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Mouth to Mouth (A Beach Kingdom Novel)
Year:
2018
Publisher:
Tessa Bailey
Language:
english
ISBN:
B07K37BLPF
File:
EPUB, 231 KB
Download (epub, 231 KB)

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MOUTH TO MOUTH




A Beach Kingdom Novel

by Tessa Bailey





Copyright © 2018 Tessa Bailey



Kindle Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.





TABLE OF CONTENTS




Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Excerpt from Runaway Girl

Want Access to FREE audiobooks?





CHAPTER ONE





God, I fucking hate summer.

Rory Prince shoved the ice pack against his throbbing eye and tried unsuccessfully to tune out the offensive early morning kitchen sounds. The scratching of his oldest brother’s pencil across the table might as well have been an air horn pressed directly to the center of his forehead—and was way too efficient for nine a.m.

“Do you mind?” Rory muttered. “I’m in recovery mode.”

“When are you not?” Andrew didn’t even bother to look up from the two clipboards on which he seemed determined to make endless notations. “It’s Memorial Day weekend and I have two schedules to organize. Sorry I can’t accommodate your hangover.” His pencil flew from one set of grids to another. “Where did the black eye come from?”

“Yes, I thought you only gave those out,” Rory’s other brother, Jamie, said from behind his raised, open book. “Who got the drop on you?”

“Some DFS’s,” Rory responded, shifting the ice pack, and his brothers hummed in acknowledgment, well aware that DFS stood for Down for the Summer. As in, those who didn’t live year-round in Long Beach but showed up for three months out of the year to make hell ; for the residents. “Don’t worry, he ended up with two instead of one.”

Jamie sighed and finally lowered his worn-in copy of The Grapes of Wrath. “Aren’t physical altercations a violation of your probation?”

Rory winked his good eye. “Only if I get caught.”

Andrew tossed aside the pencil and flattened both hands on the kitchen table. “All right. I tried to give everyone at least one full day off every week—”

“Jesus, man,” Rory deadpanned. “Don’t spoil us.”

“Look. We’ve got a bar to run.” Andrew massaged his eyes with a forefinger and thumb. Not for the first time, Rory noticed the new lines at the corners and the ice pack started to feel heavier in his hand. “I know it’s a lot, lifeguarding during the day and working behind the bar at night. If I could eliminate one of them for us, I would.” He dropped his hand. “Things are different than they were four years ago, though. We should be used to it by now.”

Things were different? Christ, what an understatement.

Rory, Andrew and Jamie traded long looks over the table, before quickly moving their attention elsewhere. A familiar pit took up residence in Rory’s stomach, but he filled it with cement and pasted a bored expression on his face. “Look, all I know is I’m not working Trivia Tuesdays at the bar.” He pointed at Jamie. “You herd the nerds this year.”

“As long as I can still participate in the quiz while serving drinks.”

Rory’s lips twitched. “God forbid you miss a chance to blow minds with your bottomless intellect.”

Jamie turned the page of his book. “What good is being a genius if I can’t make everyone else feel stupid?”

Andrew grabbed their attention with a knuckle rap on the table. “All right, so Jamie, you’re on Tuesday nights.” Their older brother made a notation on one of his clipboards. “I’m taking Sunday and Monday because the sports crowd is belligerent and Rory will knock someone out and end up back in a concrete cell—”

“More than likely,” Rory drawled, taking a few gulps of black coffee.

“We’re all hands on deck Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights—everyone works. So that leaves Wednesday night open.” Andrew speared him with a look. “You got it covered?”

“Sure. Wet T-shirt Wednesdays—”

“Nu-uh. Not happening.”

Rory smiled at his strait-laced oldest brother to let him know he’d been joking. “I think I’ve got it, man.”

With a nod, Andrew penciled in the final details to the Castle Gate schedule, hoisting it up like Moses probably held the Ten Commandments. “The next three months are going to be crazy, but when things quiet back down in September, we’ll have a lot less of Dad’s debt to show for it. We’re almost there. Play our cards right and this could be the year.” He didn’t meet their eyes. “Heads down and plow through, okay?” Finally, he ticked a look in both of their directions. “And let me know if anyone asks about him.”

Rory swallowed. “Will do.”

Jamie set his book down, which was as good as an agreement.

“Next order of business,” Andrew started, trading a not-so-subtle glance with Jamie. “Mom’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks.”

“What do you know?” Rory drawled, his neck itching. “Damn thing rolls around at least once every single year. Same time, too.”

“Are you going to come?” Jamie asked, shifting in his chair. “I don’t think you realize how much she’d like to see you, Rory.”

“You’re right, I don’t.” He laughed without humor and polished off his coffee, softening his tone when his brothers looked disappointed. “I’ll let you know, huh?”

Before anyone could respond, the back door of their kitchen opened and Jiya Dalal, the fourth member of their family, breezed in. “Morning, suckers,” she murmured, flipping her wave of black hair over her shoulder. “Where’s my coffee?”

On cue, Andrew abandoned his almighty clipboards and rose to pour her a cup.

Jiya wasn’t technically related, but Rory loved her like a sister. She’d moved with her parents from India to Long Beach the summer before starting fifth grade. One afternoon, Rory and Andrew were playing catch in the backyard—while Jamie read in the shade of their cedar tree—when they noticed a somber brown eye watching them through a hole in the old, rotted fence. That’s when the yelling started inside their house. Not just yelling. Angry, vile words meant to cause pain, coming from their father. In those days, their mother responded in kind, too. Before things had escalated.

Slowly, the fence board had slid to one side, revealing a girl Andrew’s age, wearing a pink Punjabi suit—although he hadn’t known what to call her outfit at the time. She’d waved all three Prince boys through, leading them without words to her garage where they’d watched cartoons on an old television set, Mrs. Dalal bringing them ice-cold Pepsi cans with straws stuck in the top. Jiya’s English had only allowed them the most basic communication back then, but eighteen years later, there was only a trace of her accent remaining and she could swear like a goddamn sailor.

Jiya slid over a large metal container from its place of honor on their counter and scooped cumin from its smaller compartment into the pressure cooker where Andrew had already started soaking the ghee to make khichdi, their morning staple ever since Jiya had taken pity on three starving men.

Knowing she would twist his ear like silly putty if he didn’t get up to help, Rory stood, breathing through his nose when his brain lurched and smacked off the front of his skull. “Fuck me,” he rasped, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I hate summer.”

During the rest of the year, Rory worked the bar five nights a week. He made enough money to be comfortable and contribute to the mortgage he shared with his brothers. His customers were regulars. Friends. Locals. As soon as Memorial Day weekend hit, Long Beach transformed into a whole different animal. For one, lifeguarding season began, which meant waking up at the ass crack of dawn. Everyone on the beach was jacked for the time of their life, which meant they acted like idiots—and he couldn’t even escape them at the end of the day, since they inevitably showed up at the Castle Gate at night.

“I love summertime,” Jiya breathed, turning and leaning back against the counter. “My tips at the restaurant triple. By September, I should finally be able to afford the lessons.”

As far back as Rory could remember, Jiya had wanted to fly an airplane, but slow season at the restaurant she ran with her parents always seemed to eat into her funds. Every year around this time, she said the same thing. I should finally be able to afford the lessons.

Rory glanced over at Andrew to find him staring at Jiya’s profile, a frown marring his features. “Hell yeah.” He moved around Jiya and elbowed Andrew. “That’s great, Ji. Where are you flying us first?”

Andrew handed her a mug of coffee and she breathed in the steam, her dark eyes sparkling. “I’m thinking a pit stop in the Maldives before we hop over to Australia.”

“Count me in,” Jamie said, joining them at the counter to grate ginger onto the cutting board. “Let me know when to start packing.”

“He’ll need three extra suitcases for his books,” Rory laughed, then winced when his cranium protested. “Son of a bitch. Today is going to suck.”

“There’s Advil in my purse.”

He almost dove for the leather satchel she’d hung on a chair. “You’re an angel.”

“True facts.” Jiya took an exaggerated breath, set her coffee down and the four of them fell into their usual routine of making breakfast. “What time do you have to be at the Hut?” she asked, referring to the squat, brick headquarters adjacent to the boardwalk where the lifeguards checked in each morning.

“Eleven,” Andrew answered, saluting the kitchen in general with the spatula. “Long Beach, your lives are in the hands of the Prince brothers.”

Rory dry-swallowed a painkiller. “God help them all.”





CHAPTER TWO





The Prince brothers lived, ate, argued and worked two jobs together, so there was no shortage of face time. Hell, they were never not in each other’s faces. There’d been no formal discussion when deciding that morning not to ride to the Hut as a trio. It had gone unsaid they would find their own way there.

Did they love each other? Yeah. Would they have each other’s backs in an alley, even if the odds were three against three hundred? Rory would already be searching the ground for a potential weapon. Did they need some space occasionally? Bet your ass.

While Jamie hopped on the bus, Andrew and Jiya had driven together in his pick-up truck toward the boardwalk. Hoping the late-May breeze would clear the vodka cobwebs from his head, Rory walked, instead of taking his motorcycle. The last-minute decision to hoof it had thrown off his morning routine, resulting in him forgetting his cell phone on the kitchen table, but judging from the packed avenues, he should be thankful he wouldn’t have to battle for a parking space with a hangover.

At ten o’clock in the morning, there was already a traffic jam at every intersection, college kids staring at their smartphones at stoplights, the nasal voice of their navigation systems drifting out of the open car windows. A news helicopter circled above, probably feeding footage of the filling beach town back to a local station where a newscaster chirped to the audience. This Memorial Day weekend is certainly shaping up to be the busiest yet, Bob!

Andrew had been right about the last four years yielding big changes for the Princes. Their mother lived in Bayside, Queens now with her sister. Their father wasn’t around anymore. It was just the three of them, back in the house they’d been raised, working to pay bills.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, though, right? The walk down National Boulevard toward the beach felt like it had been recycled from the four previous summers of his life. Wake up after a night of blurry, shit-faced memories, face the guarded disappointment across the kitchen table, while nursing a healthy dose of his own. Fall into the same routine. Beach, bar, bed. Never changing. Never growing or taking on more responsibility. An actor trapped in the reruns of his own life.

What would he do if Andrew asked him to help manage the bar? Or hire and train this year’s newest crop of lifeguards? Not that such an occurrence would ever take place, but would he be able to deliver on more, if asked?

Rory was distracted from his thoughts when a blonde walked past him on the sidewalk with her face buried in a book. “Jesus,” he muttered. “The female version of Jamie.”

When she’d gotten a few feet ahead of Rory, he was powerless to do anything but check out her ass. If there was one perk to summers in Long Beach, it was the abbreviated attire, and this girl was no exception. She wore little, white bun-hugger shorts and flip-flops, gracing Rory with a front row seat to the tight, side-to-side twitch of her backside. It was a superior tush. So superior, he shook out his right hand like it had been burned.

