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Authors: Elizabeth O'Roark

Undertow

Undertow

By Elizabeth O’Roark

Cover Design and Formatting: Damonza

Kindle Edition

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given to other people.

Undertow

Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth O’Roark

www.elizabethoroark.com

ISBN: 978-0-9898135-0-1

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the author.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

CHAPTER 1

My first memories are of Nate. But I knew him even before those.

There’s a picture of me on a blanket in my grandmother’s yard, all dolled up in white bloomers and a little bonnet, trying to push up off of my chubby arms. He and Jordan sit in back of me, and Jordan looks straight at the camera, already a little cocky though he couldn’t even have been five at the time. But Nate — Nate looks only at me, fascinated, as if I’m a wild animal someone has trapped and placed before him. I always loved that picture, back before it became painful to look at.

The fact that he’s in the picture at all tells me one thing: my grandfather was behind the camera. My grandmother and my parents didn’t want us playing with the housekeeper’s kid, so they sure as hell weren’t going to memorialize it on film.

I was four when I first got shipped out to my grandparents’ estate at Paradise Cove for the summer. It’s a seriously questionable tradition among a set of wealthy families in Charlotte: send the kids to the beach to be poorly supervised by grandparents and maids while you stay home, free to start on the gin and tonics at noon instead of five. My grandparents lived there year-round and were happy – or perhaps just willing – to suffer my brother and I each summer, so suffer they did. Some parents visited frequently during the summer. My parents only ever came twice – the weekend they brought us in early June and the weekend they reluctantly picked us up at the end of August.

I have two memories of that first summer, when I was four, and they both involve Nate. In the first, he and Jordan are high up in a tree, and when I try to climb up they laugh. Jordan shouts down that it’s not for babies. It’s the only memory I have that involves Nate seeming to be on a side other than my own.

My other memory is of trying to follow Jordan and Nate out into the surf – probably still trying to prove I wasn’t a baby from the tree incident – and getting yanked out by grandfather, who threw me over his shoulder and spanked me pretty much the whole way back to the house. Jordan laughed. Nate said nothing, but he didn’t look happy. I knew, even then, that he would have helped if he could.

A thousand memories would follow those. Every waking minute for every summer of my childhood, Nate was there – my best friend, my favorite person, the thing that made the beach what I dreamed about during the dull Charlotte winters.

But those were the good times. Before things got complicated. I sometimes wish I could just have that version of him back, but even as I wish it, I know it still wouldn’t be enough.

CHAPTER 2

My cell phone vibrates silently inside my backpack just as I exit the library. It’s somewhere in there, probably at the bottom, buried under several textbooks, a laptop and remnants of the dinner I snuck in hours earlier.

It is bound to be one of three people: my roommate Jackie, who is probably out drinking and wants me to join her, my roommate Karen, who has likely locked herself out and wants to know when I’ll be home, or my ex-boyfriend Tyler, who undoubtedly wants to get together to hash out the demise of our relationship. We’ve had any number of these “talks” so far, which always involve him asking why we broke up, and arguing with my reasons. Of course, the real reason, the one I can’t say, is that I just don’t like him.

And right now, I really don’t want to talk to any of them, so I’m not sure why I’m flinging books across the portico trying to get to my phone.

It’s an unfamiliar number.

“Hello?”

“Hi. Is this Maura Pierce?”

I feel a flicker of irritation. Anyone I want to talk to would already know this is Maura Pierce. It’s a freaking cell phone. Who else is going to answer it?

“Yes,” I say warily.

“This is Ethan Mayhew,” says the voice. “Jordan’s friend?”

My irritation dissolves into laughter. I’ve known Ethan my entire life, so it’s ridiculous that he would think he has to qualify it by reminding me that he’s my brother’s best friend. “Ethan, Ethan,” I muse, sounding perplexed. I tap a finger against my lip, although he can’t see the gesture. “The name rings a bell but I can’t really place you.”

He laughs good-naturedly, and sounds sheepish when he replies. “Well, I’ve been hearing how popular you are, Maura. I wasn’t sure how many Ethans were calling you.”

“I think my brother’s been spinning a few stories on my behalf.”

“Maura, you’ve had a parade of boys following you since you could walk.”

It was just one boy, really. One boy I can’t let myself think about, so I don’t bother to correct him.

“What’s up?” I ask, changing the subject away from my supposed popularity.

“I’m coming to town for the weekend. I wondered if you’d want to get dinner.”

