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Authors: Steph Campbell,Liz Reinhardt

Riptides (Lengths) (7 page)

BOOK: Riptides (Lengths)
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EIGHT

 

“That was…that was so…” She presses a hand to her chest and lets out a laugh that sounds semi-manic. I like it. I like driving her a little bit crazy.

“Gear up, woman, because I’ll be ready for more before you know it.” I nuzzle the underside of her jaw, and she pushes me back, away from her.

“Enzo. We really need to talk.” She tugs the sheet up tight to her neck, so only her face peeps out, like a little kid’s.

I roll onto one elbow and look down at her, tucking her hair behind her ears, smoothing a thumb over her lips, any stupid excuse to touch her skin. “What do you want to talk about?” I cup her chin in my hand. “Anything.”

“It’s, um——” She licks her lips and squeezes her eyes shut. I wonder if she’s trying not to cry. “It’s hard to talk about.”

“I get that. I mean, I’m not trying to claim I know the pain you went through, because I don’t. I have a big, annoying-as-all-hell family. They’re a little overbearing and a lot obnoxious, but they’re really good people. I actually can’t wait for you to meet them.” I continue to caress her face. “And, as much as I bitch about them, I don’t know who I’d be without them.”

“That.” She nods her head and her mouth crumples, so this time I’m sure the tears are only a second away, but she holds back. “That’s my problem. When I was a little girl, I was someone. My mother, her love for me, that made me someone. And when I lost her, I lost myself.”

I tuck her into my arms and run a hand over her long, thick hair. “I’m so sorry, doll. I can’t even…I don’t know how you did it. You’re brave as hell.”

“I think I made it possible by shutting down.” Her soft voice echoes back off the wall of my bedroom. “I think maybe I’ve kidded myself into believing I dealt with it all, and I never really did. Until this year.”

“What changed?” I ask, lifting the sheet her body has pressed tight to the mattress. I realize she may have done that specifically to make a barrier——however small——between the two of us, but I’m not about to let her dig up the pain of her past without me giving her every comfort at my disposal, and that includes the physical: just holding her tight against me.

“What changed?” She’s quiet for a few long breaths, I guess figuring out how to say what she needs to say. “What changed was that I thought I could depend on other people. I thought I could be myself with them. And one of them in particular let me down. Hard. I guess it shocked me out of my numbness. Made me think about how I was living and what I was doing.”

“Well, I want to kick that asshole upside the head for hurting you. But I’m thankful it led you here. To me.” I knot her tighter to my body and she wriggles, like she’s trying to make space between us.

“But Enzo? What if you and I aren’t…what if we’re not meant to be together for the long haul?” She says the words carefully. The light in the room is dimming as the night draws on, but I can hear things now that I don’t need to be able to see.

Like the way her voice catches when she bites her lip or the way her words draw out when she’s moving her hands, like she’s trying to grab hold of the ideas folded up in her head and rip them out into the open.

“Trust me. I’ve been with my fair share of girls. I’ve been pretty sure I was in love a few times. This time? I know.”

I didn’t expect to tell her this way, but there it is.

“Know
what?
” She rolls away from me, her voice faint.

“That this is love.” I sit up and laugh. “Don’t freak. I get it. It sounds insane. And I’m not looking to make any permanent changes if you’re not ready. Don’t think I’ll be hounding you to move in or trying to take you ring shopping. I’m willing to wait as long as it takes. But I felt it the night we met. I know it’s fast as hell, but sometimes shit is. I’ve never felt this way before.”

She has the sheets clutched to her chest and she’s shaking her head. “You don’t know me, though.”

“Yeah, I do.” I try to pull her closer, but she shakes her head. “Jess, I know how brilliant you are. How passionate you are about what you know and what you want to know.”

“I think you’re the only person who’s ever referred to me as brilliant,” she says softly, balling my sheet in her hands and refusing to let go.