Shame he couldn’t see her face. The forward tilt of her head caused short, blonde hair to curtain around her features as she speed walked to the corner, never looking up from her book.

Rory’s frown deepened the closer she got to intersection. Traffic might be moving slowly, but the bus lane was wide open and he knew from experience how fast they flew.

“Hey.” He cleared his throat and raised his voice. “Hey.”

She continued walking, face in book.

“Dammit.” Rory gritted his teeth and started to run, not an easy feat considering he’d paired flip-flops with his sweatpants. But he had no choice to sprint, because she was five feet from the crosswalk and showing no signs of slowing down. He caught up with her just as she stepped into the street, wrapping an arm around her waist and yanking her back—

The East Loop bus barreled past blaring its horn.

“Oh my God.” She dropped her book—about fucking time—and dug her fingernails into his forearm. “Did that…oh God, that bus almost hit me.”

“You couldn’t have made it any easier,” Rory near-shouted at the top of her head, sounding winded. With her back plastered to his front, Rory could practically feel her shock wear off, giving way to a wave of trembling. He heaved a sigh and lowered his voice. “Consider a switch to audiobooks, huh? Maybe?”

Her head tipped forward, presumably to look at her fallen book. “I didn’t like the narrator for this one.”

“Enough to get hit by a bus?”

A few beats passed. “If I say yes, will you start shouting again?”

“Yes.”

“Then…no?”

Realizing he still held the stranger in a death grip, Rory let her go in degrees to assure himself she was steady. The blonde turned around and blinked up at him through round, red-rimmed eyeglasses—and he experienced the most unexpected twist in his chest. He must have run harder and faster than he thought, because he was winded all over again. On a sucked-in breath, an odd sound escaped his mouth. A scrape of noise. What the hell?

This girl. She was fucking…amazing. She reminded him of a little sunbeam with summer-kissed skin and big features, especially those dove-gray eyes. Oh fuck. Her lips. They were parted slightly and inviting, the sun bathing them in a sheen.

Forget what he’d said about her being the female version of Jamie.

“Whoa,” she whispered.

Tell me about it. “What’s your name?”

If her widened eyes meant she was surprised by the sudden drop in his voice, she wasn’t the only one. “I’m Olive. Cunningham.”

“Olive.” For some reason, color climbed her neck when he said her name. “I’m Rory Prince.”

“Hi.” She smacked a hand to her forehead. “And duh. Thank you. For saving me from being road kill. If I had to die horrifically, I would have chosen a different book to be my last.”

Rory stooped down and picked up the fallen tome, making no effort to hide his perusal of her bare legs on the way back up. They were covered in goose bumps. “You’re making it sound like you hate this book…” he said, stepping close until she tilted her head back to maintain eye contact. “But you were lost in another world reading it.”

“I get lost in magazines at the dentist office.” He heard her swallow. “I just have a thing for words.”

“What else do you have a thing for?”

“Probably other stuff,” she whispered. “But I’m having trouble thinking of them right this second.”

“Why is that?”

“I almost got hit by a bus.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Did you miss that?”

Rory couldn’t stop his grin. “Oh, I caught it.” Up ahead, he could hear the ocean and knew he needed to be at work. He would let down Andrew at some point this summer, no need to make it on the first day. But this girl. He was just supposed to walk away?

His grin faded. “I have to be at work soon. I’m lifeguarding today and we start at eleven. But I have a few minutes before I have to run.” He forced a concerned expression onto his face. “You look shaken up, sunbeam. We should probably get you a coffee and my number.”

A laugh burst out of her, loud enough to turn heads on the sidewalk. She slapped her hands over her mouth but continued to giggle behind them. The sound was so contagious, his own low rumble joined it and he couldn’t help but think, there’s never been a morning like this. There’s nothing even remotely recycled about this.

“I’m actually meeting a girlfriend,” Olive said finally. “It’s a study date.”

“I have great news. No one studies during the summer time.”

“I do.” With a smile that showed off the slight gap between her two front teeth, she pushed her glasses higher on her nose. “At the risk of sounding like a huge nerd, I’m taking a summer class at Stony Brook. I’m going to be a psychology major there in the fall and I want to be familiar with the course materials. And okay…” She blushed to her hairline. “I didn’t risk sounding like a huge nerd. That was full-on dweeb.”

Even though her enthusiasm was adorable, Rory encountered a kick of unease. He’d never been in a serious relationship, but he’d gone out with a lot of different kinds of girls…once. There wasn’t much that could intimidate him. He’d grown up poor and served hard time. But people with book smarts? Yeah, he had the look memorized. That look. The one that said they pegged him as being uneducated with nothing in his future but answering to someone else and making a working man’s salary for it.

On those extremely rare occasions Rory spent time with a book-smart girl, he didn’t really give a shit when she gave him the look. The one that said, I’m going to enjoy tonight and never tell a single one of my friends about it. What did he care? He wasn’t exactly planning on telling anyone, either. It was just a basic need being met. A diversion.

Olive didn’t seem like a diversion. Not even a little bit.

He really didn’t want her to give him the look.

“Uh, right.” Rory winked at Olive, handed her the book and backed in the direction of the beach. “Look, no more walking without looking where you’re going, all right, sunbeam?”

Her smile dropped.

“Don’t study too hard,” he said, punching the crosswalk button. Damn, walking away from a girl wasn’t supposed to be hard, was it? His stomach felt like two stones grinding together. When he glanced back, Olive took a step toward him, then changed her mind and retreated. With a weird tightening in his throat, Rory faced the street again. The light changed and Rory started to cross—

“Wait!”





CHAPTER THREE





Too bad you couldn’t edit real life.

Because she’d definitely just yelled, “Wait!”

At the hottest guy she’d ever seen in person. A hot guy who’d saved her life.

Good thing she’d sounded extra desperate.

Olive Cunningham tried not to cringe at the note of desperation hanging in the warm summer air and watched Rory slow to a stop, glancing back at her over his muscular shoulder. Wariness danced in eyes she knew were translucent green and hardened the strong lines of his back, reminding her of an unbroken stallion. What had she said to make him throw up his guard? Olive was positive it could have been any number of things. Having been home schooled straight through the twelfth grade, her experience with the opposite sex was limited to neighborhood boys and the ones she read about in books.

When it came time for her to start dating, she’d envisioned herself with a starter boyfriend. Someone non-threatening and endearingly awkward who was still developing the fashion sense that would stay with him throughout adulthood. Rory was the least awkward human being she’d ever encountered. His dark brown hair was finger brushed and somehow perfect, offset by his cut jaw and the beginning shadow of scruff. He was smooth and he lived inside his skin like a worn-in pair of jeans. Not a starter boyfriend. Not a boy anything.

Sexual, bold, protective, funny. A man.

A man with a black eye. And like, twenty-six tattoos, not that she’d tried to count.

His sigh carried on the breeze as he returned to the sidewalk, planting his big hands on narrow hips. “Yeah, sunbeam?”

Don’t just stand here and moon over him giving you a nickname. Think fast. “Public access television,” she blurted. “Rainstorms, Sting, calligraphy…milkshakes.”

He raised a dark eyebrow.

“You asked me what else I have a thing for,” Olive explained, clutching the book to her chest. When his mouth spread into a smile, she realized he had full, beautiful lips. Attached to his angular face, they made him look like an angel who’d spent some time in hell.

“Sting? Isn’t he a little before your time?”

“That’s the great thing about music. When you discover it for the first time, it might as well be brand new.” Since he didn’t seem inclined to come any closer, even though they’d practically kissed a few minutes ago, Olive braved up and took a few steps in Rory’s direction. Watched him plant his tongue against the inside of his cheek and breathe slowly. “If I ask what you have a thing for, will I regret it?”

Rory didn’t respond. He was probably wondering why some random chick was on a mission to make him late for work. Honestly, she was pretty impressed by her own bravery. She’d only been living on her own in Long Beach for a week. In that time, she’d learned all about ordering takeout online, assembled a butt load of furniture and explored enough of the town to go out for a walk without getting lost. Apparently she hadn’t quite conquered the ability to avoid death by speeding bus. Baby steps.

Everything she’d done since arriving from Oklahoma had seemed small. A tiny tick toward being a fully independent adult, out from under the thumb of her parents. Maybe they’d been more like leaps, though, because she was definitely flirting a little bit with a sexy lifeguard with no clue if she was doing it correctly.

The longer Rory went without answering, though, the more her confidence started to wane. She wasn’t his type. He had a girlfriend. She’d shown too much interest. It could have been any number of things that made him back off. Best to chalk this conversation up to a practice run and go back to reading. While stationary this time.

“Okay, um…” She shrugged her left shoulder. “Have a good day at work. Thanks again for preventing my early demise…”

Olive trailed off as Rory relieved her of the book, tucked it under his arm and presented his hand. “Milkshakes, right? I got you.”

“Wait. What?”

“We’re going to get a milkshake.” They both watched closely as he wove their fingers together and sparks tickled the length of Olive’s arm. “And I’m carrying your books for you while we talk about Sting. We’ve been transported back to another time and place.”

“Aren’t you going to be late for work?”

“We’ll drink fast. Come on.”

Just like that, Olive Cunningham of Muskogee, Oklahoma was being pulled along National Boulevard by a man who oozed excitement…and some definite danger. Shouldn’t she be more cautious? Yes. Certainly. But why would this man save her life only to kill her? He’d been the one to walk away, too. She’d called him back. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to have a milkshake with him in public in broad daylight.

Reassured, Olive allowed her own excitement to take flight. She watched the flex of his back and triceps as they walked, puzzled over the speculative glances he threw at her over his shoulder. Overall, though, she was relieved they hadn’t parted ways back at the intersection. Something told her she wouldn’t have put Rory from her mind easily at all.

They had only been walking for a few minutes when Rory pulled Olive to a stop in front of Mike’s Shakes. As she’d seen earlier during her internet search, the old-fashioned sign was faded, the windows were wallpapered in advertisements for local music gigs and milkshake specials. Rory opened the door to the sound of a tinkling bell, as if escorting her into a palace.

“After you.”

“Thanks,” she murmured, passing beneath his arm and feeling his breath on her temple. “Th-this is actually where I’m meeting my study date.”

“Yeah?”

She hummed. “It’s my first time here, though.”

As always, when about to try something new or perform an out-of-the-ordinary activity, Olive heard her mother’s voice in her ear. Hello, YouTubers! Today we’re at Mike’s Milkshakes celebrating three million subscribers. Comment down below with your favorite milkshake flavor! Don’t forget to hit the like button.

Olive gave a rapid headshake, trying to jostle the voice free. How long would she turn even the most basic event into a YouTube video?

Rory, still holding her hand, led her to one of the few booths positioned in front of the window, sliding into the booth beside her. On the same side. He stretched his arm along the back of the seat as easy as breathing, and within those close quarters, his scent hit her stronger than it had outside. Menthol shaving cream, coffee, the faint smell of something sharp.