“Sure,” I say, feeling pleased and the tiniest bit confused. I’ve known Ethan forever, and he’s always been unfailingly nice, but it’s a brother’s-best-friend kind of nice. Nice because he has to be, but otherwise maintaining a polite distance.

A few of my parents’ friends have taken me out to dinner when they’ve come into town – adults always seem to imagine that college students are living off ramen noodles and cereal, even college students with a fairly substantial trust fund, but Ethan is the same age as Jordan. He’s not really in the stage of life where you nurture and take pity on other people’s kids. Then again, Jordan’s wife just had a baby, so maybe Ethan’s entering that phase of life too. I shrug it off. It’ll be nice to see him either way.

**

He picks me up on Friday night, 7 p.m. on the dot. I’m embarrassed by our apartment, which looks like exactly what it is: a place where four college seniors who spend every free hour at school or out drinking keep their clothes, and occasionally sleep. I see Jackie’s underpants on the couch as I go to get the door and shove them under a cushion.

I take a final glance at the mirror before I open the door. The dress is cute, but not revealing. Pretty but respectable. It’s at times like this, the rare occasions when I’ve dressed like an adult and really made an effort, that I’m shocked to find my mother staring back at me in the mirror. I got my dad’s height, but her dark hair, her green eyes, her tiny nose. The mouth I’ve finally grown into, after all those years of Jordan taunting me with Rolling Stones songs, implying I looked like Mick Jagger. I wonder if I’ll look like an adult to Ethan. Probably not.

I open the door and he is exactly as I remember — the sandy blonde hair, the crinkly blue eyes, the wide, confident smile. He was always good looking. Even when we were little, girls would grow stupid and dreamy-eyed when he smiled at them. But it’s odd to see him here, out of context. He’s really an adult now.

“You’re all grown up,” he says, echoing my thoughts.

I laugh. “You just saw me at Christmas.” Of course, I was thinking the same thing, but it’s different at home, around Jordan and his friends, where it still feels as if I’m 12 and they’re 16. Somehow, removed from the setting he’s always been in, I see him anew. Maybe it’s the same for him. Maybe, away from my family, he doesn’t see me as a little girl.

“Maura!” calls Jackie, coming out of her room. “Can I borrow your…?” She doesn’t just stop, but bounces backward as if she’s hit a rubber wall, when she sees Ethan. “Oh, sorry.” I can tell she thinks he’s hot. Jackie’s got the worst poker face in the world.

I introduce them, trying to hide a smile at her open-jaw gaping.

She turns to glare at me. “I thought you were being taken to dinner by a ‘family friend’?”

I smile. “I am being taken to dinner by a family friend.”

“You made it sound like he was 60,” she argues. Ethan laughs.

“I’m pretty sure you came up with that on your own,” I say, though I can totally see where she’d have gotten that impression. “Borrow whatever you want,” I grin as I leave, knowing from her narrowed eyes that I will be grilled relentlessly when I get home tonight.

“I think my roommate has a crush on you,” I tell him as we walk to his car.

He shrugs, endearingly. “I’ve got my eye on someone else,” he smiles, giving me a sly glance. I’m so stunned that I barely conceal the way my steps stutter. It’s the first moment it’s occurred to me that this might be a date. I shake my head a little. It’s a ridiculous thought.

“I made reservations at Claremont’s,” he says. “Is that okay?”

Oh my God this really is sounding like a date.

“I’ve never been there,” I reply. “It’s supposed to be nice though.”

He looks at me incredulously. “How could you have never been there? It’s the most highly rated restaurant in town.”

“I’m in college, Ethan. College students don’t eat at four-star restaurants. We order pizza.”

“You’re hardly an average college student, Maura,” he chides.

“I’m trying to be,” I say quietly.

“Fair enough,” he replies. “I guess I tried to be too. Unless I was trying to impress a girl,” he adds, winking at me.

Oh my God. I may actually be on a date with Ethan-freaking-Mayhew
. My brother’s unbelievably hot friend, the guy that every single girl I know from the beach, from Charlotte, has fantasized about since puberty. Back home this would inspire a lot of girlish screaming, and probably some jealousy too.

“I saw the baby last week,” he tells me with a grin.

I stick my tongue out at him. “So unfair. I’m her aunt and godmother and I’ve barely seen her.”

“She’s a cutie. Never thought I’d see Jordan as a dad, though.”

