Forged by Sacrifice: A Slow Burn, Political Romance
From award-winning author LJ Evans comes a breathtaking, roommates-to-lovers standalone romance between a driven military man and the law student he can’t afford to love…
“My heart enlarged at a thought I’d never had for a woman... I wanted to keep her.”
Leaving his Navy career behind, Mac Whittaker is ready to join his family on Capitol Hill and pursue the political dream he’s had since childhood. His goals are just within reach, and all he needs to complete them is a woman he adores at his side.
Georgie Astrella is just getting her life back on track after putting aside her own goals for years. She isn’t looking for love, a man, or anything that might deviate her from her given course again. She plans on losing herself in the law and nothing else.
After sharing an intoxicating kiss at their friends’ beach-house while on vacation, Mac and Georgie run in opposite directions. Neither can afford mere attraction to shift their futures.
But Fate has other ideas, throwing them together until neither can walk away without losing a piece of their souls.
When her family’s past promises to make his future an impossibility, they’ll have to decide just what they’re willing to sacrifice for love.
Inspired by Lewis Capaldi’s “Bruises,” comes a friends-to-lovers, military romance about dreams and family with vibrant characters on an emotional journey you won’t want to miss.
Also available in The Anchor Novels: The Military Brothers box set with an exclusive novella.
Release date: October 22, 2019
Publisher: LJ Evans Books
Print pages: 447
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Behind the book
Mac and Georgie came to life in Guarded Dreams, and as soon as they met, I knew they had to have their own happily ever after. Georgie is strong, with just enough of a chip on her shoulder that she isn't going to let anyone make her feel bad about her family or her life. Mac is all about family. His family in the military as much as his political one. They seem like they shouldn't fit, and yet they fit perfectly.
Like all the characters in my books, Mac and Georgie have to learn to live life resiliently. To take the challenges and successes that life throws at them, embed it into their souls, and become a newer, different version of themselves.
I hope you read Forged by Sacrifice and love it as much as I loved writing it.
♬ "Where Music & Stories Collide" ♬
Forged by Sacrifice: A Slow Burn, Political Romance
“I'm just a hopeless romantic,
Looking for love,
I'd risk it all just to have it.”
Performed by Meghan Trainor
Written by Carlsson / Trainor / Golan
The sun was afterburner hot when I tied off and locked up my boat before stepping onto the dock in Rockport. The humidity hit me hard after being on the water for a few weeks. It made me question whether I really wanted to spend time on land or not. But the solitude of my boat had reached its limit for me.
Besides, I hadn’t been able to see both my best friends at the same time in a couple of years. I squinted at the road, waiting for Eli’s black pickup to come barreling down, while I thought about how long it had actually been since we’d all been together. I’d seen Eli, and I’d seen Truck, and they’d seen each other, but it hadn’t been the three of us since Ava, Eli’s fiancée, had graduated from Juilliard. That was over two years ago, so this time together was both rare and much needed.
Since Eli had left the military, I’d been able to see him the most. With Truck in the Coast Guard and me in the Navy, we’d been at the beck and call of our leaders and the imbeciles who were running the country. I mentally checked myself. I had to lose that kind of talk about our leaders if I was really going to be one of them in the near future.
Turning on my phone, it blew up with texts and messages received since I’d last had a signal.
ME: Just got into port. What’s up?
NASH: Who the fuck did you leave in charge?
ME: ** laughing emoji ** Are you making friends already?
NASH: Seriously, the intel reports we’re getting are crap.
Leaving the Navy and my work at the Department of Defense behind had been harder than I’d thought it would be. I was leaving a family. Some of them were actual blood, like my dad, and some of them were men who’d become brothers through bloodshed, like Nash and Darren. People who had depended on me to make sure no one came home in a body bag.
ME: I can talk to Dad, see what’s going on.
NASH: Or just come back.
But Nash knew I couldn’t. Not if I was going to be true to everything I’d worked for since childhood. I didn’t know what else to say to him, so I opened the next round of messages from my sister, Dani.
Dani and I were a mere twelve months apart. I didn’t even want to think about what that meant for how often my parents had been having sex in order for that to happen. But because of the small age gap, Dani and I were the closest of our siblings. Unfortunately, she was older and liked to remind me of it every single time we met, as if the twelve months had somehow endowed her with a lifetime more of experiences. I’d wanted her to come on vacation with me, but she’d said there was too much to do before Congress was out of session for the summer break.
BRAT: When are you starting again?
ME: Rag, rag, rag. Hello to you too, Gooberpants.
BRAT: ** one fingered emoji ** I’m drowning in reports that I need you to look at.
ME: I’ll be back by the end of the month.
BRAT: I swear if you’re later than that, I’ll send an assassin after you.
ME: I think Nash is ready to do that for free.
BRAT: He’s still pissed you left?
I didn’t respond because I didn’t need to. Dani knew everything, including how I felt.
BRAT: You have a right to go after your dreams.
ME: I know. I just wish I didn’t feel like I was letting people down by doing it.
BRAT: ** Whining GIF **
ME: Just for that, I may be late getting back to D.C.
BRAT: Did you miss the part about the hit man?
I was saved from further discussion about both my past and my future as Eli’s pickup turned onto the street.
ME: Gotta go. Eli’s here.
BRAT: Well, have fun for the both of us, and give Ava, Eli, and Truck hugs for me.
ME: Will do.
When Eli pulled up to the curb, I flung my bag into the bed before climbing into the air-conditioned cab.
“Mac!” Eli greeted, reaching across the console to give me a half-hug.
We were men. Military men. But we’d never been afraid to hug each other. We both had known, for a lot of years, that it could be the last time we were ever able to do it. Now that we had both lost our military titles—mine by choice, his by bad luck—we weren’t going to be changing how we greeted each other.
“Thought you’d never get here. F―forking humidity is enough to roll me over,” I said.
Eli smirked. “Forking?”
“Really trying hard to get this political lingo down.”
He laughed. I liked that he laughed so much these days. Since Eli and Ava had gotten together, he was almost jovial. It wasn’t the only change. He was still as muscled as he’d been in the Coast Guard, but he’d lost the buzz cut. Instead, his hair was almost always long enough to see the dark color that was just a shade lighter than mine.
Mine was all black. It made my blue eyes stand out, and that was okay by me. My looks had always helped me with the ladies. Not as many as most people thought I’d scored, but I’d definitely sown my wild oats. I was tired of sowing oats.
Eli put the truck in gear and headed out of town to the beach house he and Ava had been living in since they’d come back to Texas.
“When’s Truck getting here?” I asked.
“Friday,” Eli answered.
“Did he say whether he was signing his re-enlistment contract or not?”
“What’s with the twenty questions about Truck? You two not speaking or something?” Eli asked.
I chuckled. “No, asswipe. I’ve been on a boat in the middle of the ocean for two weeks. No signal.”
“The senator from Delaware was accused of using the word asswipe when speaking to his aide,” he said in a fake TV newscaster voice.
I flipped him off.
“I don’t think Truck will ever leave the Coast Guard as long as he has a choice,” Eli said.
That had been Eli’s plan, too. Never to leave. Until a harbor seal had crashed into him and his knee and changed everything he’d ever wanted. I crossed my fingers and begged my mom’s God that nothing like that ever crashed into my plans. I didn’t know what I’d do if I got sideswiped from my course of action.
“You all set to work for your grandfather?” Eli asked.
I nodded. Between Granddad and Dani, I had a job working in Senator Guy Matherton’s office. He was from my home state, and Granddad was his chief of staff. Dani had been working there since her own college days. It was going to be a challenge to prove it wasn’t pure nepotism that had gotten me the job.
“I haven’t signed on the dotted line yet because I’m waiting for the Navy paperwork to go through, but Granddad’s already got a desk for me next to Dani’s.”
Eli grinned. “That oughtta be fun.”