“At least wait until after we order to sniff me.”

“Oh God.” She faced forward in a snap. “I didn’t realize I was doing it.”

The tan column of his neck flexed as he laughed. “My turn now,” he said, sobering, leaning in. “Fair is fair.”

The tip of Rory’s nose grazed her neck and Olive’s thighs audibly smacked together, squeezing, her lips popping open on a gasp as he breathed deeply in the space above her pulse. What was happening to her? Had this man reached inside her and found an on switch for her sex drive? As recently as this morning, she’d almost had to talk herself into being horny and exploring her urges, because grown women were supposed to be. Thoughts, fantasies, book scenes inspired her. Never someone in the flesh. Live and in person.

Rory pulled back and locked glazed eyes on her, their mouths mere inches apart. “Jesus Christ. Barely touched you. Wonder what that body would do if I got my hands and mouth on it?”

Faster than lightning, the seam of Olive’s shorts became damp, uncomfortable. Rory’s breaths came faster against her lips. They were going to kiss, right here in this milkshake shop—and even with precious little kissing experience, she wondered if they’d be able to stop.

“All right, you two,” the waiter groused from behind Rory. “Ain’t it a little early for this?”

Rory’s expression went from hot to cold so fast, Olive shivered. A muscle jumped in his cheek as he sat up straighter and slowly turned to face the waiter, hitting him with a stony look. “I don’t know.” His long fingers flexed on the table top, his fist coming down hard on the surface. Whap. “Is it?”

The waiter was suddenly fascinated by his order pad. “It’s all good, man. Sorry. What can I bring you?”

Another handful of seconds passed before Rory answered, the tension building further in the small restaurant. “Whatever your three most popular flavors are,” he said in a low voice. “We’ll take those.”

“You got it.”

Olive didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until the waiter loped off, disappearing through the swinging doors into the kitchen. She let it out silently, her awareness of Rory’s air of danger bigger and more unavoidable than before. What in the world had just happened? This man who’d pulled her out of the path of oncoming traffic seemed capable of mowing people down just as handily. As if reading her mind, Rory shook his head. “You’re one of the smart ones, Olive,” he said, pronouncing smart like smahht. “You weren’t supposed to call me back.”

Her pulse skipped as she processed that. “You were trying to protect me from yourself?” He searched her face but didn’t answer. “Do I need protecting?”

“God, no, sunbeam. Not from me,” he rasped, frustration shifting his body in the seat. “Look, you asked me if you’d regret it. Finding out what I have a thing for. The answer is yes.” He tilted his face toward the light, giving her a better view of his damaged eye. “Ask me how I got this.”

It was so hard not to follow that command, considering she’d been dying to know the source of his injury since they’d crossed paths. She didn’t want to hear the answer now, though. Not when he clearly thought it was going to be a deal breaker. “Why don’t you just tell me when you’re ready?”

That caught him off guard, but he recovered fast. “I was out being a fucking idiot. Looking for…” He trailed off, as if surprised by his own words. “I look for the fights. I go out and find them.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” He tapped a fist on the table. “And it doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t be around it. You’re the type of girl who’d realize it sooner than later, so I beat you to the punch.” The expression he turned on her was almost accusatory. “Turns out, it’s not that easy to walk away from you.”

The waiter appeared at the side of the table with a tray, moving their milkshake trio one by one in front of them and setting down straws. In Olive’s periphery, she could see the waiter hovering as if wanting to ask if they needed anything else, but she couldn’t manage to rip her attention off of Rory and the waiter eventually left. “I didn’t want you to walk away.”

He laughed under his breath. “You going to be trouble for me, sunbeam?”

“Why don’t we just drink milkshakes?”

Still looking troubled, Rory unwrapped three straws and stuck them into their own respective milkshakes. “Okay, let’s pick our favorite. You first.”

“Wait, no.” Olive’s spine went ramrod straight. “This feels way too much like a YouTube channel challenge.”

“I don’t know what any of that means, but it sounds serious.”

“Oh, you have no idea. Subscribers hang in the balance.” When his confusion demanded an explanation, she blew out a long breath. “I moved here from Oklahoma a week ago.”

“That explains the cute accent.”

“I don’t have an accent. You do.”

“Agree to disagree.” He picked up the chocolate milkshake, his fingers sliding through the condensation on the glass as he gripped it, held the straw to her bottom lip. “Taste, Olive.”

Her thighs threatened to smack together again, but she narrowly avoided the action, drinking deeply of the thick, delicious shake, rich cocoa waking up her taste buds and making them sing. All the while, Rory’s gaze tracked a path from her lips to the hollow of her throat and back. “It’s amazing,” she managed, letting the straw go. “And this is nothing like a challenge.”

“Good.” He set the shake down with a smirk. “I think.”

Olive picked up the next shake—mint chip—took a sip and handed it to Rory, so he could do the same. “If you know nothing about the YouTube world, this is all going to sound utterly crazy. But here goes. When I was thirteen, my parents started a YouTube channel. Meet the Cunninghams. They filmed me and my siblings doing everything, during most of our waking hours. Getting ready for school, eating in restaurants, making slime—”

“What? Why?”

“It’s a thing.” Knowing uncomfortable feelings were about to surround her like cloud cover, she swapped mint chip back for classic chocolate. “People watch. Every day. They subscribe to our family.” She ran her finger vertically through the fogged glass. “But it’s the sitcom curse, you know? When kids hit a certain age, they kind of run their course. So the videos became mostly about my little brother and sister, Henderson and Pearl.” She forced a smile onto her face. “Eight million subscribers at last count, though. That’s…really impressive.”

Rory had been sitting with the straw poised in front of his mouth for her entire explanation. “You said they filmed most of your waking hours. After they took you out of the picture, they kept filming your brother and sister?”

“Yes.”

“If you weren’t in the videos anymore, where did you go?”

Oh wow. She’d severely underestimated what it would be like to tell someone out loud that she’d essentially been fired from her own family for getting older. “In my room.” She reached for the third shake—ugh, pina colada? Really? “I stayed out of the way.”

“And they let you? They wanted that?” Her silence served as an affirmative and Rory’s outrage was palpable. “That’s extremely fucked up, sunbeam.”

“It is, a little.” She sipped the pina colada even though it was gross. “Maybe a lot.”

He leaned in and pressed his lips to her cheek. “They shouldn’t have done that to you. I met you fifteen minutes ago and I know you don’t deserve that.”

“Thanks,” she whispered, trying not to be obvious about inhaling shaving cream smell.

“That must have been a while ago…right?” Rory asked, pulling back and narrowing his eyes. “You said you’ve been here a week. Where were you before Long Beach?”

“Living with my parents.”

He set down the milkshake slowly. “Hold up, Olive. How old are you?”

Uh oh. Was this going to be an issue? “Eighteen.”

“Christ.” He dragged both hands down his face. “That’s young.”

Olive reared back. “I’m renting my own apartment. My shower curtain matches my towels. There are serious adult decisions being made here.” Her comeback earned her a quirked male smile and she couldn’t help but return it. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.” He seemed to be chewing glass. “How do you have your own place at eighteen? Long Beach isn’t cheap, especially in the summer time.”

She hesitated a moment. “The thing about eight million subscribers…it means advertisers will pay a ton to run ads on your channel…”

He leaned away. “So you’re not only young and smart, you’re a rich girl.”

“Hey, I earned it,” she deadpanned. “Sliming ain’t easy.”

“Olive,” he groaned. “Please stop being so fucking cute.”

Her stomach flipped. “Because you still want to walk away?”

“I shouldn’t have to. You should be running toward something better.” Rory’s expression was the epitome of conflicted, but he was saved from having to elaborate when the bell dinged over the door and a girl Olive recognized walked into Mike’s Shakes. She looked around at the ancient décor and made a face, hefting her backpack higher on her shoulders. When Leanne spotted her, she waved. Olive’s arm felt like lead, but she managed to lift it and return the greeting.

“Oh, um. My study date is here.”

Rory hadn’t glanced once at the newcomer, continuing to study her face. “I have to get to work, anyway.”

“Okay,” she murmured, reaching into her pocket for money. “Let me help pay—”

He caught her wrist. “On me, sunbeam.”

Leanne slid into the booth across from them slowly and Olive didn’t even need to glance over to know her study partner was watching with rapt interest. “H-hey Olive. I brought the Perspectives and Connections book you left in my car on Thursday.”

“Thank you.”

“Perspectives and Connections,” mouthed Rory with a wry twist of his lips. “I’ll leave you to it.”

Olive felt like she’d walked into a sub-zero freezer as Rory rose from the booth and tossed some bills on the table. He took one long final look at her and moved in a slow swagger toward the exit. And she couldn’t yell wait this time. Not if she wanted to maintain one ounce of self-respect. Instead, she turned in the booth and faced Leanne, trying desperately to swallow the lump in her throat. “So, um…where did we leave off last time? I think it was the—”

Rory appeared to her left. “I left my phone at home. Write down your number,” he said, pronouncing it numba.

“Who leaves their phone?” Leanne mused, playing with her own device.

But Olive barely heard her over the sudden palpitations happening in her chest. By some feat of willpower, she managed not to break into song. She signaled Leanne for a pen and wrote her cell number on a straw wrapper, sliding it toward Rory. “Are you going to use it?”

He left without answering.

Olive smiled through the entire study session.

He’d call.

He’d totally call.





CHAPTER FOUR





No way Rory could call her.

If he called Olive, he’d arrange a time to see her again. If he saw her again, once wouldn’t be enough. Time had stood still from the moment he pulled her out of the bus’s path, right up until he finally left Mike’s Shakes with her number in his pocket. Everything had taken a back seat to what she said next, how she moved, smelled, laughed.

He sat on a bench in the Hut’s locker room now, staring down at the ripped straw wrapper, smoothing out the curled ends on his thigh. Around him, the locker room moved in ripples of animated color, the other lifeguards excited to kick off the summer season, already making plans to hit the boardwalk bars tonight. Lockers slammed, cell phones dinged, playful insults rang out.

Meanwhile Rory was transfixed by ten digits on a narrow strip of white paper. She’d drawn smiley faces in her zeroes, which was just further proof calling the number was a bad idea. And yet. If he hadn’t left his phone at home, he would have already texted her.

There had been an unusual tug in his gut the entire time and it was more than him being turned on. He’d wanted to sit her in his lap and feed her milkshakes and find out what caused all her different smiles. The teasing one was his favorite by far. The one that challenged him to stop being so serious.

Funny enough, serious wasn’t Rory’s thing. Definitely not when it came to women. He was a temporary thrill—and it went both ways. Yet he’d found himself…exposed in front of Olive. More than once. And she’d barely pushed. His guard had dropped itself before he knew what happened. Would he take back those moments if he could?

No. No, he wouldn’t change a single thing about that morning.