I grimace. “As far as I can tell you still haven’t seen Jordan as a dad. Mia does all the work.” My poor sister-in-law. It worked well early on, her fragile, quiet beauty matched to his bombast. But since the baby was born she appears to be shrinking into herself, and Jordan appears to still be … Jordan. Out drinking every night, content as long as he’s the center of attention.

He shrugs. “They seem happy enough.” I keep my disagreement to myself.

We get to the restaurant, and he holds the door for me, remains standing until I’ve been seated. I could tell myself these are date behaviors, except that Ethan was raised to do all of these things. He’d act no different if I were 80. “Excited to graduate?” he asks, as we look at the menus.

“Yes,” I say, trying to hide my smile. It’s the kind of question only an adult would ask. A parental question. Maybe it’s not a date. That’s disappointing, but probably for the best. Our families are so close that dating him would be fraught with peril. My mother would be out reserving the country club for our wedding the day I told her about this. And no matter how badly it goes, I’m still going to be seeing him regularly for the next 50 years.

“Why are you smiling like that?” he asks suspiciously.

“Because your question makes me feel like I’m at dinner with my dad.”

“What’s wrong with asking you if you’re excited to graduate?”

I shrug. “It’s just one of those grown-up questions, like ‘are you excited to see your friends this summer?’ or ‘what did you ask Santa for?’” He looks a little uncomfortable, which makes me giggle. “It’s okay! You’re just always going to see me as Jordan’s little sister.”

He reaches across the table to graze my hand with his fingers. “Maura, let me make it clear. You are no longer little, and I’m not thinking about Jordan in any way, shape or form right now.”

Oh my God. This IS a date
. I am one part horrified, one part excited. Either way, I can’t wait to tell the girls.

It’s fun being with him. Easy. I know him well enough to know what to ask him, and not well enough that there’s nothing new to learn. And we know all the same people. It’s just comfortable.

“Are you in Elise’s wedding?” he asks.

I groan. “Yes.” Elise has only been engaged for three months, but her wedding has already become a full-time job.

“Why the groan? I can’t imagine her being a bridezilla.”

“She’s not,” I reply. “It’s her mom. She’s a momzilla, if there is such a thing.” Mrs. McDonald calls me every week with some new, ridiculous demand. We had to go all the way to Atlanta to look at dresses, and she’s made me come back to Charlotte twice for dress fittings. She called me at 7 a.m. the previous Saturday to make sure my ears were pierced.

“She’s had so many years to plan this she’s bound to go a little crazy,” he says. “How long have they been together?”

“Seven years,” I say, and I smile, but this time the movement is stiff and sluggish. Elise and Brian started dating the year after Nate and I did. Nate and I being together wasn’t even a choice. It had to happen, and once it did we were like two objects that couldn’t be pried apart. But Elise and Brian began as a relationship of convenience, the inevitable result of being our closest friends, of always being thrown together because Nate and I could not stay apart, not for a minute. When I imagined adulthood, it wasn’t Brian and Elise I saw walking down the aisle. It shouldn’t still hurt. But it does, and all I can do is pretend otherwise and change the subject.

The night passes swiftly, something I haven’t said of a date in a long time. It’s not until the ride home I grow nervous. I’ve known him for my entire life. I’m not sure if he’ll try to kiss me, but the thought leaves me with a somewhat unpleasant mix of both fear and excitement.

He walks me to door. “Well, thank you for dinner, Ethan,” I say, doing my best not to sound as nervous as I feel.

Do I wait for him to kiss me? Because if he doesn’t try then I’ll look like an idiot. But I kind of want him to
. I search my purse for my keys, and he tips my chin up to look at him. He leans down and brushes his mouth lightly over mine. He moves closer, placing his hands on my waist and leaning into me slightly, parting my lips with his tongue.

He’s a good kisser, but it went without saying that Ethan Mayhew would be a good kisser.

“Can I see you tomorrow?” he asks.

I hesitate. I have a party to go to. Tyler, my ex, will be there, and he’s been acting somewhat unstable since our break-up. Seeing me with someone else might be the last straw. Plus, Ethan’s an honest-to-God adult. I’d feel like a moron dragging him to a college party. “I have a friend’s birthday party,” I say apologetically.

“What time?”

“We’re meeting at 9.”

“I’ll pick you up at 10:30.”

If I didn’t like him, it would be presumptuous, but I do like him, so I agree.

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