny shock waves shooting up her spine.
He pulled back, surprised. “What do you mean by that?”
“Don’t play your games with me,” she countered bluntly. “For the past decade, you and Alex have toured with your rock band all over the world. You’ve been photographed and linked with more beautiful women than Alex has—and that’s saying something.”
He mulled over that for a few moments. “That’s over now. I left the celebrity life behind for a reason. Alex and I both did once we came to our senses and realized that the most important things in life aren’t money and fame. It’s family. The one you were born into and the one you eventually create.”
Her nervous laugh cut through the air. “So, are you saying that you’re going to find your soulmate in West Loon Bay, population three hundred and ninety-seven?”
“That’s right,” he replied gazing intently into her eyes. “If she’ll have me.”
She glared back at him, angry and hurt at his nerve. She wasn’t good enough for him ten years ago when he abandoned her, one month before her eighteenth birthday. In all that time, he could have contacted her, but he was too busy enjoying the women lining up at his concerts to “get lucky” with him to spare the time. Did he really think she was stupid enough to think they could simply pick up where they’d left off? “Good luck with that,” she snapped.
He stopped dancing and gripped her by the arms. “I don’t understand you, Carly. You’ve been avoiding me ever since I came back. I ask you to dance and you act as though my mere presence offends you. Why do you hate me so much?”
“I don’t hate you, Erik,” she said slowly. “I just never want to be hurt by you ever again.”
She pulled away and walked off the dance floor before he could see her tears fall.
West Loon Bay, Minnesota
The golden afternoon sun beat down upon the crystal blue water of Lake Tremolo as Erik lay on a full-length lounger under the Bimini top covering his pontoon with a notebook in one hand and a chilled bottle of beer in the other. He’d cut the engine a thousand feet from shore and dropped the anchor, hoping the gentle, methodical rocking of the watercraft on the waves would either inspire him to finish a new song or lull him to sleep. To his dismay, it did neither.
Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, he stretched out on the comfortable beige lounger and took a swig of his beer as he stared across the water. Dense woods covered the craggy shoreline of the huge lake, brilliantly displaying a patchwork of gold, scarlet and dark reds. His sister Annika, whom he collaborated with, had given him a sheet of paper this morning containing a set of lyrics for a new song. She called her work “poems,” but to Erik, they were simply a collection of words that he turned into a ballad in the band’s unique style. The finished product was handed off to Alex to compose the melody.
He’d been staring at the words on the page for an hour, waiting for inspiration, but nothing had come to mind. Instead, thoughts of Carly as a seventeen-year-old haunted him like a ghost from the past.
He took out the senior class photo of her that he kept in his wallet. The one he’d carried with him for the last ten years. Wrinkled and dog-eared, it still captured the sparkle in her large brown eyes. Her long, thick hair, the color of rich cocoa, glistened to her elbows and accentuated her curvy shape. Her wide, genuine smile never ceased to light up the lonely, dark corners of his heart.
Whenever his morale hit a low point on the road, he’d stare at her picture. The possibility that someday they could rebuild their friendship again would always lift his spirits. The way they’d broken up had torn his heart in two but made it easier to leave town and never look back. Through the years, he’d assumed she’d found happiness with someone else, but was surprised to find out that she had never married.
She’s so bitter, he thought regretfully. As though she’s been badly hurt. I’d give anything to turn her pain into joy, but she won’t even talk to me.
He thought about the chilly spring night Carly’s dad caught them together in the back of his van. She was seventeen—he was nineteen. Dan Strand was so angry he banned Erik from seeing her ever again. Erik never got the chance to tell her he was leaving town to take his band on a quest for a better future.
I should have tried to keep in contact with her after we went on the road, he thought, feeding his guilty conscience. Time had always been on our side. Once the band became a success, I could have brought her on tour with me. We would have seen the world together.
Shoulda, coulda, woulda! It didn’t do any good to brood over it now.
The notebook slipped from his lap and landed on the floor as he closed his eyes, mulling over how much his life had changed since he, Alex, and three of their lifelong friends decided to hit the road with their band and never look back. Except lately, that’s all he’d been doing…
He had gone on the road with Alex, Jonas, Gunnar, and Gabe to play their music and make a name for themselves. Never in their wildest imagination had they anticipated their hard rock band “Wolfmoon” would experience the ultra-stardom they’d achieved with double-platinum success on album after album.
For the first couple of years after they became famous, their lives played out like a dream come true. Their success and the money that came with it filled their bank accounts and plastered their faces on the covers of magazines all over the world. Eventually, though, the parties, women, and drugs began to lose their luster. The constant pressure of producing new material and touring to promote it wore them down. Alex developed migraines, Jonas had stomach problems, Gabe and Gunnar became depressed and he lost his ability to create fresh material. They knew they needed a break but the people surrounding them—the ones making the most money off them—kept pushing them to keep going until one night Alex collapsed—and along with him, their self-destructive lifestyle.
Last May, they’d returned to their roots, a tiny Minnesota tourist town poised on the shores of a huge, beautiful lake to reconnect with their families and take a much-needed hiatus before deciding their next steps as a band. No one expected Alex to fall in love with Annika. That sudden turn of events had changed everything again—including delaying the decision of when to go back on the road.