An elbow caught him in the side and Rory lifted his head to find Jamie sitting beside him. How long had his brother been there? “Hey.”

Jamie eyeballed the straw wrapper. “Eventful walk to work?”

Rory sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. “You could say that.”

“She smiley faced her zeroes.”

“Yeah.”

They sat in silence for a moment.

“You going to call her?” Jamie prompted, beginning to dig through his backpack.

Rory stood, dropped the phone number onto the top shelf of his open locker and stripping off his shirt. “Nope.”

“That sounds pretty definitive.”

“Has to be.”

“Why?”

Off came the sweatpants, leaving Rory in his red, standard-issue lifeguard trunks. “She’s eighteen.” When Jamie winced, Rory made a sound of agreement. “That’s only the beginning. She’s a smart girl. College coming up. I’m not going to let her waste time on me.”

Jamie’s brows snapped together. “I’d say you’re not a waste of time, but you wouldn’t believe me.”

“She doesn’t even know I’ve done time.” His chest knotted thinking of how she’d react. Part of Rory wished he’d told her, just so he wouldn’t have to speculate forever what she might have said. “It was just a crazy, one-time thing. Nothing happened. We drank milkshakes.”

“Since when do your crazy one-time things involve milkshakes?”

“Since this morning, okay?” Rory shot back, pounding a fist into his locker. “Drop it.”

Jamie adopted his signature cocky pose. Arms crossed, expression bored. “I’ll drop it when you throw her number in the trash.”

Rory laughed and shook his head. “You prick.”

“Can’t do it, can you?”

Not a hope in hell. “Why is this such a big deal to you?”

Jamie lost a degree of smugness. “Look, we’re all busy during the year. I’m teaching, Andrew never leaves the bar.” He shrugged a shoulder. “We see each other at home, but we’re not around each other non-stop, like we are in the summer. And every time Memorial Day weekend rolls around, you’re a little less…optimistic. About yourself. About everything.”

The back of Rory’s neck pinched tight and he rolled the muscles to loosen them. “Are you sure you’re an economics teacher and not a counselor?”

“Positive. How well do you think I’d handle adolescent feelings?”

“Not well.”

“No shit.” Jamie tipped his chin toward the top shelf of Rory’s locker. “And speaking of adolescents.”

“Fuck you.”

His brother grinned, but it was short lived. “You said she’s smart?”

Rory swallowed and snatched the whistle out of his locker, dropping it over his head. “Yeah,” he rasped.

“Then she had a reason for sliding you her digits. Maybe give her a little more credit.”

He considered Jamie’s words for all of a second before disregarding them. “You can be smart and still be naïve. I’m doing her a favor.” His fingers paused in the process of engaging his Master lock. “I’m sitting there talking to her and my fucking eye is killing me from last night. I’m wondering if she smells the vodka coming out of my pores. And she’s so…fresh. And better. The waiter looks at me sideways this morning and I can’t—I couldn’t stop myself from getting pissed. Showing her exactly what I am. It wouldn’t work, Jamie.” A vision of Olive pushing up her glasses drifted into his conscience and stung him. “We only spent an hour together and I know it’s crazy, but if I went out with her, I’d want her to be…mine. Think about that. Some fucking ex-con locking down this young girl with a successful future her first summer out of her parents’ house. No matter how you slice it, I end up the villain. I don’t want to be her villain.”

Jamie opened his mouth to respond, but he was interrupted by the door to the Hut flying open and rebounding off a row of lockers with an earsplitting rattle.

“I’m here, cocksuckers.”

Marcus “Diesel” O’Shaughnessy stood outlined in the doorway. All shirtless, six foot five inches of him. He swaggered into the Hut, stopping to high-five lifeguards and show off the new naked lady tattoo on his arm to everyone he passed.

“For chrissakes,” Jamie muttered. “I’d almost forgotten about this asshole.”

“Nope. Turns up every year like a bad penny.” Rory slid his brother a side glance. “You let me know if he says something stupid to you, all right?”

A muscle flexed in Jamie’s cheek. “He’s a loudmouth, but he’s mostly harmless.” He shoved Rory off balance with his shoulder. “You have to stop fighting my battles for me—we know how that ends.” Jamie gave him a pointed look. “I can fight them myself.”

“Right.” Rory let the subtle reminder of his incarceration roll off his shoulder. “You going to smother him with your book collection?”

Jamie let his locker door swing open, revealing a neat row of novels. “I came prepared.”

Rory was still shaking his head when Marcus reached them, rolling to a stop like a goddamn tank and wrapping an arm around Jamie’s shoulders. “Ahhh, and who’s this hiding over here? How the hell are you, Jamie Prince?” He only laughed when Jamie muttered “please fuck off” under his breath. “Come on, man. I know you missed me.” He let go of Jamie, stepped back and flexed, creating the human version of a field goal. “Where else do you get quality eye candy like this? It’s got to be amazing for you to have me around.”

Jamie blew out at breath at the ceiling. “Marcus, don’t make me suggest the quiet game this early in the summer.”

Marcus pointed at him and grinned. “I’m going to win this time.”

“You never win.”

Even though he was trying to heed Jamie’s request to back off, Rory couldn’t help listening carefully to every word that came out of Marcus’s mouth, waiting for him to slip up and say something out of line. This kind of needling was par for the course with the oversized gym rat. He had a big mouth—and for some strange reason, he was always running it around Jamie. If it was anyone else giving Jamie a hard time, Rory wouldn’t be able to stop himself from stepping in, but Marcus genuinely seemed to like Jamie, though they were exact opposites. Insinuating that Jamie must be thrilled to ogle him, on account of Jamie being gay, was a bad assumption. And kind of offensive. Except it had become obvious over the course of several summers that Marcus had no clue his bullshit came off as rude. Still, why Jamie tolerated it, Rory had no idea.

“I have some great news for you, Jamie Prince,” Marcus continued, stripping off his sweatpants and tossing them haphazardly into his open locker. “Andrew hired me as security at the Castle Gate this summer. To check IDs and shit. I’m a bouncer now, son.”

“And today in self-fulfilling prophecies…” Jamie muttered.

“You don’t have to be away from me a single second.” Marcus pulled his red lifeguard shorts on over his briefs, not-too-subtly adjusting his junk. “Lucky you.”

“I’m ecstatic,” Jamie deadpanned, looping his whistle around his head. “I’m heading to my chair.”

“Hold on, I’ll walk with you,” Marcus said, rushing to grab his gear. “I need some, ah…practice. Acting as a security guard.”

Rory couldn’t help but laugh as Jamie staunchly ignored Marcus and bee-lined for the exit, forcing Marcus to lope after him in one flip-flop, the other in his gargantuan paw.

Now that Rory was alone, the straw wrapper almost glowed from its position on the top shelf of his locker. Closing the door and leaving it there felt symbolic. That’s exactly what needed to be done with Olive. He needed to shut the door on the connection they’d made this morning and leave this funny, fresh-faced girl with a future alone. No calling her. No dating her. No searching out her face on the beach.

He didn’t expect her to search him out instead. In the most unconventional way.





CHAPTER FIVE





Olive heaved a satisfied breath when she saw an open spot on the beach. Memorial Day weekend in Long Beach was pure insanity, and she thanked God her apartment was close enough to walk. Cars were in a dead gridlock around the town, parking spots being fought over like dogs with a bone. Frankly, the atmosphere of competitive relaxation was kind of intimidating, but she hadn’t been to the actual beach since moving in, and the incredible weather demanded she leave her studying behind and bask in the sunshine.

It was Saturday, a perfectly acceptable day to be selfish. She would make up for neglecting her school work later and she’d have tan lines as a bonus.

I have great news. No one studies during the summertime.

Rory’s voice drifted down from the blue sky and she sighed. Since meeting him yesterday, snippets of their conversation seemed to find her at the oddest times. Like when she was using her vibrator on the highest setting last night and remembered him saying, Jesus Christ. Barely touched you. Wonder what that body would do if I got my hands and mouth on it?

See? The oddest times.

Olive snuck into the sliver of space and plunked down her beach bag. She rolled out her favorite towel, which was a headshot of Sigmund Freud above the words “Your Mom.” After making sure there wasn’t a single wrinkle in the towel, she sat down in the very center and applied sunscreen…beneath her cover up.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like her boobs. It was that she hated her boobs. And even though she knew logically no one on the beach would pay them any attention, as soon as she removed the gauzy white top that skimmed her thighs, her brain would lie to her, whispering that everyone was staring at her rack. Thanks to homeschooling, she’d never been forced to walk down a high school hallway full of peers with her body’s changes on display. Once when Olive was fifteen, however, a neighborhood guy her age had been helping his mother carry groceries into the house. When he saw Olive waving across the street, he held two cantaloupes in front of his chest and called, “Hey, look. It’s Olive and her huge knockers.”

She’d gone inside immediately and performed enough Internet research to know that her bust was above average in size and was properly horrified. And without her mother to confide in about her self-consciousness, she’d remained in that state for roughly three years. Now here she was, about to unveil her melons to the masses.

Maybe she should have stayed home with her books. They were her solace—and that’s why she studied during the summertime and took bonus classes. She enjoyed it. When her parents asked her to take a step back from Meet the Cunninghams, she’d needed a distraction from the hurt. School work had been the easiest way to continue being productive without a camera on her. Not to mention, she’d had an ulterior motive in focusing on her grades. She’d hoped to win back her parents’ approval, but in the midst of YouTube glory, it had only been fleeting. Keep up the good work, Olive. Then back to their regularly scheduled program.

Words on the page was where she snuggled up at night, whether they told tales of historical events, mathematics or dystopian futures with romance thrown in for good measure. She loved all of the words. Every single one.

During her senior year of high school, she’d taken psychology as an elective and found herself fascinated by the different philosophies of thought. She’d had so many feelings about being placed in the opposite corner than her family, giving those feelings a more scientific term, such as separation anxiety had helped. She wasn’t just lonely, she was having the appropriate emotional response to isolation. It was right there in her textbooks and it helped to give that emptiness a name. Applying for colleges and choosing psych as her major had been a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t she want to help others deal with the same issues in the future? In the meantime, she would continue to deal with them herself.

She was still far from overcoming them.

Up until now, Olive had somehow managed to avoid looking at the closest lifeguard tower, but she did so now—and deflated when the guy sitting in the chair didn’t even resemble Rory a little bit. Although she wasn’t sure if it was in relief or disappointment.

There was one thing she did know. She wasn’t going to sit around waiting for him to call. Or replaying their morning together and wondering if she could have done something differently. For years, she’d played that what if game with her family and it was a new day. A new day of matching shower curtains and towels, dammit.

That burst of pride turned out to be exactly what Olive needed to remove her cover-up. She whipped it off and stuffed it into her beach bag. There. Done. She’d inflicted her breasts on the beach and they’d just have to deal. Tan lines or bust.

