This time of year, the snowbirds hadn’t started drifting down to the Texas coast, ahead of the heavy work that went with winter up north. But by January many would descend, after enjoying a picture postcard Christmas before heading to warmer climates.
Right now Brioney would venture a guess that the dinner crowd was mostly Texans, having a last summer hurrah.
The open-air restaurant suited that, cooled by the ocean breeze through the rolled-up doors.
“Good evening, everybody. I’m Brioney Dawson, your entertainment tonight. If you have any requests, I have a book here.” She motioned to a cute little journal with butterflies that her daughter had bought her. It sat at the edge of the stage next to the tip jar. “I’ll do my best to play it. I’m going to start with one of my favorites.”
Her fingers moved on the frets without conscious thought as she closed her eyes and swung into an old Stevie Nicks song. She was so lucky JoAnna let her sing here. She only sang on Friday, and only for tips, but she loved it. Performing made her feel like there was life beyond being a maid at the one hotel on Avalon Island. As she sang, the noise softened, the clink of glasses and clank of silverware disappeared, and she slipped away from the small town and landed on a stage in Nashville or L.A. or Las Vegas. Instead of dozens of people in her audience, she had thousands. A ridiculous fantasy, she knew, but she enjoyed it anyway.
When she’d finished the song to what she always thought was surprised applause, she opened her eyes, back to reality, and met the amused blue eyes of Blue Ramsey. He leaned back on the barstool and clapped his big hands heartily before he stopped to take a deep swallow of his beer. This was a usual routine. She sang at The Wharf on Friday nights, he’d drink at The Wharf on Friday nights. JoAnna could count on them for consistency.
She thought it was kind of strange, though, that she and Blue had become friends, considering he’d dated her sister throughout high school and followed her to Austin, before they’d broken up and he’d moved back to Avalon Island. Still, he’d been coming around for a while, like he was looking out for her and her daughter.
Brioney sang a couple more songs, including a new Taylor Swift her daughter had urged her to learn, then two of her own compositions before she consulted the notebook. She had three requests, a folk song from the 1960s, a song from the radio, and an obscure title written in Blue’s distinctive hand.
This was a game they played. He would try to stump her with a song, and she would play it. Since he’d grown up with eccentric parents—thus the name Blue—he had an eclectic taste in music. Sometimes his songs were indie rock and sometimes they were bluegrass. So far, she’d been able to meet his challenges.
She attributed her broad knowledge to the fact that she spent most of her days cleaning hotel rooms, listening to all kinds of songs on her earbuds. This one was from the movie her daughter Joy had been watching over and over, so she knew it cold. She played the other two first, then met Blue’s gaze as she sang his song with a bit more sass than the original.
“I guess that can count,” he said when she took a break and joined him at the bar.
“Not even a challenge,” she retorted.
“Buy you a drink?” he asked, motioning to his own beer.
“I don’t drink when I’m playing.” Or ever, really. She didn’t want to go home to her daughter with alcohol on her breath. And she needed to set a good example for her younger brother, Brandon, who lived with her.
“Lemonade, then? Sweet tea?”
She took the seat next to him. “I wouldn’t say no to a soda.” She’d cut back on those, too, but every once in a while liked to indulge.
“She’s good.” She shifted on the barstool, happy to discuss her favorite subject. “Fourth grade math is kind of kicking her butt, but thankfully Brandon is good at it and can help her. They do a lot of writing in fourth grade, and that she likes.”
“Can’t believe she’s in fourth grade. Before you know it, she’ll be a teenager.”
That was not her favorite subject. “I have plenty of time for her to be a little girl.”
“You should bring her down to the docks. I’ll take y’all out for a ride on the boat.”
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d enjoyed the benefits of living on the coast. “I’ll have to check my schedule to see when I’m off, and she doesn’t have anything going on. When do you work?”
“I go out on weekends, mostly, but I’m down there most days, doing something or another.”
That was Blue, always doing something or another. During the summer, he ran a rental booth on the beach with his friend Logan, renting beach chairs and canopies to beach-goers. Occasionally, he gave surfing lessons, and sometimes he drove a tow truck, usually catering to tourists who got their little cars stuck in the sand. Now and again, he filled in as bartender. No focus, no responsibility. She didn’t understand it, the lack of drive, when she was working as a maid, going to college online and singing here. And she thought of herself as a late bloomer. When Blue had returned to Avalon Island after college, she’d figured he just wasn’t ready to grow up, but now, nearly seven years later, he hadn’t changed.
Brioney couldn’t understand that.
“Come down tomorrow. When was the last time you were out on the water?”