“Then you’ve been surrounded by idiots.” I lean back on the headboard and look at the shadowy version of her I can make out by the light of my alarm clock. “I know how you protect yourself. How you’re nervous and scared when you’re facing something new. But when you let go? Damn. It’s like the floodgates open and you just come alive.”

She tucks a dark strand of hair behind her ear and smiles. “Like I do with you?” she teases.

“Exactly.” I puff up my chest in pride. “I like to think I know how to read you. Know how to turn you on. I get you, Jess. And you get me. I’ve never had that connection before, and I don’t give a shit if it makes me sound like a sap to admit it. I’m admitting it, and I’m holding on.”

“Why?” Her voice shakes so hard, it just might break.

“Because I’d rather come out looking like a fool for having tried than attempt to live with the regret I
know
I’d feel if I didn’t. Tell me I won’t look like a fool?” I ask her gently, trying hard not to spook her.

“Enzo.” Her voice is skeletal, stripped of every muscle and all the bone. It clatters between us.

“Jess.” I move closer, but she jumps out of my bed. “Jess?”

“I…I just need…to breathe. I need to think. I can’t…it’s not you, Enzo. It’s…don’t wait up for me.”

She hops up and tries to gather her things, but I guess she forgot that round one took place in the hallway. Her clothes are like a breadcrumb trail leading to the front door. She tries to slip out, but I follow her, pretty sure I came on too strong, but not able to leave it alone.

“Go back to bed. It’s just that I’m so used to being on my own. I’m so used to being independent, this is hard for me.” She finds her tiny panties and attempts to unfurl them from the twisted knot they’re in. Finally she gives up and drops them, yanking her jeans on one tight leg at a time.

“I get it. I respect that you need space. But when you need to lean on someone, remember that I’m here.” I hold her bra out and she slides her arms into the loops, buckling it behind her back with a quick, embarrassed movement that makes her look very young.

She leans down and picks her shirt up, closing all the buttons. She slides one foot, then the other, in her flat shoes, which make her so many inches shorter than me. Her hands shake as she winds her hair into a bun and secures it with a hair thing she pulls off her wrist.

I’ve thrown on my pants and pulled my shirt over my head as I watched her, because there’s no way she’s walking to her car alone at this hour, no matter how well-lit my apartment parking lot is.

“I guess I should go.” She chews on her lip and reaches for the doorknob as I push my feet into flip flops. “Yes. I definitely…I need to go. I need to just catch my breath.”

“You aren’t going anywhere without me.” I follow her to her car, careful to pay attention to everything in the lot just in case. I want her safe.

If not with me, then wherever she is, however I can help.

She takes her keys in her hands and stares at them. I lean against her hood, not wanting to spook her. The night air is balmy and alive. This would be the perfect night to be on the waves. I can hear them. One of the reasons I live in a shithole with no square footage and a brown and orange kitchen straight from
The Brady Bunch
is because I wanted to spend my money on proximity to the water.

Plus that, what more do I need room for than a big bed to roll around in with Jess and a kitchen where I can feed her after our marathon sex sessions?

“You know, if you need air, I know a place with a lot of it,” I offer.

“I should go,” she says again, but she doesn’t sound so sure this time.

“Go? Where?” I ask. “Back to your mysterious place?”

“I just like your place better,” she whispers, and we both know it’s a lie. Jess has walls, high and wide. The thing she doesn’t seem to get is that I’m fine with taking my time to break those walls down. But they’re definitely coming down.

“C’mon. I wanna take you somewhere.” I hold out my hand and lead her to my banged-up truck, which she gets into without any sort of argument. We drive along the coastal highway. I watch her play with the knobs on the radio, but she doesn’t seem interested in any of the late night sex-advice talk shows or thumping dance music. She finally switches it off, and there’s only the noise of the wind blowing hard and wild in the night. I pull in where Deo’s surf shop is, park, and walk her down the beach, our feet sinking in the cool sand.