Olive placed her glasses carefully in her bag’s front pocket and flopped down on her back, dug her heels into the granules of sand and cleared her mind of insecurities and what ifs, letting the sun’s heat bake them away. Salsa music reached her ears from one side, rap music from the other. The beach goers were jovial, calling to each other, their voices dripping with Long Island. Kids squealed down at the water line and occasionally kicked sand onto Olive as they ran past. The chaos somehow took place around her without involving her, though, leaving her to bask in anonymity, the heat nearly putting her to sleep.

She wasn’t sure what caused her eyes to pop open. Or what caused a pinwheel to roll down her spine. Something made her sit up, though, fanning herself with a hand to cool her sun-warmed skin. Without fail, her attention drifted to the lifeguard station—and there he was.

Rory leaned forward in the elevated chair, his hands clasped loosely between his knees, watching her behind a pair of black sunglasses. Yes, there was no doubt he watched her, a muscle ticking in his cheek. The tattoos hadn’t been fully visible the day before, but they were on full display now, hugging big portions of his skin like spiderwebs. And Olive might as well have been naked for the awareness that crept over her, lifting goose bumps down the length of her arms, making her thighs feel like gelatin, all the way up to her sex. When had he gotten there? How long had he been watching her? How did he reach out and touch her from thirty yards away?

Olive turned back around to face the water, forcing her fingers to stop clutching the sides of the towel. He hadn’t even waved. Or smiled. He almost looked mad at her, which made no sense, since he’d been the one to not call. What would a cool, calm and collected adult with a new Bed Bath & Beyond credit card do in this situation? Olive had no clue, but if she sat there much longer, she was going to melt under his close scrutiny.

Reminding herself that no one cared about her boobs, Olive stood up, wincing when she had no choice to dust some stray sand off her butt, and walked casually toward the water. Really, she’d been planning to go for a swim at some point. She’d never even dipped a toe into the Atlantic Ocean, so now was a good a time as any.

“Oh my God,” she croaked when icy cold water rushed up her ankles and licked at her knees. “It’s eighty degrees. Shouldn’t you be warm?”

There was no choice but to wade in farther after coming this far. It hurt, though. She wanted to be back on top of Sigmund Freud cultivating a tan, not courting hypothermia.

Olive heard her whining conscience and frowned at the horizon. She’d left the comfort of her parents’ mini-mansion—complete with heated pool—to make a real change. They could cast her aside in the name of Internet fame, but she’d made the decision to leave Oklahoma for New York. She’d taken control of the separation this time, so they couldn’t do it for her. Now that she was on her own in this big, unfamiliar place, she wouldn’t stay stuck in a bedroom listening to life take place on the other side of her door.

She took a deep breath, whimpered under her breath, and let her body drop beneath the surface of the water. It covered her head with a rushing foam gurgle, before the world around her turned muted. Bluish green pushed against her lids, allowing her to see the color even with her eyes closed. It was such a glorious and beautiful rush, she forgot to be cold. When she emerged from the surface again, she couldn’t contain the laugh that bubbled up in her throat. Totally worth leaving her books to gather dust for the afternoon.

Kids on top of boogie boards were carried toward the shore by waves. They were probably half her age, so she had zero reservations about freestyle swimming farther into the murky blue, letting the sounds of the shore recede, stopping only when her feet could no longer touch sand. After a few minutes of letting herself drift, she decided to swim back to shore, march right up to Rory and…force him into a pleasant conversation. Yup. That would show him. He might have lamented their age gap, but she’d prove being young didn’t amount to being immature.

With that plan in mind, Olive let a wave crest over her and started to kick. She couldn’t seem to make any progress toward shore, though. Her position never changed, only shifting her sideways…or farther out. Was she drifting farther out?

That’s when she heard a whistle pierce the afternoon air—and she knew it was for her.

“Oh God. No, no, no…this isn’t happening.” She swam as hard as she could, losing steam after about ten seconds and attempting to reach the bottom of the ocean floor with her toes. She didn’t even scrape it. She did, however, become very aware of a separate current running down near her feet. Undertow. Unbelievable. She’d gotten stuck in an undertow.

A wave broke over Olive’s head, but not before she made out the blurry figure cutting toward her in the water at a fast clip, a red flotation device dragging along the surface behind him. Her lack of glasses prevented her from making out exact details—and then she couldn’t see anything. A healthy dose of water was sucked up through her nose when she tried to breathe. Panic made her flail, even though she knew it would burn energy. She couldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop trying to remain on the surface where the oxygen lived. I’m drowning. I’m going to drown. Why did I leave my books? They’ve been so good to me.

An arm wrapped around her chest and she instinctively tried to fight the restriction, thinking it would drag her farther down. She twisted, her vision nothing but blurred blues and greens, fear roaring in her ears.

“I’ve got you, sunbeam. Easy. I’m here to help you.”

The imploring voice near her ear ceased her struggles immediately. Rory. That’s right. It was Rory, not some angry sea monster hell bent on drowning her. Within seconds, he had her face up, the flotation device pressed securely to her chest.

“Hold onto this while I get you back to shore. Wrap your arms around it. Good girl.” Was it her imagination or did he brush a kiss over her hair? “Goddammit,” he rasped, starting to swim. “Didn’t you hear me whistling? You just kept…I saw you go under…”

If Olive wasn’t totally spent after battling the sea gods, she would have said something to comfort Rory. He sounded so upset. But coming down from her adrenaline surge and landing in a pile of relief made her almost drowsy, so she could only listen, realizing absently that Rory had been required to save her life twice in twenty-four hours.

How humiliating.

Even more embarrassing was how fast they reached the shore after she’d been unable to swim an inch in the same direction. Her feet slid backward in the sand and then she was hoisted into Rory’s arms, the top of her head finding a home under his chin without conscious thought. They were surrounded by an applauding crowd as Rory walked them up the beach, and the tension in his shoulders told Olive he didn’t like the attention they were getting.

“Talk to me,” he said, leaning down to search her eyes. “I got to you in time. Right? Look, I just really need you to talk to me.”

Which one of them was shaking? “I’m fine. I’m just cold.”

“Cold. Okay.” Seeming relieved that he had a problem to work on, Rory picked up the pace to a stride, leaving their audience in the dust. Water dripped off the ends of his hair and coasted down his shoulder, chest, jaw, dripping onto Olive, but she didn’t mind it one bit, because a couple of drips was easily better than a whole ocean. Also the droplets had been warmed on Rory’s skin before landing on hers and there was something grounding about that. Like he was resuscitating her without trying.

His worried expression drifted in and out of the sunlight, keeping his face mostly in the shadows, but occasionally she would get a peek at the set jaw, downward slashing eyebrows. He was on a mission to take her somewhere, but until he unlocked a door and carried her inside a dark locker room, she didn’t speculate on where.

“This is the Hut,” he murmured, adjusting his hold to bring Olive tighter against his chest as they passed through long rows of lockers, a slim, wooden bench running down the middle. “I’m going to catch hell for leaving the beach, but I just need to get you warmed up, sunbeam. You won’t stop shaking.”

“You either.”

She heard him swallow. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Olive decided to let him get away with the lie. “You weren’t on duty when I got to the beach. Where did you come from?”

Rory didn’t answer as they passed beneath an arch into another room, separate from the locker area. And darker. He eased her feet to a tile floor. Before she could look around to discern their new location, Rory steadied her with his left hand and punched something above her head with his right—and holy blessed warm water went streaming down her head, shoulders and back, shocking her chilled skin with blissful heat.

She backed further into what could only be a shower and Rory followed, his grip reassuring on her elbow. “Ohhhh.” Her neck loosened, head tipping to one side. “That’s perfect. Totally worth almost drowning for.”

“Agree to disagree,” came his low voice from the other side of the spray. Olive peeked around the stream of water to find Rory battling concern…and something darker. Hotter. His inked chest lifted and fell in a staggered rhythm, steam from the shower dappling him with condensation. “Are you warmed up?”

His gravelly tone of voice turned Olive’s nipples to painful points. I’m wearing a bathing suit. No cover-up. Nothing. Her arms flew up to cross over her breasts, but that only pushed them up more, so she dropped her hands to their original position. “Did everyone see my boobs?”

“What?” His gaze sharpened and snapped to hers. “No. No one saw any part of you they shouldn’t.” He dragged a hand over his eyes. “But I’m seeing way too damn much right now, Olive. Are you warmed up?”

The word yes sprung to her lips, but no sound came out. She was alone in a dark shower with a man who’d stirred something to life inside of her. Something that made her feel…older. Feminine. She’d had crushes on neighborhood boys in the past and swore she’d experienced attraction. Nope. Nothing in her life had come close to the yearning that crawled all over her now, wreaking discomfort and emptiness in places she didn’t know such things were possible.

And God. God, it didn’t help that Rory was absolutely gorgeous with his wet hair and cords of tan muscles, topped with tattoos so stark, they seemed freshly painted. That wasn’t what made her ache, though. No, his eyes did that. They betrayed how aware he was of Olive. That this gravitational force between them was not typical. It wasn’t typical at all.

She could no more say the words, “Yes, I’m warmer now,” than she could go about the rest of her day without drawing Rory closer. Finding some way to touch him. Be touched. Because if she said those words, they would leave this place. He’d put an end to this thing between them that he’d obviously deemed wrong.

“So…” Operating on their own terms, her fingertips traced the edge of her bikini bottoms. Rory’s eyes tracked their progress like a hunter, a violent shudder passing through him. “You’re not going to call me. You’re just going to be my personal rescue service?”

Restless hands flexed at his sides. “I don’t know how to answer that, Olive.”

“Try.”

A beat passed. His nostrils flared. “I made it through a day without calling you. I was trying to make it through another…and then I saw you in front of someone else’s chair, looking like a fuck fantasy that has no place in my head—” He cut himself off with a sharp exhale. “So I switched. I switched so I could be near you. I couldn’t help wanting to be near you.”

Fuck fantasy. Fuck fantasy. The words pinged around in her head like hailstones off a window. “I picked this bathing suit specifically for its modesty.”

“It didn’t work.”

“Oh.” Olive didn’t realize she’d stepped back until her shoulder blades pressed to the steam-covered tile wall and she nearly moaned at the sensation of something—anything—touching her skin. The hard surface made her feel provocative. Trapped. She wanted to be trapped between the tile and Rory. “Will you just come here?” she whispered.

A scrape of a sound left his mouth. “I don’t know if I can stop touching you once I start. I don’t know anything when it comes to you.”

The running water sluicing down from above sent wet hair into her face, obscuring her vision, so she pushed it back, let the damp warmth run over her lips. “Please?”

Rory lunged, growling, stopping just short of making contact. His hands slapped the tile above her head, his chest heaving. And then his mouth gave the barest brush of her temple and Olive almost collapsed under the rush of bliss, unable to trap her moan this time.