We pulled into the beach house. It was still the teal color we’d painted it six years ago. On the wraparound porch, stood a woman way too tall to be Ava. Not that Ava was short, but this woman was close to six-foot, easy. My heart leaped into my throat at the sight of her. Georgie. I’d had a hell of a time getting her out of my head after we’d met in New York City two years ago. It had taken me almost a year not to compare every woman I met to her. You would have thought that she and I had had earth-shattering sex with the way my body had seemed to pine after her.
But none of that was true. Georgie had barely given me a second glance when I’d met her, and it wasn’t the cold shoulder that had had me yearning for her. It had just been her. Tall. Stunning. Confident. She’d hit me like a meteor falling from the sky. The first time we’d met, she’d had short hair with purple spikes and eyes that were pale and lavender-tinted. The second time we’d met, her eyes had been such a deep blue that they’d almost been the twilight, and her hair had been longer and as dark as a black cat. She was as lean and coiled as a cat, too. I’d been starstruck and stuttered like a teen with a wet dream. It had been embarrassing.
On the deck, she stood tall and slim like before with her dark hair blowing in the breeze. I instantly wanted to know what color she was sporting in her eyes. My entire body leaned forward as if just waiting to feel the tension and desire that I’d felt each time I’d met her.
“What’s she doing here?” I asked, trying to mask the longing I felt with nonchalance—and failing.
Eli looked at me over the top of his dark sunglasses. “Be nice.”
“I’m always nice.”
“Not that kind of nice, douchebag. She’s one of Ava’s best friends. We don’t need you messing with her.”
“I won’t mess with her. I’m just surprised she’s here. I didn’t expect it.”
“We didn’t either. She called a couple weeks ago and then showed up all waiflike, needing a place to stay while she got some things sorted.”
“Waiflike?” I teased.
“Don’t start with me.”
I opened the door and got out. When I risked looking back at the porch, Georgie was gone, and I felt oddly disappointed even though I knew she’d still be inside when we got to the top of the stairs.
I grabbed my bag and followed Eli into the house. I’d barely taken two steps through the door when Ava practically assaulted me with a hug that felt like a gorilla jumping into your arms. Eli had told me once that she’d hardly ever been hugged as a kid. Nowadays, it was like she was making up for it. I squeezed her back.
“Mac!” Her husky voice was always a surprise, even after all the years I’d known her. You expected a vibrant woman like Ava to have a littler voice, almost giddy like her energy levels.
“How the hel―heck are you?” I asked.
“I’m really good. Glad that everyone is going to be here for the Fourth of July.”
“Are we partying here or at the bar?”
After she’d graduated from Juilliard, Ava had bought a bar in downtown Rockport called The Salty Dog. It had taken the last of her inheritance, from what I gathered from Eli. But with the money she had coming in from her royalty checks for the songs she wrote for the chart-topping sensation Brady O’Neil, I didn’t think she needed to work at all. She just liked to keep busy. I couldn’t imagine Ava ever standing still for too long.
“We’re still working it all out. We’ve got time,” Ava said and stepped back. Eli’s hand went immediately to hers, like they had been apart for days instead of the minutes it had taken him to come get me at the marina.
“I can’t believe you sailed all the way from D.C. by yourself. Isn’t that some huge nautical no-no?” Ava asked, pulling Eli with her into the kitchen where they’d obviously been working on some kind of Mexican dish. A pitcher of margaritas stood, sparkling with condensation.
I set my bag down and risked looking around the open living space. No Georgie. My stomach lurched again. I sat down at the counter and poured myself a glass, hoping it would do something to calm the insane patter of my heart. Ridiculous. In the war room, I’d been in situations that would have made most people keel over, and yet here I was, wanting to hurl at the thought of seeing one woman again.
“Sailing by yourself isn’t very smart,” I replied with a shrug. “If something happens to you, who the hel―heck is going to pull you from the dink? But Dani didn’t want to leave D.C. for three weeks, and all my other sailing partners were otherwise engaged.” I waved the glass toward Eli.
“Wait. You asked Eli to join you?” Ava asked, knife halting midway through her murdering of a tomato.
Ava turned to him, knife coming dangerously close to his shoulder. “You didn’t tell me Mac asked you to come with him.”
“Seemed ridiculous for me to fly to D.C. only to sail back to my own damn house.”
“That isn’t what he told me.” I winked at Ava.
“What did he tell you?”
“He was darn sure not going to use up weeks of vacation time without you.”
Eli grabbed the knife from her, set it down on the counter, and wrapped her in a hug.
“I’m saving it for our honeymoon.” He kissed her, and she melted. I normally would have harassed them both to no end, but these days, I always seemed to be eyeing the happy couples in my life with a level of longing that I’d never felt before.
“We’re not getting married until October,” Ava said.
“And I have honeymoon plans.”
“You do? Don’t you think I should know these things? I’ll have to arrange for Andy and Lacey to cover the bar.”
“Already done,” he told her.
“You’re impossible,” she snipped back, but it was with a smile on her face.
Movement at the corner of my eye brought me to my feet. Georgie. My breath got stuck somewhere between my lungs and my throat as I got a better look at her. Her hair was dark, but more espresso-colored than black, and she had a single white streak about the width of my pinkie finger going through it. Her hair hung down around her shoulders in a beach-tousled look. Her eyes were green today, like a green-apple kind of green. It matched the flowered, off-the-shoulder, floaty dress she wore, showcasing sun-kissed skin and baring cleavage that made it hard for me to look away.
I loved that I didn’t have to almost bend myself in half to look down at her. I was six-four. And most of the time, the girls I was with were almost a foot shorter than me, which complicated anything that happened between our bodies. Georgie was—at the most—five inches shorter, standing there barefoot.
I was staring. I knew I was staring, but I couldn’t help it. I’d had this reaction every damn time I’d met her. Silent. Stalker-like. It was ridiculous.
“Mac, do you remember my friend Georgie from New York?” Ava asked.
“I do,” I managed to breathe out, holding out my hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
Georgie smiled, and I swear to God, there were thunderclouds rolling somewhere when she did it, because that smile was one you were unable to ignore, just like a thunderstorm. The smile lit up her face that was all graceful lines. Smooth. Silky.
“You’re the one that I wasn’t supposed to be the same again after meeting, right?” Georgie’s voice was light. Graceful, just like her, but infused with a confidence that spoke of life and experience. What hit me harder than her voice was the fact that she remembered our initial meeting, almost word for word, as much as I did.
She put her long-fingered hand into mine, and I shook it, trying desperately not to run my fingers along the smooth palm and embarrass myself. If her voice had been a thundercloud, her touch was lightning. The kind that left your heart stopped and your skin tingling.
“And have you?” I asked.
She frowned. “Have I?”
“Been the same?”
She laughed, running a hand through her hair, but didn’t answer. I wanted to think that it was a good sign. That somewhere behind those color-changing eyes, she was as stunned and as glad to see me as I was to see her.
BROKEN & BEAUTIFUL
“Can someone just hold me?
Don't fix me, don't try to change a thing.
Can someone just know me?
'Cause underneath, I'm broken, and it's beautiful.”
Performed by Kelly Clarkson
Written by Moore / Mcdaid / Mac
Seeing Mac-Macauley after two years of not seeing him, hit me hard. Almost as hard as when I’d seen him the first two times back in New York City. He was a tall, dark-haired beauty. The kind of gorgeousness that would have fit right in with my boyfriend—or rather, ex-boyfriend—Jared, and all his male model friends. It would also have fit right in with the hotshot finance guys who also frequented my salon and were harder to shake off than the ego-filled models.
Mac was several inches taller than Jared and much broader.
His blue eyes flashed at me, and all I could see were warning signs. Signs that said to stay away even though my body almost vibrated with energy when he shook my hand. I’d learned a long time ago not to trust my senses. Bodies were notorious for leading you astray. And I didn’t need astray right now.
I sat down at the bar, turning away from him. He joined me on the barstool next to mine, our shoulders almost touching. The air flitting between our bodies was like when I’d done an electrical current project in high school. You could almost see the zaps of light. Zaps that I’d never had to deal with when I’d been with Jared. Jared had been smooth, sexy, calming. This was energy that spoke of riling things up versus calming them down.