“It’s beautiful,” she says, her teeth chattering.

I leave her where she is, pull out the key Deo handed me the day he opened the shop, and open the door. I maneuver around the fiberglass boards and shavings, the sawhorses and sander cords that Deo leaves lying around, since he’s in a constant state of working on projects. Deo might give off a laid back surfer vibe, but when it comes to shaping a board, there’s nobody more serious about his craft and more attentive to details.

The board he gave me for my twenty-first is still the most solid piece I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking into the water.

This time I’m not looking for a board. I’m looking for the extra hoodies we keep strewn in a box in the back, some beers, and a little fire starter. I bring the supplies, along with some blankets, back to the place where Jess sits, shivering, staring at the waves.

“Here you go, doll.” I pop a sweatshirt over her head and tuck a blanket around her legs. I move over to our favorite fire pit and get a decent fire going, then crack open a beer and hold one out for her. She edges closer to the flames, still bundled in the blanket, and takes the beer out of my hand.

“Thank you, Enzo.” Instead of drinking, she stares at the bubbling amber liquid. “You think of everything. You think of me all the time.”

“I like thinking about you,” I tell her, holding my bottle out so we can clink. “To getting to breathe in a place like this.”

She taps her bottle to mine and looks around at the roaring waves, the spiraling skyful of stars, the cool, quiet sand. “It’s amazing here. Do you come here a lot?”

I take a long pull of my beer and watch the way the fire dances over her features. Gorgeous. “I do. My brother’s best friend, Deo, he owns that little surf shack, and he gave us anytime access to the place. Which is like our childhood dream come true. We used to surf out here back when we were just kids. The waves can get intense.”

Part of me wants to run back and grab a board, just to feel that weightless rush while I’m curled under the enormous crush of a wave. But a bigger part of me just wants to stay here with her, far enough to let her breathe but close enough to put my arms around her when she needs to be held.

“I used to rock climb.” She drags her knees to her chest and takes tiny sips of her beer.

“In Colorado?” I remember her saying that was where she came from.

“Mmmhmm.” She tilts her head back and drinks in the stars. “There was nothing like it. It forced you to become so focused, you know? Just you and the rock face, finding the next footing, having to depend on your own strength to get you just a little higher. But once you reached the top? The aching muscles, the dehydration, the fear just melted back because you were somewhere else. Somewhere way too high for anyone else in the world to come near.”

I nod. “Obviously waves aren’t about height the same way. But, yeah, the focus just before you’re completely free, exposed to an element that’s so connected and real, no one outside would get it? I love that. I live for that.”

“I wanted to climb all over the world,” she continues, a soft smile on her face. “I wanted to take vacations where my bag was packed with rope, belay,
carabineers…just throw my pack in and travel to Paarl Rock or Sardinia, and lose myself for a while.”

“Good to know.” I grin. “So, vacations for you aren’t going to be spent laying out with a coconut drink and working on your tan?”

“Oh, I love that too,” she assures me with a tiny smile. “But I guess most people want to go on vacation so they can come back softer, more relaxed. I want to go so I can come back stronger, more focused.” She snorts. “So stupid.”

“Not stupid at all,” I counter. “Why would you even say that?”

“My…a lot of my, um, friends and people I’m close to are in the armed forces. So the idea of going away looking for danger? It’s kind of offensive to them. Some of them.” She gulps at her beer, and I nod through my scowl.

“Look, I’ve known dicks like that too. My brother’s best friend, Deo? His wife’s brother actually died overseas.”

She sits up straighter, the blanket falling off one thin shoulder. “I’m so sorry.” She presses her lips tight.

“So was Whit.” I twirl the bottle. “It’s not really my story to tell, so I might be getting pieces wrong here and there. But Whit’s confided in me some since she became like family, and she told me that at first it was hard to enjoy life because of what her brother had sacrificed for her. For this whole country.”

She nods so hard her hood falls back. “Hard to argue with that.”

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