That’s fine with me, Erik thought with a sigh. The idea of going on another tour and operating at the frenetic pace they once found exhilarating simply exhausted him now.
The shrill ring of his phone startled him. He reached down to grab it off the floor, causing him to nearly knock his beer out of its cupholder. The name “Jonas Strom” spread across the screen.
Erik sat up, resting his elbows on his knees. “Hey, what’s going on?”
“I’m at your house standing on the dock. Your mom said you’d taken the pontoon out by yourself,” Jonas replied sounding puzzled that he’d go alone. “You gonna be back soon?”
Erik grabbed his beer and drained the bottle. “Maybe. Why?”
“I’m bored,” Jonas said. “I came by to see your new pontoon. Talk about a few things.”
The edgy way in which Jonas’ deep voice said “talk about a few things” caught Erik’s attention. Jonas had something on his mind.
“Okay,” Erik said as he dropped his empty bottle into a recycling container. “I’m on my way.”
After he pulled up the anchor, he slid into the seat at the helm and started up the engine, heading back to shore.
Jonas stood at the end of the dock wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt with Prince’s purple unisex symbol on it, talking on his phone as Erik slowly pulled up and turned off the engine. Jonas slipped his phone into his jean pocket and grinned. “So, this is your new toy, huh? I figured you were a fancy speedboat kind of guy.”
“I am,” Erik replied with a chuckle. “I bought this for my dad.” He made a sweeping motion with his arm to showcase Knut’s new luxury watercraft. “Dad can fish and listen to the baseball game in style. It makes for a nice little party barge, too.”
Nodding his approval, Jonas stepped into the pontoon and sat down on one of the rear-facing loungers. “Nice. Take me for a ride.”
Erik drove the pontoon slowly around the lake for twenty minutes and then stopped in the vicinity of where he’d been before Jonas called. “You want a beer?”
“Nah, too early,” Jonas replied as Erik dropped the anchor. “Just give me a Coke. You got a cold one?”
“Sure thing.” Erik grabbed two chilled cans from his cooler. “So,” he said as he handed one to Jonas and pulled the tab on his can. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Like I told you on the phone, I’m bored,” Jonas stated in a disillusioned tone. “There’s nothing to do in this one-horse town and I’m getting antsy to get back on the road.”
“You were the one who pushed the hardest for everyone to come back. Now you want to leave already?” Erik relaxed on the other lounger, stretching out his legs. The pontoon gently rocked on the water. “Where is this coming from?”
“Everything has changed so much,” Jonas argued and took a swig of his Coke as he stared across the lake. “It’s not the same place I left. Most of the guys I knew from school have moved away and all the girls who stuck around are married with a bazillion kids. I don’t feel like I fit in here anymore.”
Erik laughed softly. “Dude, we’ve been gone for ten years. What did you expect?”
“I don’t know,” Jonas answered and ran his hand through a riot of thick, dark curls, “but I didn’t expect to find myself a stranger in my own hometown. I think it’s time to move on.”
“What?” Erik stared at him, totally flummoxed. “Where are you going?”
“Back to Anaheim, maybe. Or Chicago.” Jonas shrugged; his expression turned downcast as he stared across the lake. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“You’re considering leaving the band?” Erik bolted upright and swung his legs over the side of the lounger. “Are you serious? Why would you do that?”
Jonas stared at Erik, his eyes reflecting deep sadness. “Because if we don’t get something going now, I don’t think we’re ever going to perform together again. That’s why.”
“Come on, Jonas, don’t say that,” Erik cajoled. “We agreed to take a year off to get our mojo back. It’s only been a couple of months. Give the guys some slack. They need some time off to recharge. We all do.”
Jonas lay back with a deep sigh and stared up at the beige canopy overhead. “I don’t know if I can last a year. I’ll go stir-crazy. A guy can only watch so much TV or play pool.”
“Hey,” Erik said with a chuckle and reached out, squeezing Jonas’s shoulder. “You need a girlfriend. Someone to keep you busy.”
Jonas rolled his eyes at the suggestion that a woman would solve all his long-term problems. “Thing is, I need to get back to making music.” He stared hard at Erik. “Talk to Alex about recording another album and setting up a world tour to promote it. He’ll listen to you. If he’s in favor of it, I’ll hang on. If he trashes the idea, then I’m out of here.”
Erik didn’t know what to say. He and Jonas had been friends all their lives. All the guys in the band had known each other since birth. Jonas was a year younger than the rest of the group, but the other members had started kindergarten together and graduated together. The thought of someone leaving the band was inconceivable to him. Losing Jonas would be akin to losing a member of his family.
Sure, they’d had disagreements in the past and in the heat of the moment had thrown around the idea of breaking up, but it was just a way to blow off steam. No one had ever intended to go through with it.
Erik stared at his Coke feeling the pressure of being caught in the middle. Alex had only been married a month. No way would he even consider going back to work yet. When Alex said no to the idea, Jonas would split. He had to figure out a way to keep everyone happy, but how?
At this point, he didn’t have a clue.
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