“Can I help with something?” I asked Ava.
She and Eli both shook their heads. “No, we got it. The one drawback of this house is that the kitchen isn’t as large as it could be. Two cooks are about all it can take.”
“Are you sure you can qualify as a cook?” Mac asked Ava, and I wanted to be offended for my friend, but she just smiled at the virtual magnetic field sitting next to me.
“I can cook,” she said.
“But you’re slaughtering those poor tomatoes.”
Ava laughed—something she did so much more now than when I’d known her in New York. Eli had brought joy to her life. Filled her. It made me happy at the same time I knew I was never going to want that—a man filling my world. A partner like Jared had been perfect for me, moving side by side when needed, going it alone when needed, too. Even though we’d ended things, it hadn’t broken either of us.
“I’m dicing them,” Ava said.
“Is that what you call it?” Mac asked her.
She handed him the knife across the counter. He put down the margarita he’d been drinking, took the knife, and pulled the cutting board she’d been using closer to him. He started cutting the tomatoes with a much gentler hand than I’d expected, and the cuts he made were almost TV-cooking-show perfect.
It surprised me that he had such a gentle touch.
I reached for the margarita pitcher because I certainly needed a drink.
“So, Georgie, what brings you to Texas?” Mac asked, his gaze flitting toward me and away, as if he was as unsure about me as I was of him.
“I’ll tell if you tell,” I said, winking at him.
He smiled. “I’m here on vacation. Between gigs.”
He stopped his slicing to look over at me, surprise on his face. “What happened to the salon?”
“Sold it,” I responded, and even though selling the shop was what I’d wanted, my chest pulled tight, and tears hit my eyes. It had been incredibly difficult to leave behind my grandmother’s legacy. Leave behind everything I’d known with her. The people. The shop. Our home. She would have wanted it for me as much as I wanted it for myself, but it didn’t make it easier.
“Wow. I don’t know what to say to that.” Mac’s words drew me back from New York City and my old life to the present. He smiled and said, “I mean, I could ask a gazillion invasive questions, but I have a feeling Ava or Eli might gut me in my sleep if I did.”
I laughed like he’d expected me to, and when I did, his smile increased, making thoughts of Jared and the salon trail into the sunset.
“Just ignore him. He has no idea what personal boundaries are,” Eli said from where he was finishing up the spices on the meat he was going to grill for the carne asada tacos they were making.
“Look. You grow up with a father in the Navy, a grandfather in politics, and three older sisters, and you realize there is no such thing as personal boundaries,” Mac responded with a shrug that caused his shoulder to brush against mine, increasing the awareness that filtered through me.
Mac was not only tall, but he was also a wall of muscle—like a pro football player. Muscles on top of muscles, but not in a way that made you think Blowfish. Instead, it was tantalizing. His tight T-shirt did nothing to hide any of the contours of his body.
With the tomatoes done, he pushed the cutting board back toward Ava and got up to wash his hands at the sink. Eli headed for the porch and the barbecue pit, and Mac tagged along with him. I took a gulp of the margarita as I watched the two men banter back and forth on the patio.
Ava joined me, taking up the barstool Mac had vacated.
“He’s gorgeous but all swag-and-bag,” Ava said.
I felt my cheeks heat slightly at being caught gazing at them and turned to her. “Thanks for the warning, but I’m not really into anything more than swag-and-bag.”
Ava smiled at me. “Well then, swag away.” She waved a hand toward the patio.
“No,” I chuckled. “That isn’t what I meant. I mean…he’d probably totally be worth a few nights of hot, sweaty, vacation sex, but I’m definitely not looking for even that right now. Besides, I wouldn’t sleep with your and Eli’s friend. It would be…”
“Awkward,” Ava said just as I finished with, “Ill-advised.”
“I plan on being around for your wedding, and I definitely don’t want any weirdness to occur between him and me that would leach into that.”
“So, sweaty sex was definitely on your mind, though.” Ava grinned at me.
“Well, just look at him.”
“You’ve been around a lot of sexy men with Jared and all those fashion gurus in New York. I’m sure Mac’s like, what, a seven or eight, out of all those men?”
We both stared out at the guys on the patio. They looked in and caught us staring. Eli smiled at Ava. Mac just stared period.
“I’d say he’s pretty close to a ten.”
“Really?” Ava sounded surprised. “I feel like Eli is a twenty, and there’s nothing to compare to that.”
“That’s only because you can’t be objective with all that love potion flowing through you.”
“Okay, what would you rate, Eli?”
“An eight or a nine.”
“That was fast. You’ve thought of my soon-to-be husband in this regard before, I see.” She wasn’t mad at all. She continued, “But I don’t agree.”
“I know. Again. Not objective.”
“But you really think that Mac is a higher rating than Eli?”
“Taller. More muscles. He’s got the eye thing going for him.”
“Those blue eyes that I bet look even bluer depending on what he wears. And you know me, I’m a sucker for beautiful eye colors.” I smiled at her, and she pushed my arm.
“I like your green ones today,” Ava said. The timer let out a shrill noise, and she jumped up to stir the rice that smelled like heaven to me. Chorizo and onions and a scent I wasn’t sure I could name. Ava said it was a secret recipe that Lacey from the bar had given her. I understood. I had a few of my grandma’s recipes that weren’t going to leave our family…or me…anytime soon.
The air conditioner kicked in, pushing my hair into my lip gloss. I pulled the dark strands away from my face. Leaving the salon behind me, I’d decided to just let my hair go back to its normal color and stopped attempting to hide the white streak I’d had since I was little. It would be too much work to keep it up without the salon. And, truth be told, I was more than a little tired of doing hair—mine or anyone else’s. It had never been my dream. It had been a necessity.
Letting my hair go au naturel was one thing; my eyes were another. My contact addiction wasn’t going anywhere. For me, it was like putting on the right jewelry with an outfit. I just didn’t feel quite ready until I had the right colored lenses in. I had almost every color they made—and some they didn’t—thanks to my friends in the fashion world. Like the black ones I rarely wore, and the ones that were almost black but were really a dark, dark blue. The bright green ones I’d put in today were one of my favorites. They were close to my real color but with an extra oomph to them.
I helped Ava bring the food out to the patio, and we placed the bug nets over it all. Even though it was hot and muggy, it still felt good to be out in the summer sunshine with the smell of sea grasses and the sound of the ocean pounding near us. It wasn’t the first time I’d vacationed with Ava and Eli since she had graduated and come back to Texas, but it was the first time I’d vacationed without a desperate need to get back to New York and the salon.
As we ate out on the deck, the margaritas kept the banter easy and the mood light. Friends catching up after time apart. It was so different from the meals with my friends in the city. The beauticians who had worked for me, and Jared and my fashion friends, had always hung out at high-profile restaurants and bars where the atmosphere was as close to a high pitch as you could get—as if, one more notch higher, and you’d have to duck your head, shielding your ears. I’d loved it: the pace, the noise, the friendships. But I was also ready for a new pace. A new feel.
After dinner, Ava had to head downtown to the bar she owned. I’d been going with her almost every night since I’d been there, but tonight, I just needed quiet instead of chaos, so I declined. Eli and Mac went with her, and I had the house and the beach to myself.
I brought a blanket, a book, and the last of the margaritas down to the edge of Ava’s property where she and Eli had built a firepit in the middle of an octagon-shaped wooden deck that hosted a smattering of Adirondack chairs and lounges. The deck was right at the end of the crushed-shell path, tucked in the sea grass just before it broke into the sand. It was a bit of paradise in Texas.
I read until the stars started to sprinkle the sky like fairy lights being turned on, and then I just sat, staring at the expanse. You never got to see the sky like this in the city. I missed it, and yet, I didn’t. Just like I missed my friends in New York, and I didn’t. The price to keep the salon and that life would have been too high. Not only the price of the new lease the landlord wanted me to sign, but the price of my own dreams that I had this one last chance to make come true.