“Won’t you have a full boat on a Saturday?”
“Maybe, maybe not. You know what you’re doing, though, so you don’t need me to hold your hand. It’d be good for you to get out on the water.”
Why did he think that? He couldn’t know how stressed she was. He didn’t know the meaning of the word.
She saw another person drop her notebook back to the stage, and she nodded in that direction. “I need to get back up there.”
He smiled. “Yeah, you do. Come down tomorrow,” he urged again, and she wondered if she should.
* * *
Joy was asleep when Brioney got home, but Brandon was awake, playing a violent video game she didn’t allow him to play when Joy was awake. She greeted him with a kiss on the cheek, no longer noticing the ink-black hair, the black painted fingernails. Her brother had been a cute kid before he’d gone full-on gamer. But if this was what made him happy, if that kept him going, she wasn’t going to fight him.
“How was she?”
“Good, as usual.” He paused the game and sat back, but didn’t take his gaze from the screen. They held most of their conversations like this.
She set her guitar on the floor on the far side of the kitchen table. She’d eaten a little at the restaurant, but she wanted something sweet, and wondered if Joy and Brandon had found her secret stash of Milanos. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
He gestured with his controller at the big-screen television. “Same thing I’m doing now.”
“Blue invited us out on the boat.”
“Seems a shame for us to live so close to the water and never take advantage of it, when so many people spend so much money to do the things we take for granted.”
“Yeah. I’m sticking with no.”
“I feel bad leaving you behind.”
“Nah, it’d be nice to have the house to myself.”
He’d definitely find her Milano stash then. “And what will you do if you have the house to yourself?” Even as the words left her mouth, she regretted them, especially when he paused the game and turned to give her a look over his shoulder.
“Okay, well, I’m going to bed so I can get out there early.” Giving up her desire for cookies at the risk of giving away the hiding place, she kissed the top of his head and walked toward her bedroom.
* * *
Brioney shifted her weight to balance the backpack over her shoulder as she followed Joy out on the dock. How did the kid have so much energy this early? She’d been up over an hour already and helped make their special Saturdays-off breakfast of pancakes and sausage.
She made a beeline for Blue’s boat Blue Skies, where he stepped out and caught her in his arms, swinging her up. She squealed with laughter, like a little kid, before he deposited her on deck and turned to smile at Brioney, white teeth flashing, blue eyes crinkling.
She came to a stumbling stop as her stomach dropped to her toes. Where had that reaction come from? She’d known Blue since she was a kid. Her sister was only a year older than her, so the three of them and Mercedes, her best friend, had done a lot together. Okay, maybe more than once she’d admired the look of him, like when he’d been shirtless on the beach or by the pool. But she loved her sister too much to do more than that. But today, the ratty flip-flops, ragged cargo shorts, and the faded-to-colorless T-shirt didn’t matter, only that smile and the way he was looking at her.
His smile dimmed, and he stepped forward. “You okay?”
How long had she been standing there, gawking like an idiot? “I’m fine. I’m good.”
He took the backpack and staggered, exaggerated, under the weight. “What do you have in there?”
“Water, sunscreen, a change of clothes, a jacket for each of us.” All the things a mother needed to think about.
“I have water and sunscreen, and extra jackets on the boat.”
“Well, I didn’t know that.”
“Because you haven’t been out in so long. Come aboard.”
“Do you have a lot of clients today?” she asked, ignoring his proffered hand because honestly, she just wasn’t sure what touching him would do to her brain right now. She pulled the backpack away from him.
“Two older couples. Should be here any minute. You ladies get settled in.” He hopped on the deck beside her and tugged on Joy’s braid, much like he’d done with Brioney’s hair back in the day. “Good to see you, kid. Give me a hand making ready, and tell me what you’ve been up to.”
She watched her daughter tag along after him, and stowed their bag under the seats that lined the boat. Blue was good with Joy. She’d forgotten about that, how he’d been around her whole life and seemed to feel invested, like an honorary uncle. And it was good for Joy to learn about boats and fishing and things Brioney didn’t have time to teach her. She dropped to her seat and leaned her head back, closing her eyes against the sun reflecting off the water. She knew she should put on her sunscreen, and she would in a minute, but for now, she wanted to just savor the warmth.
“Hello?” A gruff voice brought her out of her reverie, and she opened her eyes to see Blue’s clients standing on the dock. She stood quickly to welcome them, and Blue joined her to offer his own greeting.
The man with the gray beard stepped onto the deck before helping down a blonde woman. Then a tall, slender man with military bearing followed, and his wife, a brunette, was on her own.