“Come on, Olive,” he said choppily. “Barely touching you and that body reacts like I’m giving it that first hard thrust. You’re killing me here.”

Trying to think clearly with a new, unfamiliar motor running deep within her body was a challenge, but Olive sensed she had to lure Rory closer. He was still managing to hold himself away from her and she wanted to snap that willpower in half. With a swallow, she settled the palms of her hands against Rory’s hard stomach and slid them over the muscular curve of his pectorals. “Thank you for saving me.”

His eyelids drooped, his rough exhale sending the shower steam into a swirl. “Don’t thank me. Just stop almost dying.” He appeared transfixed by her fingers as they splayed over his muscles. “Please?”

“I’ll think about it…” Slowly, she went up on her tiptoes and locked her wrists behind his neck. “If you kiss me.”

He advanced on her fast, ripping a gasp from her throat when he sandwiched her between his unyielding body and the tile wall. Oh my God. Every inch of him was created to correspond with every inch of her. Was that possible? “You think I’m the kind of man you play games with?” His hot puffs of breath fanned her mouth. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“Tell me. After you kiss me.”

His laughter was harsh and lacking all humor. “You don’t want me to take what you’re offering, Olive. I’ll want more. I won’t be able to stay away from you.” Out of necessity, Olive pushed up and slid their lips together, making his body surge tighter against hers. “This new life of yours is only beginning, and mine…it never got started, all right? Don’t torture me,” he grated directly against her mouth.

“You’re torturing me,” she said breathily, beginning to grow frustrated with the lack of satisfaction. She needed it so badly without even knowing fully what it entailed. “I can’t stop thinking about you.”

“Stop.” He kissed her. Hard. “Stop.”

What had been the purpose of Olive’s mouth until this moment? As soon as her lips met Rory’s, they were given a new reason for existing. Despite his harsh command, there was no stopping once the kiss started. Olive was flattened against the wall, Rory’s fingers diving into her hair, weaving the wet strands between them. Olive’s arms went limp, dropping from his hair and remaining kind of suspended in a mid-air surrender as Rory’s mouth moved over hers, mastering it, ruining her for any other kiss in this lifetime. And then she could only use her hands to pull him close. Closer. Closer.

Oh God, she couldn’t get him to press her into the wall tightly enough. Her body was crying out for something she didn’t know how to ask for. Couldn’t ask for. Not with his tongue taking blatant, sexual ownership of her mouth. He found her tongue and wound it with his own, the bristle of his beard scraping her chin. Water trickled down between them, making the kiss wetter than it already was.

Olive curled her fingers into the waistband of his red shorts, arching her lower body and pulling Rory closer at the same time. Give me what I need. What do I need? At the same time she felt his erection, long and thick against her belly, his mouth let hers go on a guttural groan.

“Tell me what you want.” He teased her upper lip with his tongue. “You can’t have it unless you say it by name.”

“I-I…don’t know. I just want to stop aching.”

They fell headlong into a moaning kiss. “I want that, too, sunbeam.” His right hand left her hair, his palm curving to the side of her neck, traveling lower. Lower. “Can I touch you?”

Their eyes locked and she couldn’t look away from his combination of hunger and vulnerability. As if she might say no. Or not trust him. “Yes,” she whispered. “Anywhere.”

Heat flared in Rory’s face, but he hesitated, shaking his head. “God help us both,” he muttered, his hands finding her breasts and palming them. Tightly. Like they belonged to him. A line of electricity started at her nipples and rippled to her sex, making Olive’s thighs smack together with a loud sound. “There it is,” Rory said, cursing. “Been dreaming about those legs snapping together around my hips. Just like that.”

Later she might worry about coming across desperate, but in that moment, she could only care about making Rory’s words a reality. God. Oh God, she needed pressure against that suffering part of her anatomy. Now. She gripped his shoulders and tried to climb his hard wall of muscle, but he peeled her off with a denial, using his left hand to trap her wrists above her head. A willing prisoner.

“Uh-uh. No,” he gritted, pressing their foreheads together. “Not unless you want to fuck, Olive. If you sit that ripe, little body on my cock, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”

The walls of her femininity clenched. Clenched at being spoken to—about—in such a way. To be desired this way…to have the proof of her own appeal prodding her in the stomach was a powerful thing. Especially because his appeal was equally vast. The feel of his skin, the intensity of his eyes, the smell of sunscreen and mint and male. A streak of recklessness she’d never encountered spoke on her behalf. “That’s what I want. The ache…”

A heavy shudder moved through Rory, and since they were plastered together, it vibrated her body along with his. “You don’t mean that,” he said thickly, his right hand dropping, slowly cupping her sex and pressing, pressing, grinding his palm against it, drawing a shocked sob from Olive. “You’ve never had a man anywhere near this, have you?”

“No,” she gasped.

“Fuck.” He pressed his middle finger to her clit, massaging her through the wet material of her bikini bottoms. “Taking this for myself will earn me a place in hell.”

“No it won’t.”

“It’s not happening,” Rory cut in harshly, quieting her with a hard kiss. “I can take away the ache other ways.” Olive’s knees weakened as Rory knelt down on the tile floor, the spray rushing over his head as he leaned in, exhaling against the triangle of her bottoms once, twice, before tugging them down to her ankles, devouring the sight of her. “Son of a bitch. It’s as beautiful as the rest of you,” he rasped, pressing his mouth and nose to her intimate flesh, breathing her in. “Last chance, Olive. Tell me I shouldn’t lick your virgin pussy, baby, please.”

Yeah right. She’d been fantasizing for a long time about having sex, introduced to every aspect of intimacy through books. Even on the page, this kind of foreplay had never really appealed to her. Obviously, she’d been shortsighted since she was practically restraining herself from climbing onto his shoulders. Anything to stop the incessant flames from licking her skin. To stop the churn of frustration inside of her, begging for relief. “Rory.” She slipped her fingers into his hair and guided him closer. “I need you.”

“You had to say that.” He pushed his closed mouth up against her softness, his big shoulders lifting and falling on a groan, then his lips began moving in the open-mouthed writhe of a kiss, the action shifting the flesh shielding her core, easing the sides apart, exposing her clit. His upper lip grazed her nub gently, and Olive almost hit the ceiling. Her reaction seemed to drive Rory a little crazy, his fingertips digging into her hips, yanking her lower body closer to his mouth. The hard, slick glide of his tongue separated her flesh further and journeyed over her clit in a slow, deliberate lick. “Goddamn, you taste so fucking sweet. You going to melt on my tongue like a good girl, Olive?”

“Yes. Yes.”

“You make sure to tell me when you’re going to come.” He razed the inside of her thigh with his teeth, then returned to her private flesh, parting her with another thorough lick. “I want to lap up as much as I can before the shower washes it away.”

Olive’s head tipped back on its own, her back arching away from the wall. “Oh my God. O-okay. Okay. Oh my God.”

Rory formed a V with his fingers, holding her flesh open—and spent a full minute flicking his tongue against her clit without pause or mercy. All the while, Olive babbled begging words, a scream building in her chest, until she finally let it loose.

“Rory,” she whimpered, growing desperate, the sound of her physical distress still echoing off the walls. “I’m going t-to…”

He took his tongue away but used the pad of his thumb to tease her swollen bundle of nerves, never stopping, never letting up. She watched beneath heavy lids as his licked a path straight up the center of her belly, closing his teeth around the string that connected the triangles of her bikini, nudging them aside. They went easily, since her breasts had essentially heaved themselves halfway to freedom. And the shower pelted his head, coasting down her body as Rory closed his mouth around her nipples, groaning as he sucked them, his fingers masterful between her thighs. “These tits,” he growled, licking across to her other breast. “Made me hard clear across the beach.”

Olive’s stomach shuddered, her vision beginning to blur, tension creeping, coiling in her mid-section. “I hate them,” she managed, her legs trembling. “Or I used to? They seem good to go right now—oh.”

Rory grazed her nipples with his teeth, and a string pulled taut deep inside of her. She begged him in gibberish to do it again, but his mouth was already journeying back downward, replacing his fingers to suckle her clit gently—and Olive saw stars. That gathering pressure beneath her navel gave way like a collapsing cliff and she tasted blood in her mouth, courtesy of attempting to trap her scream of his name. It got loose anyway, bouncing off the walls and sounding nothing like her. She pressed her hips closer to Rory’s mouth and writhed on his giving tongue, the orgasm gripping her like an iron fist, squeezing, squeezing, her inner walls bearing down, searching for more.

“Inside me,” she sobbed, meaning it that moment with every fiber or her being. “Rory, I-I think I need you inside me.”

He made a choked noise and stood, pressing their mouths together and they panted for heavy moments, the steam curling around them. “Shhh.” His right hand cupped the juncture of her thighs, massaging it gently with his roughened palm. “Easy, sunbeam. Easy. We can’t go there.” Her thighs tightened around his hand and they groaned into a kiss, the waves of pleasure continuing to coast over her, wracking her with tremors. “Goddammit, I’m not going to survive you,” he muttered thickly against her mouth. “I just have to make sure you survive me, okay? Help me do that.”

Finally, the shaking lessened and Olive slumped into Rory’s welcoming arms. She could feel his long erection between them, trapped by the wet material of his shorts, but every time she tried to reach for it, he caught her wrists and distracted her with kisses…until she was incapable of focusing on anything but the give and take of his tongue, the gruff sounds he made in his throat, the hands that smoothed down her hips, tracing the curve of her waist—

A door crashed open somewhere out in the locker room. Rory tensed and pulled away, visibly struggling to become alert, his breathing labored, pupils dilated. His hands shook as he covered her breasts with the bathing suit top and dragged the bottoms back up her legs. Fighting through her lethargy, Olive reached back and turned off the shower in an attempt to be useful, a veil of silence dropping around them, save their heavy breathing.

“He’s too unpredictable,” came a weary male voice from the other room. “I can’t afford him anymore.” A curse. “He’s not even answering his phone.”

A lightly accented female voice responded. “There has to be an explanation. He’s never just left the beach before, has he?”

“No, but it was only a matter of time. We’re talking about the guy who started a bar fight last summer because a customer snapped to get his attention.” the male voice answered. “Or the time he just didn’t show up at all and called me from a holding cell? I can’t make allowances anymore. If someone were to get hurt or worse while his chair is sitting vacant, I could lose the lifeguarding contract with the town.”

Olive didn’t register that the man was talking about Rory until she noticed the distance in his gaze, the hard line of his jaw. “Stay here,” he murmured, backing away from her.

Olive could only watch in silence as Rory sauntered into the locker room, still dripping from their shower. “You can stop calling me, Andrew. I’m right here.”

A beat passed. “Where the hell did you go?”

“Had to take care of something.” He propped a hand on the archway. “You don’t want to make allowances for me anymore, just say the word.”

“And you’d be fine with that.” Andrew’s voice was flat. “Just abandoning ship and leaving me and Jamie to hold everything down?”