As if reading my mood from a continent away, my half-sister, Raisa, texted me.
RAISA: Are you at the beach yet?
ME: I’ve been here for two days.
RAISA: What happened to going to D.C. to check out an apartment?
ME: I just stayed the one night. The place I got is almost too good to be true.
I hadn’t planned on flying to D.C. before coming to Texas, but I’d discovered an ad for a loft in an apartment with two other people that I hadn’t wanted to pass up. It was close enough to campus that I could walk, and it wasn’t going to break the bank.
I’d met with one of the roommates, Daniella, and felt an instant connection. She was sassy and professional all at the same time. The apartment, with its views of the Capitol building, had still seemed too good to be true, but Daniella had said her family liked to rent the loft as a way of helping college students. I liked her and the loft, so I took it for what it was: a gift. I placed a down payment, got a key, and hoped the other roommate, Daniella’s brother, wouldn’t be a total schmuck when I finally got to meet him.
RAISA: I am a little jealous. I will be stuck in the dorms for a year.
It wasn’t going to be a hardship. She’d been accepted to Stanford University and was going to be staying in the best dorms they had. My stepdad, Petya, wouldn’t have any less for his daughter.
ME: While I know you’ll have a blast living in the dorms, the thought of me having to experience it again makes me want to vomit.
RAISA: We will both be college students.
It was hard to reconcile the fact that I was going to be in college again. Getting back into law school after the years away had been simultaneously easier and harder than I thought. I was ready to restart the dream I’d put on hold for five years. I was just hoping law school would be different from my first years of college life.
ME: Not the same. You’ll have everyone drooling over your Russian accent and pretty blonde hair, whereas I’ll be the slightly older woman with her nose in a book.
RAISA: I have almost no accent. My English is impeccable.
ME: Out of all that, you chose to focus on what I said about your accent? What happened to making me feel better about going back to school after all these years?
RAISA: It is you who said age is not a number, it is an attitude.
ME: I wasn’t the first person to say it, but it’s true.
RAISA: Then, do not worry about other students. Just have lots of attitude.
ME: ** Hair flip GIF **
RAISA: I have to go. Malik is using me as interference with Father again. What will he do when I am in the U.S.?
ME: Learn to stand up for himself.
RAISA: Love you, moy dorogoy.
ME: Love you, too, malyshka.
Raisa and I were ten years apart and lived on different continents, but we were closer than my half-brother and I. Probably because she’d spent the last few summers with me. Malik didn’t want anything to do with my tiny apartment above the salon. I was going to miss being with Raisa this summer as we both started new lives.
Shoes crunching on the shell path had me twisting my head. I almost felt the looming shape of Mac before it appeared over the dunes, as if my body had known all along that he’d find me, even after he’d gone downtown with Ava and Eli.
He sank down in the chair next to mine, that force-of-nature pull he had on me instantaneously coming back.
“Were all the single ladies at the bar too smart for your charm?” I asked.
He snorted, leaning his head on the back of the chair, gazing up into the night sky like I had been. His large body filled the space, and with his legs sprawling out toward the unlit firepit, it caused his knees to careen into mine. I pulled away, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“It was too exhausting tonight,” he responded.
“Must be pretty bad if you’re too exhausted to schmooze the fairer sex.”
A soft chuckle escaped his chest. “I’ve just spent two weeks in pretty much solitude on a boat. It takes a little to ease back into the real world.”
His voice was deep. Barrel deep? Was that the right description?
“Isn’t it dangerous to sail by yourself?”
He finally turned his head to look at me, and even in the dim light from the stars and the moon that had finally started to trek across the sky, I could see the flash of humor and more in those eyes.
“Did Ava tell you to harp on me about it? I swear she’s practicing being a parent before they’re even pregnant.”
“No. Ava and I don’t talk about you.”
“So, I’m not a ten?”
“A ten. Isn’t that what you said?”
“You were spying on us out on the deck.” I tried to be offended but couldn’t really be with him smiling like that.
He grinned. “You weren’t trying to be quiet.”
I liked how his grin crinkled the corners of his eyes. I liked too much about him. The fact that we would soon be living in the same city was enough to give me heart palpitations, even if the likelihood of our lives overlapping was slim to none.
“Spying definitely lowers all of your scores by, like, half. So, now you’re barely a five,” I told him.
He laughed—a full laugh this time—no half-laughs or snorts. And it seemed to fill the night around us. It felt like it could echo in a cavern with the boom of dragons. It felt like it could echo into my hidden away places if I wasn’t careful.
A GOOD NIGHT
“Maybe it's the music or the red stain on your lips,
I'm wondering when the right time is to go in for a kiss.”
Performed by John Legend with Bloodpop
Written by Legend / Diamond / Keen / Yatchenko
When Georgie hadn’t been in the house or on the porch, I’d found my way down the shell path to the firepit that I’d helped Eli and Ava build the summer before. I’d found her sitting in one of the Adirondacks, a blanket she didn’t need wrapped around her knees and a book unopened on her lap. Her hair blended with the shadows. Dark. Mysterious. Dreamy.
“Spying can hardly drop me to a five. It’s what I do for a living.”
I shouldn’t have harassed her about saying I was a ten. Hel―heck, she was a ten, ten times over. A hundred. A gazillion. There wasn’t a rating system that went high enough. But it felt good to tease. To get under her skin just a little. She was crawling all over and under my skin.
“You aren’t a spy,” she guffawed.
True. I wasn’t exactly a spy. But I dealt with all the data that came back from them. I dealt with field reports, and black ops, and things that the average citizen would never want to know about. “Let’s just say I’m in the know.”
“Because you spy on conversations that have nothing to do with you.” She wasn’t mad. She wasn’t even embarrassed; she was just giving me sh―a hard time.
“I think that conversation was entirely about me and my best friend.”
She just ignored me, pushing off the chair, leaving her blanket behind, and heading out toward the sand and the water that pulsed against it.
“Where are you going?”
She glanced back. “Why do you care?”
I didn’t respond. I just pulled myself out of my chair and followed her.
She headed toward the water, dragging her feet in the sand and writing something in the dampness. I watched as she wrote with her toes. Long toes on dancer-like feet that made it hard to look away from as they moved through the dark silt.
When she reached the end of her sentence, she kept walking away from the house and down the beach. I eased up on what she’d written. It was a cliché. “Follow your dreams.”
I tagged after her, jogging the first couple steps to catch up. Georgie had never seemed like a cliché kind of person, and this made me even more curious about her than I already was.
“What dreams are you chasing?” I asked her.
She looked over at me as if she’d known all along that I’d follow.
“Why did you sail all the way from D.C. by yourself?” she parried.
“I already said. Vacation. Between gigs.”
“You didn’t have to sail here. You could have flown. So…why sail here by yourself?”
I liked that she didn’t really let me get away with anything. Pushed.
“I like sailing. No one could come with me that I could stand being on a boat with for two weeks.” It was the truth. Plus, as much as I liked being around people, I’d felt a need to reacquaint myself with the me I was trying to be. Reimagine my goals.
“I’m sure there were plenty of your lady friends who would have accompanied you.”
There it was. The question I’d been hoping and dreading would eventually come up between us. The fact that I was single. I wanted to know if she was single, or if she’d left some boyfriend behind. When I’d asked Ava while I was at the bar, she’d told me she didn’t know. That Georgie had had a boyfriend the last time they’d talked, but she wasn’t sure anymore, because it seemed like Georgie had put behind a lot more than just the salon and the city.
“Truth is, the longest I’ve ever had a girlfriend was for a month. I’ve never been a keeper,” I finally responded to her question.
“You’ve never been a keeper as in the girls don’t want to keep you, or you’ve never been a keeper as in you don’t want a relationship?”