Brioney watched as Blue settled them in, showed them where to store their belongings, where the cooler was so they could help themselves to refreshments. He was good at this, good with people, making everyone comfortable before he beckoned Joy to come to the bridge with him. He motioned for Brioney to cast them off from the dock, then they were on their way out of the channel, heading toward the bay. She leaned her head back again, letting the breeze wash over her, and watched a flock of pelicans soar overhead. They were her favorite, so primitive-looking. One broke away and dove toward the wake of the boat, startling an exclamation from one woman as the pelican swooped beneath the surface, then emerged victorious, a large fish flapping in its beak.
“I wish I was that lucky,” one of the men, who’d introduced himself as John, said.
“If you had that laser surgery like I told you to, you might be,” his wife Marie countered.
He scowled at her.
“How long have you been married?” Brioney asked, and wondered what compelled her curiosity. Lord knew she saw enough people at the hotel and didn’t want to know their stories, beyond what they left behind in their rooms.
“Twenty-eight years,” Marie said. “Long enough that I hear that every time we come on vacation.”
“Are you from Texas?” Brioney asked.
“North Dakota,” John responded. “We live there half a year, and here half a year. Tired of shoveling all that damn snow.”
“I can see that.” But she couldn’t help a wistful sigh. “I’ve never even seen snow.”
“Have you lived here all your life?”
“Yes, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to grow up, but we don’t have much in the way of seasons, unless you count hurricane season.”
“Now that would be terrifying,” the other woman, Sharon, said. “Risking losing everything by living here? I couldn’t do that.”
“We’ve been lucky, nothing major in my lifetime. We’ve evacuated a couple of times, when I was a kid, but at the last minute the hurricanes took a turn toward the north and we were spared.”
“That is fortunate.” Sharon looked toward the bridge. “Your husband is good with your daughter.”
The words took a minute to penetrate, then a flush heated her face. “Oh, Blue? No, he’s not my husband. He’s just a friend. He just wanted to do something nice for us today.”
“Oh, I wondered. You have such a good rapport, I was sure you were married.”
“We’ve just known each other forever.”
“What is it you do?”
“I’m a maid at the Avalon Island Hotel.” She had worked there since she was in high school and was used to the pitying looks she got. Sometimes she was compelled to let people know she was studying for a business degree, but not today. Let them judge.
“I guess you meet a lot of people when you work in the tourism industry,” Marie said. “Even people from other countries?”
Brioney took the opportunity to tell them about the British couple she’d met this past summer, who claimed to have minor roles in Downton Abbey, only to be interrupted when Joy bounded down the stairs and skidded to a stop in front of her.
“Blue told me to remind you to put our sunscreen on.”
“Right. Get the bag.”
As she applied lotion to her daughter, Blue guided the boat out on the open water.
“Blue said we might see dolphins today. Are we going to fish?”
“Maybe. It’s up to Blue.”
“You like to fish?” the other man, William, asked, surprised.
“Yes, my uncle taught me, but I don’t like to clean them.”
“If you catch them, you have to clean them. That’s the rule.”
“I know. My uncle taught me that, too, but I still don’t like to do it.” She wrinkled her nose. “Sometimes I just throw them back so I don’t have to clean them, but sometimes I like to eat them. My mom cooks them really good. Are you going fishing?”
“We certainly hope to. The advertisement said your friend knows the best spots.”
“He should. He’s been doing this since he was Joy’s age,” Brioney said with a smile.
When Blue brought the boat around and anchored it, Brioney sat back and watched him settle his clients, then Joy, with fishing poles.
“Are you sure you’re just friends?” Marie leaned over to ask. “You haven’t stopped looking at him since he came down from the pilothouse.”
Brioney willed herself not to blush, the new feelings rushing forward again. “You have to admit, he’s nice to look at.” But maybe the older women didn’t think so, not with his collar-length hair blowing in the breeze, the sun-bleached hair of his beard glistening on his jaw, the loose T-shirt plastered against his body by the wind.
“Oh, he is definitely that,” Sharon said.
Blue turned his head to flash a smile at them. “Any of you ladies game?”
Brioney shook her head. “I’m just going to sit here and do nothing for a change.” She’d thought about bringing one of her textbooks, and probably should be studying for midterms, but she needed a brain break, a day off. She wished she’d brought a novel, or even a magazine.
“Okay, well, if any of you need me, I’ll be in the water. I need to check out one of the props.” He stripped off his shirt even as he crossed to the opposite side of the boat, and dove in before anyone could say anything.
“Oh, my!” Marie said, leaning over to watch where he’d disappeared. “Is that safe?”