“Just trying to give you what you want,” Rory shot back, the muscle patterns shifting on his broad back. “Look, I don’t get choices, I get marching orders. Would that work for you?”

“You think I do this by choice?” There was something written in between the lines of Andrew’s incredulity. “We both know I don’t.”

Olive couldn’t resist a step forward to peek at the newcomers. She’d barely managed to see around Rory’s elbow when she locked eyes with the woman. A gorgeous young woman with an apron tied around her waist, her long, dark hair in a braid. Her eyes widened when she saw Olive, but instead of drawing attention to her presence in the shower, the woman snagged a towel from a stack near the lockers and oh-so-casually sidestepped in Olive’s direction, holding it out. Olive took the offering with a whispered thank you, deciding they were going to be friends.

They didn’t get away with their covert mission, however.

“Is someone in there with you?” Andrew asked.

Rory blocked her more completely. “That’s my business.”

“For fuck’s sake, Rory.”

It had taken Olive a minute to regain her wits and process the conversation. Now that she’d come back down to earth, the reality of the situation was hitting home. Rory was in trouble for leaving the beach with her. Was he getting fired? She couldn’t let him lose his job because she’d kept him from it. The guilt would kill her. Not to mention, he was incredible at being a lifeguard. Hadn’t he just proven that? Who did this guy Andrew think he was?

Olive wrapped the towel around her shoulders and marched out of the shower. “Excuse me.” She lost a little steam at the sight of Andrew, who was easily the second-hottest man she’d ever witnessed up close, right behind Rory—Rory, who tried to block her from view. Olive dodged him. “This man just saved my life. He was heroic,” she sputtered. “I would have drowned if he hadn’t reached me in time. It’s my fault he left the beach. I was freezing to death and…pretty scared, okay? If you’re going to blame someone, blame me.”

Andrew crossed his arms over his chest and regarded her with curiosity. “You are aware that rescuing someone doesn’t involve a complimentary shower, right?”

“Don’t,” Rory said quietly, his hands flexing in a dangerous way that Olive now recognized. “Do not question her, Andrew. I’m warning you.”

Oddly, Rory’s threat seemed to drain some of Andrew’s irritation. He split a look between Rory and Olive, a groove forming between his eyebrows.

“Why don’t you men talk about this at home?” The woman gave Andrew a pointed look. “When we’ve all calmed down a little.” When no one said anything, she rolled her eyes and approached Olive with a hand extended. “I’m Jiya. I had the misfortune of moving in next door to these stubborn Irish mules.”

Olive couldn’t help her smile as they shook. “Oh…” She glanced up at Rory to find his expression shuttered. “Are you brothers?”

He gave a tight nod. “This is Andrew.”

“And you are…” his brother prompted.

“Olive.” She rolled her lips together in the following silence. “I should head home so Rory can get back to work.”

Andrew nodded curtly. “I’ve only got his chair covered for the next half hour.”

“Perfect. That’s enough time to get her home alive.” Rory bent to one side and picked up her beach bag, which she had no recollection of retrieving from the beach. When she saw her glasses and the Freud towel stuffed inside, she almost kissed Rory full on the mouth. Until he said, “She has a habit of tempting death.”

Her sniff of protest hung in the air as Rory threaded their fingers together and pulled her toward his locker. He set down the beach bag on the bench and replaced the glasses on her nose with a look of concentration. With a few twists of his wrists, he sprung the metal teeth of his locker, reached inside and took out a gray T-shirt, dropping it over her head. But not before a piece of white paper fluttered to the ground between them. It was the straw wrapper with her number on it.

Forgetting all about their audience, Olive beamed up at Rory as he pulled her hands through the arm holes of the massive shirt. With her heart in her throat, she watched him stoop down to pick up the straw wrapper and place it carefully back on the shelf, like it was a priceless artifact. Then, seeming to realize how telling the action was, he slapped the locker shut and guided her toward the exit. “I, uh…forget that was in there.”

“Rory?”

“What, sunbeam?”

“I don’t believe you.”





CHAPTER SIX





Rory was going to drop Olive off and get the hell away.

That’s what he should have done after pulling her out of the water. Wrapped her in a towel and radioed one of the female lifeguards to bring her somewhere warm. Or called one of her friends to come pick her up. He never should have brought her into the Hut—into their own private world where none of the consequences of touching her existed. Where the weight of his past and the shine of her future were blurred by the steam.

Even now, knowing he shouldn’t, Rory couldn’t keep himself from holding her hand. It made him feel like a fucking giant walking down the street, having this girl beside him. And yet it was impossible to miss the way passersby looked at them. Since he’d given Olive his only spare shirt, he was bare chested, his tattoos busier than the intersection they were crossing. Some of the people they passed knew Rory from the neighborhood and averted their eyes, giving him wide berth on the sidewalk. Did Olive notice?

He hoped she did. Hoped she realized the local hothead had no business with a pretty blonde angel in thick-rimmed glasses and college courses lined up. He needed to scare her away once and for all, because this crazy connection between them was like an overloaded circuit breaker, capable of setting his world on fire. He’d been worried that spending time with Olive would amount to him feeling…possessive. Or worse, optimistic that something lasting could come out of it. He’d done a lot more than spend time with her, though. And something had happened in the dark of the shower that felt irreversible. They’d communicated things with their bodies he didn’t know how to say out loud.

Mine.

No. She wasn’t his. Tell that to the organ in his chest that wouldn’t stop racing, though. Tell that to his primed body. His mind, which refused to stop reminding Rory that she screamed when he teased her clit long enough. That she kissed him like she didn’t give a shit about oxygen. Christ, she was incredible.

“Is Andrew your only brother?”

“No.” He cleared his throat. “No, there are three of us. Andrew is the oldest, which is why he acts like the king prick sometimes. Not sure if you noticed.” They shared a wry smile. “Jamie is in the middle. Then me.”

“Are you all lifeguards?”

“Yeah. Every summer since we were sixteen.” Discomfort crept up the back of his neck. “Although I missed a couple of summers a while back.” When Olive looked at him, obviously waiting for an explanation, he changed the direction of the conversation, needing to live in this world a little longer. A world where she didn’t know the extent of his depravity. “Jamie teaches during the school year. Economics. He’s smart like you.”

Olive opened her mouth and closed it again. “Um, thank you.” She paused. “Don’t tell him, but I hate economics. It’s too cut and dried. Not enough room for theories or gray areas.”

“I’m telling him.”

“Don’t.” She poked Rory in the side with her free hand and the move was so cute, he almost stopped walking to kiss her. Just wanted to yank her up on her toes and work her innocent body into another frenzy, like he’d done in the shower. But he kept walking, jaw clenched. As if sensing Rory trying to create distance between them, she launched into a ramble. “I mean, I guess there is something to be said for gray areas. Right? That’s where light and dark come together. If they always stayed separate, life would be pretty boring.”

Was she talking about them? Trying to convince him he had a right to walk beside her on the street? To be with her? He wouldn’t allow himself to be convinced. Rory looked ahead and realized they were entering the more expensive area where the rents ticked up by a couple grand. “How much farther?” he asked without making eye contact.

“A couple of blocks.”

Her subdued tone filled him with concern. “You feeling okay? Cold again?”

“I’m fine.” She regarded him thoughtfully. “I was just thinking about what you said, back in the locker room. When you were talking to your brother.”

Rory exhaled hard, trying and failing not to think of Andrew’s disappointed expression. Shouldn’t he be used to it by now? “Which part?”

Olive seemed hesitant, watching him through her lashes. “That you don’t get choices. You get marching orders. What did you mean?”

“That I don’t get trusted with a lot of responsibility. Andrew tells us where to go. When to be there.” He tried to sound less frustrated but couldn’t pull it off. “Jamie has other shit going on, though. Teaching, his books. I just get a schedule and a lot of skepticism that I can stick to it.”

“Do you earn that skepticism?”

“Yeah. I do.” He raked a hand through his hair. “What’s the point of being efficient if I’ll never go any higher than where I’m at, you know? This is it. I’m a name on a schedule.”

She seemed genuinely confused. “Is that all you want to be?”

“No.” Rory heard the word come out of his mouth before his brain registered it. Did he want more than lifeguarding and pouring drinks? Was an ex-con wanting more out of the daily grind just wishful thinking? When he started to consider the answer might be no…or at the very least a gray area, hope trickled in—and it alarmed him. He’d been so devoid of hope or light at the end of the tunnel, he didn’t know how to handle it. What if he tried and found out for certain that there had never been a point? For damn sure, nothing he did would be good enough to deserve the girl walking beside him with such trust.

Olive blinked up at Rory and he realized he was staring. “Andrew also said…he said you called him from a holding cell once?”

His stomach took a dive toward the sidewalk. Had part of him wished she’d missed that part of Andrew and Jiya’s conversation? Why? It would be counterproductive when his goal was to bring this girl to her expensive apartment building and split. To leave her alone for good.

That’s why he had her hand locked in a death grip, right?

Rory pulled Olive to a stop on the sidewalk and forced himself to untangle their fingers, pushing them through his hair instead. “I should have been more upfront with you, Olive, okay?” He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. “When I thought we’d never make it past those milkshakes, I thought I’d get away with not telling you. So you wouldn’t look back and think of me as…that ex-con you almost accidentally dated. I didn’t want that. But here we are. And I still have your phone number even though I damn well shouldn’t. So you need to know, sunbeam, that I’m not lying when I say I’m not a good guy. I’m not good for you.”

The breeze blew the blonde hair around her face. “So you were…”

“The night I called Andrew was a separate occasion. But yeah, Olive. I’ve done time in prison.” Just do it. Cut this off before you fall any deeper for this girl. She would wise up someday down the road, when it was too late, and he’d have to sever an arm to let her go. He’d be her villain. “I put a guy in a coma. With my fists. That’s the kind of man who you just defended back there as heroic. That was real sweet and all, baby, but it’s not true.”

He heard her swallow over the rush of traffic on the avenue. “What happened?”

“It doesn’t matter. Nothing excuses it, Olive,” he said adamantly. “Or the fact that I’m still not great at controlling my temper. You feel it. You know. I’ve gone looking for fights since I was a kid—it’s a nice, little trait I inherited from my father. Men fight. Men swing their fists and ask questions later. That’s what I do.”

Her expression told Rory the times he’d almost lost his cool with the waiter and Andrew hadn’t gone unnoticed. “How long were you away?”

“How long was I in prison? That’s where I went.” He ground his molars together, hating this after period they’d entered. After she found out. He’d lay odds on her searching for a break in the conversation so she could sprint for safety. “A little under two years, starting when I was eighteen. On an assault change.”

A degree of color left her face. “The man is okay?”

“Yeah, he’s fine now. Jamie checked. But we don’t exactly exchange Christmas cards.”

Even with the passing traffic and the ocean roar in the distance, the silence that dropped over them was deafening. “Okay, I get it, Rory. You’re not ideal boyfriend material.” He didn’t breathe as seconds ticked past. “Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “You have to go. You have to get away.”