I looked down into her face, loving again the fact that she was barely shorter than me. That the look down into her face was barely a glance. Knowing that our bodies would fit together in a way not many people had ever fit me. Her eyes were shadowed. I couldn’t see much more than a hint of a reflection in the moonlight, but I could still feel the curiosity wafting off of her.
“Maybe a little bit of both.”
“And why have you never wanted to keep anyone?”
I couldn’t help the small laugh that escaped me. “I wish Ava was here now to see you asking all these personal questions. No boundaries.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”
She pulled away from me to ease her feet into the water more, and my body missed the heat and tantalizing pull, like the ebb of the tide her body had had on mine.
“It’s okay. I don’t mind. When I was younger, it felt ‘cool’ to have ladies falling all over me,” I told her. “Then, when I knew I was enlisting, I didn’t want to leave someone behind. I knew how hard it was on my mom and us kids to have Dad gone for months. I didn’t really want to do that to anyone, especially to someone who should have been out dating and partying and just being a twenty-something. Being free, you know?”
She nodded, kicking up the water and watching as the water droplets joined their brothers and sisters back in the waves.
“But you’ve been stationed in D.C. most of the time, right?”
She knew a lot about me. More than I expected her to know. More than I knew about her. It seemed unfair that the scales were so heavily tipped in her knowledge of me versus the other way around.
“Yep. Mostly D.C. But I spent some time on the USS George Washington and in Florida. Truth is, though, when you’re in the military, you never know where they’re going to send you next.”
She turned and headed back the way we’d come, still playing in the water as we went.
“Your boyfriend care that you’ve come on vacation to this strip of paradise without him?”
Her turn to laugh—the light laugh that she’d had earlier. “You could have just asked, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’”
I waited for a few seconds, and when she didn’t answer, I shrugged and asked, “Do you?”
“Nope. Sold him at the same time I sold the salon.”
I snorted. “Sold him?”
She smiled up at me but was trying not to. Now that we’d turned toward the moonlight, instead of away from it, I could see her face better, and her white teeth had come down on her full lower lip to try to stop the smile. Sexy. Like all of her.
“Traded him in?” she offered, as if I would like that term better.
“Dumped him. You dumped him. Poor guy.”
“Let’s just say it was a mutual decision.”
“Stupid. How come us males are so stupid?”
“Says the guy who just admitted to never having dated someone for longer than a month.”
“True. But when I do decide to go all in, I’ll be just that—all in.”
“You’ll go from never having dated to dating one woman and marrying her?”
“I didn’t exactly say marry, but what’s wrong with that?”
“How will you know she’s the right one? If you’ve never tested out a relationship, how would you know the one you pick is the one for forever?” she asked.
She gave a little disbelieving shake of her head.
“Don’t you trust your own instincts?” I asked. “For example, what made you decide the boyfriend needed to be dumped and not kept?”
“Instincts are just another one of the senses. And senses can often lead you awry.”
“Says me and Descartes.”
“This Descartes was not a military man, I take it?”
“Philosopher and scientist,” she told me. “But what has that to do with anything?”
“When you serve…probably if your life is on the line in any job―police, military, whatever―you have to listen to your gut. It can save your life.”
“That’s training, not instinct.”
“I kind of believe it’s both. But this Descartes guy…why didn’t he believe in using your senses?”
Her hand went to her ponytail, smoothing the wind-blown tendrils away from her face.
“Dreaming proves we can’t trust our senses to determine truth from imagination. In our dreams, things feel incredibly real even when they aren’t. So, we should, at the very least, be wary of our senses until we can test their veracity.”
Her little speech quieted me. It spoke to a level of education that I’d been judgmental enough not to have expected in a hairdresser. Sure, she had to have been savvy to run a successful salon in New York City, but I hadn’t expected a degree in philosophy. Not that I knew what her degree was in, but I hadn’t expected this kind of discussion.
I was ashamed. Because I was routinely frustrated by people judging me for my brawn versus my brains. For seeing a uniform and thinking that it meant I was just some meathead with a gun who screamed, “Don’t go quietly into the night.” Yet, I’d done the same with her. Judged her by her occupation and the spiked purple hair she’d had when I first met her. Judged her by the row of earrings that went up her earlobe.
I was quiet for so long that I’d almost forgotten that she was still beside me.
“Too deep?” she asked with a slight curl of humor in her voice.
We’d made it back to the firepit. She picked up her blanket, book, and an empty glass before we continued along the path to the house.
“No. Not at all. I just was surprised. And ashamed.”
She stopped and turned so suddenly that I almost ran into her. “Ashamed?”
“For judging the book by its cover when I hate that people do it with me,” I told her.
We stared into the darkness of each other’s faces for a moment. I wished that it was daylight, and I could have seen better what was going on inside her eyes. I was hoping they were full of desire. That she felt the way our bodies were talking to each other just as much as I did.
She turned and kept going.
“What did you major in?” I asked.
She kept dealing me more surprises. A three-of-a-kind hand that had come out of nowhere.
“What made you decide to go to cosmetology school instead of finishing the law degree?”
We’d reached the porch and climbed the stairs.
When she turned on the light in the beach house, it made me squint and hold a hand to my eyes as if the sun had come out from behind the clouds. She was standing there in the summer dress she’d had on earlier, feet bare, ponytail tousled by the breeze and the salty water. She was spectacular. Unforgettable. Like Audrey Hepburn and Gal Gadot rolled into one.
“I think we’ll have to save some of those questions for another night.”
I smiled at her. “Sorry. Nature of the job again. All questions, all the time.”
She took me in from head to toe and then back again. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“For judging you just like you judged me.”
“Well, to be fair, I am a ten.” I smiled at her, lightening our mood and the air that heaved between us as deep as the sea.
She snorted. “Goodnight, Mac-Macauley.”
And she left me, going into the bedroom I normally slept in. The one that had my bag in it. But I knew I wouldn’t be asking for it tonight. Tonight, I’d sleep in my skivvies and dream of a woman with eyes that were never the same color and hair as dark as night—and all the questions I still had to ask.
When I got back to my room, I saw that there were messages on my phone.
BRAT: Hey, before I forget again, I found us a roommate.
BRAT: Are you ignoring me?
I shuddered at the family nickname, but payback was hell.
ME: Jeez, Gooberpants, hold your panties in place. I didn’t have my phone with me at the beach.
BRAT: Likely story. Who was she?
Who was she? A stunning brunette with a white streak in her hair that I wanted to know all about.
ME: There’s no “she.” Please tell me the roommate isn’t another tree-hugger.
BRAT: That is absolutely not a politically correct statement. We have so much work to do if you really want to run for office.
ME: God. You’re right. Please tell me it’s not another person who won’t let us use the good kind of toilet paper without a ten-day lecture on sewer systems.
BRAT: Done. Definitely not that. She seems smart. Wore brown leather that made her dark hair and brown eyes stand out. You know our “environmentalist” would never have worn real leather. Or even pleather.
ME: When does she move in?
BRAT: Up in the air. Maybe end of July.
I wasn’t sure I had the energy to deal with another new roommate. I liked people, liked interacting with them, but sometimes it was nice to have a place you could go back to without having a stranger hanging over your shoulder.
Although, to be fair, some of our roommates had become part of our family.
I wondered what my family would think of Georgie. Of her energy and sass. My sisters would love that she called me out on sh―stuff. My mom would love that I brought anyone home. My dad would probably run a background check on her. Or maybe that would be Granddad. I guess I needed to think that way these days myself. If I wanted to make a run for office, it would mean having a partner who was an asset, not a deficit. That seemed like such a cold way of choosing the right someone to be at my side, especially when I really believed what I’d told Georgie on the beach. I wanted to find the person who my heart and soul told me was the one. My heart was skittering around my chest tonight, wondering if maybe the one had come careening back into my life now for a reason.
CAN I HAVE A KISS?
“Excuse me for this,
I just want a kiss.
I just want to know what it feels like to touch,
Something so pure.”
