Category/genre: NA Inspirational Romance
Author: Nicole L. Ochoa
Chosen by editor Elizabeth Buege
The last time Sarah saw Jeremy, he'd been saying goodbye before embarking on a long-anticipated snowmobiling trek. Five days later, when he went missing, Sarah's world collapsed.
A year after Jeremy's death, Sarah can't pull herself from the depression she's spiraled into. When her concerned family ambushes her with an emotional intervention, suggesting she spend a few months visiting her cousin in California, Sarah hesitantly packs her bags and enrolls in online classes before boarding the plane.
Hunter Teuscher, a brooding surfer who's sworn off romantic entanglements due to a failed engagement, is thrown for a loop when Sarah splashes her way into his life. As he keeps bumping into her around San Luis Obispo, he can't stop his heart from falling. After a whirlwind courtship, he finds himself on bended knee.
Even though Sarah struggles with the firsthand knowledge that romantic relationships can't extend beyond the grave, she takes a leap of faith and accepts Hunter's proposal. But, on the day of their wedding, God deals Sarah another crushing blow, challenging her faith in a way she never imagined possible.
Under Western Skies is a sweet, slightly inspirational romance filled with laughter, tears, and all the feels of falling in love.
Prologue: Time to Move On
The neatly wrapped gift in my lap felt highly suspicious. My mom had pulled it from behind the couch after we’d finished unwrapping the other Christmas presents; there had been tears in her eyes when she’d handed it to me. I glanced at my older brother, Mike, he just shook his head. His wife Malinda, who sat at his feet, wouldn’t meet my eye. The medium sized box got heavier with each ticking second.
I looked to my younger sister who sat curled up in Dad’s reading chair. Her phone was tucked into the branches of the tree next to her and she’d been discretely checking notifications all evening. I expected to get an uninterested eye-roll when she met my eye; instead, I got a hesitant smile. Whatever was inside the box wasn’t good.
On the couch, my rough-hewn father placed his arm around my mother who now had tears spilling down her cheeks. She brushed them away as she waited for me to unwrap her gift. I tugged at the ribbon without looking down and felt it knot. When I gave it a second tug and it didn’t budge, Dad sat up and handed me his pocket knife. With one last glance around the room, I pulled off the paper and lifted the lid.
“A beach towel?” I asked, running my finger over the bright fabric. Nobody said a word. Thinking something might be hidden inside, I carefully removed the towel from the box but nothing tumbled out.
“Thank you?” I said, looking around the room, still unsure why nobody was smiling.
My mom swiped at a tear. “We thought you could use it in California.”
Dad leaned forward. “Sarah,” he said, resting his elbows on his knees, “we need to talk.”
Katy sat up and gave me the eye-roll I’d been expecting. “What Mom and Dad are trying to say,” she said in her matter-of-fact tone. “is it’s time to move on.”
Chapter 1: You Should Be Here
I’d been waiting for this moment since fifth grade when I’d done my state report on California. Despite all that had happened over the course of the past year, I found it hard not to feel some excitement about seeing the ocean for the first time. I tapped my foot impatiently on the floormat of Brian’s car as we wound our way down the coastal highway. The beach towel my parents had given me sat tucked into the top of my carry-on bag which now rested in the backseat. It had been only eight days since I’d sat through what my sister had coined my emotional intervention.
“It’ll be a minute,” Brian said, obviously annoyed by my tapping.
He got the lucky job of being my chaperone while I was on what my parent’s had called my emotional hiatus. Since Brian was going to college in San Luis Obispo, he received his babysitting assignment by default. I could’ve stopped the tapping, seeing how it irritated my favorite cousin, but he should’ve known better than to conspire with my parents.
I tapped my boot a little louder against the plastic lining, pleased with the way Brian’s knuckles turned white when his grip tightened around the steering wheel. I was tempted to start whistling, but as we crested the hill and it came into view, my entire body froze.
“What do you think?” Brian asked.
I stared out my window, unable to breathe and unable to answer. The sight of the waves beating against the cliffs and the gull sailing low across the endless blue landscape held me mesmerized. My parents had been right in suggesting I come here; I could already feel the burden I’d been carrying lighten.