Olive flinched but kept her chin up. “So, fine. I’m going to walk away now. And you’re going to let me go, right? You’re going to throw away my number and I’ll eventually forget who gave me this T-shirt. Fine with me.”

Direct hit. Was there an arrow sticking out of his chest? “It’s not fine with me. I never said it was fine,” he managed. “I’m just doing the right thing by you.”

“By dropping me? I kind of left Oklahoma to get away from people doing that to me, so it’s a good thing I found out early that this can’t go anywhere.” The light sheen in her eyes made his chest ache. “I’m meeting Leanne in the morning to study. We have a test early Monday morning and…I have to go. Bye, Rory.”

When she breezed past him, Rory swore she ripped off a layer of skin. His stomach shot up into his mouth as Olive moved farther away down the sidewalk, the sound of her sandals fading and blending into the traffic. Jesus, he was going to be sick. He started to go after her, already counting the seconds until he could get his arms around her, but he froze in his tracks when Olive stopped in front of the nicest building on the block. A uniformed man opened the door for her—and the dude must have seen them together, because he sent a look of distaste across the street.

Olive paused in the entrance, turning back toward Rory and all but imploring him to come and get her. But he hesitated. That doorman had the right idea. He didn’t belong within ten feet of a girl like Olive. Her college career was on the horizon and she was set up, living in the best building money could afford. So although it killed him, he took off down the sidewalk, glancing back a moment later to find her gone. Out of sight.

Feeling like he’d been hit by a truck, Rory leaned back against the closest building. She’d compared him to the family that had essentially abandoned her. Couldn’t she see this wasn’t to serve his own self-interest? If he allowed himself to be selfish, they would spend every available second together. He would ride her to classes on his bike. He’d watch over her on the beach and buy her so many milkshakes, she’d get sick of them.

No. No, she’d walked away, too, right? He’d told her everything and she’d made the decision that was right for her. She hadn’t argued or tried to make light of what he’d done in the past—because it wasn’t possible. There was no light angle, it was all dark. He’d done the right thing here. Olive was too young, her future too promising, to get caught up with an older man with so little to offer and a reputation for fighting to boot.

Go. Turn and go.

His feet might as well have been encased in concrete boots, but Rory managed to walk back to the beach, emptiness spreading a little further to the corners of his stomach with every single step.

*

Rory sat on the top step of the house the next morning, watching oranges and reds thread their fingers into the sky. He’d slept approximately eighteen minutes the night before, so he couldn’t exactly appreciate the beauty of nature. He could only think about Olive having an early study date with her friend. How was she getting there? The bus? Did she have a car he didn’t know about?

What if something bad happened and he wasn’t there to save her?

He tossed the dregs of his freezing cold coffee into the bushes, set the mug down and scrubbed his hands down his face. She’d called his bluff. No sense in denying it. He’d been awake enough hours and replayed their conversation in his head so many times, he could recite it word for word. Yeah, he’d meant what he said to Olive. There couldn’t be a relationship between them. They lived in different worlds. They were going different places.

But he hadn’t really allowed himself to consider what it would be like never talking to her again. Never seeing or kissing her again. A world where none of those things were possible left him lifeless, staring out into the sunrise trying to remember if there was a point to going through the motions every day, like he’d been doing for so long.

Since returning home from prison, he hadn’t allowed himself to be ambitious. Wasn’t ambition kind of pointless with a prison record? How far could a man reasonably go with an assault attached to his name? Even without a record, his hair trigger energy made people uneasy. On the nights he bartended at the Castle Gate, conversations were kept to a quieter pitch. Customers chose to sit at tables instead of in front of him at the bar. Every once in a while, a woman would be attracted to the very same energy that made others wary, but until Olive, Rory hadn’t realized how uncomfortable those women made him. They looked at him and saw a novelty. A one-time thrill.

No one had ever looked at him the way Olive did. No judgment. Only curiosity, awareness…and that complicated something between them that he didn’t have a name for. Like she wanted to explore him. Like she couldn’t help wanting to. Needing to.

What would it be like to have Olive look up at him with such trust and open admiration…and know he’d earned it? To be a good man for her?

Pointless thoughts. Rory traced some carvings on the concrete stairs with the toe of his sneakers. His initials, along with Andrew’s and Jamie’s. He could still remember the afternoon they’d used a stick to alter the wet cement. How their father had reacted when he got home that night from running the Castle Gate. Their mother had borne the brunt of his anger. She always had—and they’d been too young to do anything about it.

Back then, anyway.

As always, when Rory thought of that time, the nape of his neck turned hot, wire seeming to stretch his fingers, curl them into fists. When he’d gotten sentenced, his mother and father had still been living together in the house. Jamie had been a senior in college, on the brink of earning his degree in Education, Andrew was beginning to take over the family business and working constantly. That left eighteen-year-old Rory alone with his parents in the house. By then, he’d grown taller and broader than his father. It went unspoken that he would protect his mother and win.

Until the night on the beach when he’d given in to his anger.

Hard to protect anyone from inside of a cell.

The door of the house opened, saving Rory from his darkening thoughts. When both of his brothers emerged barefoot in sweatpants and hoodies, Rory ignored them, continuing to stare out at the horizon in stony silence.

Jamie sat on the bottom step. Andrew took the one beside him. No one said anything, except for the neighborhood, which spoke its own language of cars rumbling to life, seagulls calling to each other on the breeze, the Atlantic Ocean waking up in the distance.

Finally, Andrew broke the silence. “I’m sorry about what I said yesterday. About not being able to afford you. Especially after you’d just been through a rescue. A tough one.” He scratched at his morning beard. “I was just pissed off.”

Rory waved a dismissive hand, even though a shift took place in his chest. “It’s fine, man.”

“No, it’s not.” Andrew shifted on the step. “Look. This girl Olive is obviously important to you and she overheard—”

“I said it’s fine.” Hearing her name out loud cracked him straight down the middle, so it took him a few seconds to continue. “My brother bitching about me and saying I’m unpredictable wasn’t the deal breaker.”

Jamie turned to face them with a curious expression. “You told her about prison?”

His jaw clenched “Had to be done.”

“I assume you told her how it happened.” Jamie prompted. “Why it happened.”

“It doesn’t make a difference, Jamie.”

“Sorry, but fuck that. It makes a difference to me.”

A stone lodged itself in Rory’s throat. “I didn’t mean to imply it wasn’t important. Only that the outcome is the same, no matter what prompted me to almost kill a man.”

No one spoke for a moment, all of them probably recalling the day he’d been cuffed and thrown into the back of a police car. The guilty plea that followed, despite being advised otherwise by his court-appointed attorney. He’d done the crime, hadn’t he? So he’d pay for it.

“So was it a deal breaker?” Andrew asked, easing the building tension with a half-smile. “Because she came to your defense pretty hard in the Hut. If she’d had a bat handy, I’d be limping behind the bar tonight.”

Half of Rory wanted them to stop talking about Olive. The other half? Didn’t want to talk about anything but her. The latter half won by a landslide. “I’m not sure it broke the deal. I think I might have crushed it before she got the chance.”

Jamie’s sigh was long suffering. “I didn’t even get the opportunity to judge her.”

“You’d have loved her,” Rory said, pressing his thumbs into his eye sockets to try and stop the images of her walking away over and over again. “She almost got hit by a fucking bus because a book distracted her.”

“Which book?”

“I think I’ve seen you read it before. Something by Vonnegut.”

“How dare you mess this up for me,” Jamie deadpanned. “I kind of hate you.”

He laughed, but it lacked authenticity. “Join the club.”

The three of them watched as a group of joggers ran past down in the middle of the street, moving in the direction of the boardwalk. Not an unusual sight in Long Beach, but groups of joggers that size didn’t usually route themselves through a residential area—especially one on the lower end of the income spectrum.

“You ever seen them pass through this way before?”

“No,” Andrew responded with a head shake. “And I’m always up at this time working.”

Jamie and Rory traded an eye roll.

But when they eased back into silence, Rory couldn’t stop thinking about the joggers. They got up every morning, same as him. Odds are, most of them didn’t love their jobs. They were probably tired, needed vacations. But despite all of it, they woke up every morning and achieved a goal. They took different routes to reach it, changed, adapted to the terrain and worked toward something that satisfied them.

All right, so maybe the joggers weren’t the first to shake these new revelations loose. He’d spent a lot of time staring up at the ceiling last night. Thinking of Olive, yeah, but he’d also done a lot of wondering about himself. How long could he expect to continue in this same repetitive holding pattern of lifeguarding and bartending with nothing to show for it? He was already tired of it at twenty-four. He never reached a goal, like the joggers did.

Hell, like his brothers did. Little by little, Andrew improved the Castle Gate, turning it from a dive to a respected neighborhood staple. No longer the kid who’d one day inherit the landmark bar, he was now a legitimate businessman. Jamie would receive his teaching tenure soon. Sometimes Rory thought their middle brother fell back into their patented routine of lifeguarding and bartending every summer because it was a family custom. Really, though, with his intelligence and college degree, he could do anything.

That left Rory. He couldn’t do anything he wanted.

But maybe it was time to try something.

To set a goal and jog for it.

Rory cleared his throat. “I know it’s not the best time to ask, seeing as how I fucked up yesterday, but, uh…” Striving for casual even though his pulse was ticking his ears, Rory shrugged. “You’re stressed out, A. Between the bar and the beach, you’ve got at least sixty employees to juggle.” No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make eye contact with Andrew, afraid he’d see wariness there. “I’ve been around long enough to know how to place liquor orders for the bar. Receive deliveries. Make sure the kitchen and bar are stocked. You can show me how to do payroll.” He swallowed. “Let me help.”

Rory stared out at the horizon and held his breath, waiting for a response. He could feel Jamie trading a silent look with their older brother, probably shocked out of their minds. That made three of them. As he waited for the verdict that suddenly seemed like the most important one of his life, thoughts of Olive crept in. Chances were slim to none that he’d ever be a college graduate. Or someone who read a ton of books. Odds were he’d never have a nine-to-five.

Still. He couldn’t help but wonder… If he changed his route and worked hard enough, could Olive be proud to be with a guy like him?

“Can you get to the bar early tonight?” Andrew asked, squinting one eye over at him. “Payroll is a little tricky, but it shouldn’t take you long to pick it up.”

“Yeah,” Rory said thickly, relief filtering in, warming him with something that resembled hope. “I can do that.”

Several heavy beats passed before Jamie put a hand over his heart and spoke. “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment—”

“Christ,” Rory muttered, coming to his feet and turning before Jamie could see his smile. “Shut up, Jamie.”

His middle brother stood, too. “Don’t interrupt me when I’m quoting Vonnegut.”

Jiya chose that moment to arrive at the bottom of the stoop, an apron dangling from her