Performed by Kelly Clarkson
Written by Baker / Clarkson / Messer
I smelled bacon and cinnamon when I woke the next morning. I wasn’t sure how Ava and Eli kept up the hours they did with both of them working days and nights. Ava was at the bar around the clock, and Eli joined her there every night after his job with the emergency preparedness consulting firm. The bar was closed on Wednesdays during the off-season, but during the summer, when the tourists were bringing in the core of their business, it was open seven days a week.
It wasn’t a life I wanted. Even at the salon, which had been open six days, I’d only worked five. I needed time away. Ava said that it was because it wasn’t my passion, and she was probably right. The salon had simply been a must. A way of surviving.
What I was passionate about was the law. Facts. Justice.
When Grandma had taken me in after Dad had gone to jail, she’d encouraged my goals the only way she could have: with love and work at the salon. She’d shown me that getting my cosmetology license and working through high school and college was a way I could get my degree without being buried in a lifetime of debt. And it had worked while I got my bachelor’s. It had worked until Grandma died, and I was suddenly shouldered with a lease I couldn’t break. I’d had to put off my dreams until the lease was up.
But I’d never regret it because my grandmother had given me everything. A childhood filled with hide-and-seek between hair-washing stations and tickles between clients. A childhood filled with love and laughter. My dad loved me—just not as much as he loved money. My mom loved me, but she had a life in Russia without me. Both my parents loved me in their own way, but it was from afar. Grandma had loved me up close.
My phone vibrated, bringing me out of my memories of Grandma. I groaned internally at my stepbrother’s text.
MALIK: Raisa says you found an apartment in D.C.
ME: And what?
MALIK: You’re impossible to text with.
ME: This is not news.
MALIK: And where is it? Will we get an address so we know how to get a hold of you? Can I come visit?
ME: It’s near the college. Raisa already has the address. And you won’t want to stay there any more than you wanted to stay at my apartment in NYC.
Of my two siblings, Malik was always easy to rile up and the first one to pout. Raisa was fiery like our mother, whereas Malik was more of a spoiled, rich-kid heir.
ME: Don’t be sore.
MALIK: I just want to see you.
ME: Then come to D.C. and put a hotel on your Black American Express Card.
MALIK: Now you are sore.
ME: **laughing emoji**
MALIK: Why is this funny?
ME: I don’t want the price that would come with having one of your dad’s credit cards.
Malik didn’t respond.
ME: Hey. I was teasing.
No response. Typical Malik. If he didn’t get his way, or felt slighted, you wouldn’t hear from him for weeks. Now I’d have to send Raisa a message and get her to smooth things over.
Raisa and I got each other better than Malik and I ever had. Maybe because I understood wanting a dream the way Raisa wanted hers. She was majoring in bio and chemical engineering at Stanford so she could find a way to solve the world’s energy problems. She had bigger goals than I ever had. I wasn’t sure what Malik’s goals were besides spending money. I wasn’t sure why he wanted to stay with me instead of a fancy hotel with fancy foods and fancy people, anyway. It was more his style.
I hauled myself out of the bed in the room I’d chosen because it had a view of the ocean from the window and pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt before making my way to the kitchen. I was surprised it was just Eli and Mac.
“Morning. Where’s Ava?”
Eli and Mac both turned to me, Mac’s hand twitching and splattering the bacon he was holding back into the pan of grease. He swore. Eli smiled.
“Morning. She was really dragging when we got home last night, so I didn’t want to wake her.”
“Will I be in your way if I grab coffee?” I asked, eyeing the Keurig with desire.
Both men shook their heads. I tried to squeeze around them the best I could, but Mac―who was closer to the pot―and I kept bumping into each other. Our bodies talking.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at work?” I asked Eli once I’d backed out of the kitchen.
“I told them I’d be in late today.”
The two men worked quietly together in the kitchen. I watched, admiring their sureness with each other. Their comfort. As if they’d done this many times before. Just as the food was ready, Ava emerged from the bedroom with dark circles under her eyes and a face so pale it looked eerie.
She put her finger to her nose. “What on earth did you cook?”
Eli’s face broke out into a smile, and he came around the counter to give her a tender kiss, as if he hadn’t just spent the night tucked up next to her.
“You look sick. Are you sick?”
“That smell is about ready to do me in. What did you cook?” she repeated.
“It’s bacon and French toast. You love bacon.”
She backed away toward the fresh air coming in through the French doors. “That doesn’t smell anything like bacon or French toast.”
We all looked at her funny.
Eli followed her out onto the deck. Their voices were quiet, but we could still hear them, which made me realize how Mac had been able to hear us the day before when Ava and I had talked about the two men. It made me flush a little in embarrassment. I looked up at Mac, and he winked at me. I was tempted to roll my eyes but didn’t.
Eli was saying, “Go back to bed. I’ll call in.”
“We have guests. I’m not going back to bed. And you don’t have to call in. I’ll be fine. It must have been the beans last night.”
“We all ate the beans, Ava. It wasn’t the beans.” I could hear the worry in his voice.
“She really should go back to bed,” Mac said as he dished up a plate and handed it to me. “More bacon?”
I shook my head. “Thank you. You know Ava. She won’t if we’re here. I’ll tell her I planned on spending the day downtown at the shops.”
“She’ll just want to go with you. That’ll be even worse. All that walking.”
He poured enough syrup on his French toast that it could have floated out to sea by itself. He saw me watching and smiled. “I have a sweet tooth.”
I grinned. “That definitely does not fit with your image.” I waved a hand at his fit frame.
“I know,” he said before diving into his food.
Ava and Eli continued their conversation on the deck. Ava had her forehead pressed against his chest. He had his arms around her as if he could hold her and the whole world up at the same time.
“What do you say about taking a sail with me?” Mac asked.
“It’ll get us out of her hair and allow Eli to go to work. No one will feel obligated to entertain us.”
It was a good idea. But that just meant a good chunk of the day in his company.
Ava pushed Eli away and went running toward their bathroom. Eli followed, almost forgetting we were there. “Do you really think he’ll leave with her feeling this way?” I asked.
Mac shrugged. “I don’t know, but I don’t want him worrying about me and her at the same time.”
I blew out a breath. “Okay.”
“Yep. But I have to warn you. I’ve never been on a boat before.”
“Wait. Like never?”
“Well, I’ve been on a ferry—the ones around New York—but never a small boat. And never a sailing boat.”
He smiled. “I’m a good teacher.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.”
“Have you ever gotten seasick?”
“Not on the ferries.”
We finished our breakfast in silence, left a plate in the oven on warm for Eli, and cleaned up the kitchen together.
“Should I change?” I asked him.
He looked me over in a lazy way that had all my senses firing. But like I told Mac the night before, I rarely trusted my senses. They usually had me running in the opposite direction. I ran a hand over my hair.
“You look perfect to me,” he said finally.
It made me want to roll my eyes again, but I’d given up rolling my eyes when I was a teen. Grandma had made me do extra chores at the shop every time I’d rolled them at her. The memory struck me hard for some reason today. The hurt still there even after all these years without her.
“Let me be more specific, Mac-Macauley. Do I need to wear something different to go sailing?”
“Maybe bring a bathing suit? And if you have some non-slippery soled shoes. But barefoot works as well.”
We headed down the hall to the bedrooms, and I was surprised when he followed me into the bedroom I’d taken up residence in. “Um. Excuse me?”
He smiled again. A smile that pulled at the shadow of a beard that had coursed over his face as he’d slept. A smile that made his eyes—which were a sparkling blue today—crinkle in response. My belly flopped over.
“Sorry,” he said, but it didn’t sound like he was sorry. “This is usually the room I’m in. I left my bag in here yesterday.” He pointed at the military duffel I hadn’t even noticed on the floor by the bookshelf that was full of Eli’s comic books.
“Oh. I’m sorry. Do you want me to move into the other room?”
“God, no. You’re settled here. It was just habit.”
He grabbed the bag, hooked it over his shoulder, and then headed for the door that led to the shared bathroom. “You need in here, or is it okay if I jump in the shower?”