“Are we going to a beach or just an overlook?” I asked, stuttering a response to Brian’s question.
Brian laughed as he flipped on the blinker and took the exit. “Do you plan on going for a swim?”
I turned to face him. “You make it sound like the water’s cold?”
“Sarah,” Brian said, laughing, “this isn’t San Diego…the water’s freezing. Unless you have a wetsuit, I’d recommend staying dry this evening.”
“Oh,” I said, turning back to the window, feeling a little disappointed. I’d assumed all California beaches were warm. Had that misnomer made it into my report?
Brian wound his way through the town toward a wooden pier stretching into the ocean. I found it hard to fathom it was January as we passed people dressed in shorts and flip flops; six hours earlier I’d been breaking ice in the water troughs on my family’s Wyoming ranch. I felt a bit overdressed in my Wranglers and cowboy boots.
We parked in a bustling lot by the pier, pulling into a spot beside a blue pickup that had a surfboard laying on its dropped tailgate. Next to the surfboard, a sandy-haired guy zipped up his wetsuit; he obviously knew about the cold water.
When I stepped from the car the surfer glanced in my direction and our eyes met. I nodded a hello, figuring he’d do the same; instead, he furrowed his brow and narrowed his green eyes. Hoping his menacing stare hadn’t been intended for me, I glanced over my shoulder. Nobody was there, except Brian who was digging a quilt out from under my bag.
When I turned back to the surfer he had started scraping a bar of wax across his board. Unnerved by his piercing look, I checked my reflection in the car window. Nothing looked out of place but I pulled my hair back anyway, keeping an eye on him in the glass. His head came up as I secured the rubber band around my messy bun; he shot me the same unfriendly look. Then he shook his head as if unsure about what he was seeing.
“Sarah,” Brian said, interrupting my thoughts as I watched the surfer grab his board and walk away. “I’m going to pick up some dinner. Do you want to come with me or would you rather head down to the beach to find us a spot to eat?”
I glanced over my shoulder at the chowder restaurant he’d pointed out on our drive in; the long line hadn’t gotten any shorter. I reached for the quilt. “I’ll take beach duty.”
Brian smiled. “I won’t be long.”
“You’d better not be,” I said as he started walking away. “I’m starving.”
“It’s nice to have you visiting,” he said, smiling as he waved me off.
As I walked down the wooden staircase toward the beach I scanned the area for the surfer but couldn’t find him. I turned my focus to the waves lapping against the sandy shore in an attempt to shake him from my thoughts. I wasn’t going to let some brooding surfer ruin my first time visiting the ocean.
It was surreal to be standing on the edge of the continent. As the salty breeze kissed my face, I did my best to convince myself I wasn’t in a dream. Nothing about my life felt real over the last ten months. I’d been living in a daze after Jeremy had died, walking through life on autopilot. Hopefully, this change of scenery would force me to pay attention to my life again. My parents had been right about Wyoming holding too many painful memories. With its constant reminders of Jeremy, I couldn’t escape the sting of losing him, making it impossible to deal with my grief. This place, this edge of the earth, where Jeremy had never been, would be the place I found healing, I could feel it.
Locating a dry spot of sand north of the pier, I spread out the blanket and tugged off my boots. Scattered along the waterline were a bunch of white shells basking in the fading light of day. A shell would be the perfect memento to mark this new beginning.
Balling my socks, I tucked them into my boots and rolled up my jeans. When I stepped into the soft sand I was surprised it still retained some of the warmth of the day. I let my toes brush against the warm sand, slowly dragging them across the unfamiliar surface as I walked toward the shells. A wave pushed forward and deposited a few more shells at my feet. I stooped and plucked one from the foam, impressed to discover it was a whole, complete sand dollar. I’d supposed shells like this could only be bought in souvenir shops, not tossed onto the beach like the one I held in my hand. It was impressive that such a delicate shell had survived such a hazardous journey.
Turning the shell over, I examined the intricate design on its surface. Deciding to keep it, I tucked it into the pocket of my sweatshirt and glanced down the beach at the other shells. As I started walking toward the cliffs, I realized a majority of the shells strewn across the wet sand were also sand dollars. I was tempted to collect a few more but wanted to get my feet wet first.