My mouth felt like a stale saltine cracker had been shoved into it. The thought of Mac getting naked in the bathroom that we would be sharing for the next few days. I tried to dump the image from my brain. Tried to imagine Jared. Tried to feel an ache for the man I’d just left in New York, but I couldn’t. Jared and I had been done for a lot longer than we’d admitted.
I moved toward the closet.
“Nope. I’m all good.” I was happy my voice didn’t betray me or my thoughts. It had been developed over years of practice, just like my poker face.
I heard the door shut and the shower start before I turned back around to the mirror over the dresser. My face was flushed even though I hadn’t let it show in my voice. Mac-Macauley was going to be hard to resist.
I opened the drawer of the dresser, pulled out a bathing suit, and threw it, a beach towel, and a bottle of sunscreen into a beach bag. Then, I pulled my hair up into a high ponytail that was becoming my signature hairdo now that I’d left behind salon life. It would, at least, stay out of my face in the breeze on the boat this way.
When I left the room, Eli was on the phone. I pulled a couple waters from the fridge, adding them to the stack of things in my bag. By the time Eli hung up, Mac had come out of his room, hair wet, shorts and a T-shirt on with his boat shoes.
“I’m going to take Georgie out on the boat,” Mac said.
“You don’t have to leave,” Eli said.
“You know Ava. She won’t rest if she knows we’re here. She’ll feel like she has to entertain,” I jumped in with Mac.
Eli couldn’t argue. He knew it was true, but he looked from me to Mac as if he was unsure. “God, Dad, I’m not going to steal her clothes and her virtue. We’re just going out for a sail,” Mac teased.
Eli squinted his eyes and then turned to me. “You sure you’re okay with this?”
I smiled. “I can handle myself. I learned self-defense at the hands of a cop who liked my grandma. If Mac-Macauley tries anything, I’ll push him overboard and radio the Coast Guard for help. You’ll hear all about it from your buddies.”
Eli tried to hide his smile. “Fair enough, but wait longer than you think before you call for help. He’s a Navy man, so he can tread water for a long time.”
“Dude. That’s just mean,” Mac said, playfully punching his shoulder.
Eli fished a pair of keys out of the blue glass bowl on the table near the door. “Here, take Ava’s car. She won’t need it today.”
He tossed the keys to me, not Mac. I caught them with a smile, and Mac grunted a protest before following me toward the door.
I turned back to Eli. “Make sure you tell Ava to just rest and feel better.”
He nodded, and we left.
♫ ♫ ♫
We seemed to leave the mugginess behind us as Mac sailed out into the Gulf. We soon lost sight of land, and it was both discomfiting and exhilarating at the same time. Mac taught me some basic lingo, told me where to sit and stand so that I would be out of his way, and also what to do if he asked for help, but he basically managed the boat on his own. It wasn’t surprising, as he’d been sailing for weeks on his own, but it was impressive in a way I hadn’t expected to be impressed.
He was serious as he pulled the rigging and ropes. His muscles rippled as he worked, showing themselves under his white T-shirt and plaid shorts that seemed more fashion model than Navy man.
We were quiet while we sailed, the breeze rushing over me, the sun soaking into my bones like the syrup I’d had this morning on my breakfast. It was peaceful in a way that—like a lot of things about Mac himself—I hadn’t expected.
Eventually, he turned the boat back toward the coast more, and when he put the anchor down, I could see land, but it wasn’t close enough to make out exactly where we were. It was mostly just water, and sun, and ocean breeze around us. He disappeared below deck. When we’d first boarded the boat, he’d taken me down to show me around. It was small. There was a bed that was a pile of messy sheets up toward the bow, a small kitchen, and a built-in table. In addition, there was a bathroom that I wasn’t sure how Mac fit into. The whole boat had the look of being well-used but was clean and neat other than the messy sheets.
When Mac came back up on deck, he had two beers and a plate of sandwiches. He placed them on the seat next to me and then sat on the other side of the food. Space between us.
“This is the second meal you’ve made me today. Are you sure you’ve never had a girlfriend?”
His eyes crinkled as he smiled slightly, and for a moment, I felt like I’d seen the smile before, but I couldn’t place it and just pushed it aside.
“This is just common courtesy,” he said. “I’d do it for whoever was on the boat or in the house. I have three older sisters. If I’d made food and not made enough for them, I would have been tied to one of their bedposts with scarves, dressed in a tutu, and covered in makeup.”
I laughed. The image of Mac in a tutu and makeup was so preposterous that it was more than comical. It was ludicrous. “I’d pay good money to see that.”
“There are pictures.”
We ate in comfortable silence.
“Do you have siblings?” he asked.
I nodded. “A half-brother and sister. They live in Russia with my mom and stepdad.”
He took that in for a moment before saying, “I kind of suspected there was some Russian in you.”
“It’s in the cheeks and the nose.”
I found my hand going instantly to those body parts. “I do look a lot like my mom, except she has blonde hair like my sister.”
“Must be hard being so far from them.”
“It is. And my mom isn’t allowed back in the country, so if I want to see her, then I have to go there.”
He looked a little dumbfounded. “Why isn’t she allowed in the country?”
I wasn’t embarrassed about my family. It was their actions, not mine, that had landed them where they were. I’d just been a little kid. But I’d had a lot of people look at me differently once they’d heard the story, and this huge balloon grew in my stomach at the thought of Mac being one of them. I took a swallow of the beer he’d brought up. I wasn’t overly fond of the stuff—more of a mixed drink kind of person—but I drank it in order to ease the dryness that had suddenly taken over my mouth.
“My dad is Ian Astrella.” When that didn’t get any reaction, I continued. “You know, the guy who stole millions from people in Ponzi look-alike schemes?”
He sort of choked on his beer. “Holy crap.”
I laughed. “Yep. And my mom was a Russian model who’d gone all in with him. The feds could never prove how much she was actually involved, but they definitely revoked her visa and sent her back with a ‘You are not welcome back’ sign stamped in her passport.”
“Why didn’t you go with her?”
“I did at first, but Dad still had enough pull that, when she filed for divorce, he won that battle.”
“Isn’t he in jail?”
“Oh yeah. He’ll be in jail for at least another ten years, and then it’s highly doubtful any parole board is going to feel enough sympathy to let him out of his multiple sentences.”
Mac frowned. “I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t he want you with your mom?”
I shrugged. “I was only six when it all started to unravel. But they used to have these knockdown, drag-out fights that I still remember. They never hit each other, but the objects in our house were never safe. My mom would throw anything she could get her hands on. And now, looking back, I realize she had a coke habit. She doesn’t now, but she did then. I remember being told the white powder was ‘Mommy’s special adult medicine’ and that it wasn’t for me. I’m sure Dad used the drug habit against her to make sure she didn’t get custody.”
“Who raised you, then?”
“My grandma. It was her salon I sold.”
“Doesn’t Grandma want it anymore?”
That pain hurt worse than any of the stories of my mom or my dad. Because she’d been my real parent. The person who had loved me the most in the world. “She died about five years ago.”
Mac was quiet again. Taking it all in. I was surprised I’d told him all that. Mac had a way of making you open up when you didn’t even realize you were doing it. Like I had last night. It made me realize he was probably really good at whatever information collecting he did for the government.
“I’m going to take a swim,” he said, standing up, pulling off his T-shirt, and revealing a chest and abs that were beautifully defined, but it was in a way that talked of genuine hard work instead of weights and trainers. It was sexy. He had hair smattered all across it that neither Jared nor his model friends would have allowed. Their chests were always shaved, waxed, or lasered. Mac was all-natural male and maybe more gorgeous because of it.
“You going to come in?” he asked as he looked back at me from the edge of the boat, feet posed on the side, ready to dive into the brilliant blue water in his plaid shorts that I now realized were swim trunks.
“Sure. Okay to change down there?”
He nodded and then dove in. I barely heard the splash as he hit the water. I stepped below deck, shaking myself out of the lazy feeling that had encompassed all of my interactions with Mac. Like a dream that was meandering its way through your conscious with no purpose other than just to dream.
Descartes would have been having a field day with my analogies.
I changed into the one-piece I’d brought for days when I thought I’d actually be in the water instead of sunbathing on Ava’s beach, the cut reminding me of the forties and fifties and all the glamorous actresses my grandma had so admired.
When I came up on deck, I could see that Mac had swum quite a few yards away from the boat. That made me a little nervous. Were there sharks out here? Other sea creatures that might nibble at my toes? I sat on the step at the back of the boat―the stern was what Mac had called it.
I’d left my sunglasses on the seat, and it made it hard to see with the reflection of the sun on the crystal-like water. It added to the dreamlike quality of our day, the heat searing my skin even through the layers of sunscreen I’d added.
I placed my hand over my eyes and looked out at Mac. He turned, head bobbing in the gentle waves. “You gonna come in? I think there are sea turtles out here,” he hollered back at me.
Were sea turtles friendly? I wasn’t a naturally fearful person, but unknowns weren’t my favorite thing. I liked to read and research things before I did them. I liked knowing what I was getting into.
Mac started swimming toward the boat, his muscled arms cutting through the waves easily until he was treading water a foot or so away from where my legs were curled up on the step with me.
“There’s a whole bale of them. Come on, before they move off,” he said.
I shook my head very slightly as uncertainty coursed through my veins again.
He smiled then, catching my wariness. “Are you afraid of sea turtles?”
“Afraid is a very strong word,” I told him.
His smile widened, and he stuck out his hand. “Come on. I promise to keep you safe.”
“What do they eat?” I asked, ignoring his hand. He swam closer, his body so close that his wet chest bumped my knees in my cross-legged position. He put a hand on one of them. Rubbing. Soothing, and yet, not soothing because my body liked it way too much. Reactions that were not fully trustworthy.
“They don’t eat humans,” he chuckled, pulling on my knee and sending my right leg careening into the water and colliding with his side.
“What about a toe if they think it’s a fish?”
“I’ve never had my toes nibbled on by anything but actual fish.”
“What about sharks? Have you been nibbled on by sharks?”
He laughed. “You watch too many scary movies or something? No sharks.”
“I’ve seen Soul Surfer. That’s not a scary movie. That’s a cautionary tale.”
“That’s a tale about bravery and courage.”
“Wait. How do you know that movie?”
“Did you miss the part where I said I grew up with three sisters?”
He pulled my other leg, and I went toppling into the water and into his arms. I let out a squeal that was nothing I normally did. I wasn’t a squeal kind of person, just like I wasn’t normally fearful.
I was being held against a chest that was warm while the water was cool, the sensations of heat and cold coursing through my veins. My heart beat wildly, not only because of his closeness, but because I was in the water and not sure I wanted to be there.
“See. No toes being bitten off.” He continued to smile down at me, and I relaxed a little, pushing myself out of his arms.
“Not yet. But if I lose a body part, Ava and Eli will both come after you with machetes.”
More booming laughter. Just like last night, it filled the air around us. If there had been birds nearby, it would have startled them out of their trees.
He swam out the way he’d come, looking back every so often to make sure I was following him. I did, with my brain screaming at me that I was not supposed to be trusting my instincts and that I hadn’t fully researched anything that was about to happen to me.
When we got out several yards from the boat, Mac stopped and motioned for me to do the same. We did the minimum that was necessary to float, and pretty soon, I could see the turtles moving down below in the clear water. Most were about the size of a toddler, but some were smaller. Some were cruising around the bottom. Some swimming. It shouldn’t have felt like a life-changing experience, and yet it almost was. Like the Earth had rotated into a new position around me. Like I’d learned something spectacular when I’d actually learned nothing.
We watched for a while, and then Mac flipped over onto his back, floating, looking up at the clear sky. I joined him. The blue of the sky was faded and pale compared to the sea around us—almost white—making me miss my contacts that were almost this same pale shade. We’d left so quickly this morning that I hadn’t put any of them in.
Eventually, the coolness of the water started to take over the heat of my body, and I shivered. I flipped over and headed back toward the boat. When I pulled myself out of the water, Mac was right behind me. I grabbed my towel, rubbing away some of the water. I looked up to see he was watching me; the way my hands and the towel traced over my body, and I froze in the midst of an action that I hadn’t intended to be a sexual one, but yet, he was suddenly making me feel was that and much more.
He came up close, and I dropped the towel as his body touched mine, the heat searing its way back into my cool one. His hand went to my arm, his fingers and palm dancing over my skin and up to my shoulder, before journeying to my neck, where it stilled.
“I’d really like to kiss you,” he said quietly.
I looked into his eyes that were the color of the sky and the sea all rolled into one. His face was so gorgeous, with its day-old stubble and square planes, that it was like looking at a piece of art you’d never expected to see up close in person.
“I’d really like you to kiss me, too. But let’s face it, it isn’t a good idea,” I answered back, unable to deny the attraction that existed between the two of us from the moment we’d met in my salon two years ago, regardless of the relationship I’d just left behind.
His head inclined in silent agreement. It wasn’t a good idea. Disappointment curled through me even as I knew it was better this way.
His hand moved to caress my cheek. Gently. Soothing.
“Can I ask why you think it’s a bad idea?” he inquired.
His voice had turned a notch deeper in blatant desire, making my heart pound against my chest in a heavy beat that denied my words. I ached to kiss him. To feel those almost too-perfect lips against my own. To feel the strength that poured from him, in muscle and character, reaching out to touch my soul.
“Ava and Eli,” I said quietly. “Awkwardness later.”
He nodded again, that new and unfamiliar feeling of disappointment reaching up into my throat at his action. My body didn’t want him to nod, but my brain was still ruling my movements.
“One kiss,” he muttered, a finger traveled to my lips, caressing the bottom one with a gentle touch like the one he’d used on the tomatoes the day before. Surprising. Sexy. My breath escaped in a gasp that sounded almost like a moan.
And then his lips were on mine, just like the touch, gentle and yet full of heat, longing filling us both, desire escaping from us and mingling in an excursion that felt like heartbreak and loneliness and promises that would never be. The gentleness gave way to a fierceness that was as unexpected as the tenderness had been. His hand went to my lower back, pulling me toward him tighter so that our bodies and curves joined in a way that felt like opposite ends of magnets finally clicking together. Parallel forces drawn, as if by physics itself.
My hands went to his shoulders, finding their way to the wet hair at the nape of his neck, twisting so that our lips were pushed closer, tighter, harder together. It was the best kiss I’d ever received in my life. I’d had many kisses—fewer partners—but lots of exploratory kisses. None matched the intensity of this one kiss, not even Jared’s sexy smoothness. None that made my soul want to completely disregard the screaming in my brain.
The lack of air forced our lips apart, our lungs giving way to that need to breathe and involuntarily separating us in a way our souls wouldn’t have done.
We both breathed in heavily. He looked down into my eyes, his sea-colored ones full of the desire that was still coursing through us both. Our bodies were still tucked together. Only our lips had moved away. It felt as if I was looking for something in Mac that I’d never looked for in any of my male partners. I wanted something more than desire to be there.
It was ridiculous. And that had me pulling away completely, not trusting anything my senses were telling me. He let me pull away, but his eyes went from my lips, to my chest that was still beating wildly, back to my lips, and then up to my eyes, lingering there.
“I like your real color,” he said.
Then, he left me, going down below with a muttered comment about changing. My heart slowly settled from its wild beat, but my emotions were still high. They were wrapped in the dream of the kiss and our day. Emotions that were untested. Unproven. Unreal.
I picked up the towel from where I’d dropped it and went up onto the bow to lie down, letting the sun soak into my already overheated body. The body that had lost the shiver from the cold waters with a kiss. It wasn’t until I’d lain there for a few moments that I realized Mac had never told me why he thought kissing me was a mistake. And that one thought jolted me back to reality more than any other thing could.
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