“Blue is part fish,” Brioney assured her, though the glimpse of muscles she’d just seen had her throat knotting.
Just then, he bobbed back to the surface, whipping his hair out of his face. “The water’s just fine, ladies!”
“How deep is it there?” Sharon wanted to know.
“Forty feet?” Brioney surmised.
“Are there sharks?”
“Probably a few. I’ve seen hammerheads and tigers off of the pier. But Blue does this all the time.” Which was why he looked like that. “He’s a surfer, so he’s in the water more than he’s out of it.”
The three women watched him dive and surface repeatedly, until William made a sound like he’d caught something. Blue heard, too, and pulled himself back onto the boat, the muscles in his lean arms rippling, the wet hair of his chest glinting in the sun. He crossed the boat to support the man reeling in his fish, but William was clearly experienced and didn’t need Blue’s help. At Blue’s quiet suggestion, Joy put her own rod in the holder and moved aside, out of the way. She came to stand by Brioney as the older man started to struggle with his catch.
“What do you think he got?” Brioney asked aloud, but no one answered as Blue stepped forward then, his mouth grim as he lent a hand.
And then the animal broke the surface, thrashing against the line.
“Shark!” Blue barked, then looked over his shoulder at the women as he pulled a knife from his pocket and switched it open. “You see it?”
Brioney saw it, all gray anger and triangular teeth, an animal that had been in the very water Blue had been in. She nodded and tightened her hands on Joy’s shoulders when she would move closer. Blue dropped his gaze to Joy, motioned her closer.
“Are you crazy?” Brioney demanded.
“I’m going to cut it loose, but I want to make sure she gets a good look. I won’t let anything happen to her.”
Because she knew that to be true, she released her grip on her daughter, who immediately slipped away to Blue, her focus on the pissed animal. Blue looked from her to the fisherman, who nodded, and with a quick motion, cut the line. The shark dropped back into the water, which calmed almost instantly, except for the fin moving back and forth, agitated, before disappearing.
Blue and William dropped into their chairs at almost the same moment, while Joy leaned over the side of the boat, scanning the water for the fish. Brioney resisted the urge to pull her daughter against her, to take her below, away from danger.
“I know what I want to do now,” Joy declared, turning to face Blue when she didn’t see the creature any longer.
“What’s that?” Blue asked.
“I want to study fish.”
“That’s a lot of science,” Marie said. “Do you like science?”
“She likes everything,” Brioney said.
“I guess this is the place to figure out if you want to do that,” John said. “Do you scuba dive?” he asked Blue.
“Nah, I don’t. Her uncle does, though. Maybe when he comes home, he can teach you,” he said to Joy.
“So she can get in the water with sharks?” Brioney demanded, still a little breathless. “Um, no.”
“She won’t start out in the water with sharks,” Blue pointed out.
But also scuba diving was expensive. Brioney couldn’t swing lessons on her budget. Maybe by the time Fitz got home from the army, she would have new interests. She felt bad even thinking that, because part of the reason she sang at The Wharf on Friday nights was to show Joy she should follow her dreams. She wanted her daughter to follow whatever path excited her.
Except getting in the water with sharks.
Once the excitement settled down, Blue started up the engines, and they moved away from the shark’s territory before dropping their lines into the water again.
“You were in the water with that animal,” Brioney said quietly to Blue, joining him in the pilothouse.
He reached past her to adjust a lever, not meeting her gaze. “He wasn’t all that big. I wasn’t in danger.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I kind of do.” He turned to her and stroked a strand of her hair back from her face. “You worry about me?”
She stepped back, breaking contact, and dropped her gaze. “You’ve been good to us. I’d be sad if something happened to you.”
“I’m your friend, Brioney.”
The rumble of his voice, kept low, sent shivers down her spine. She couldn’t meet his gaze, didn’t have enough confidence in her emotions to face him.
“I don’t know why, after the way Jessamy treated you.”
His mouth straightened into a grim line. “I won’t say it didn’t hurt, but it was a long time ago. She wouldn’t have been happy here, and I wouldn’t have been happy there, so it is probably for the best.”
He guided the boat through the waters, the rumble of the engine and the flow of the water mesmerizing. So she was caught off-guard when he spoke.
“I’m meeting my parents for dinner tonight, but do you want to go get something to eat tomorrow night? You and me and Joy?”
“I can’t,” she said automatically.
She couldn’t think of a reason. “Brandon. I have to make sure he eats.”
“He can come, too.”
“You came today.”
“I…Blue, I don’t date.”
He rested a hip on the console and folded his arms over his chest. “I didn’t ask you on a date. I asked you and your daughter to have dinner with me. If I wanted a date, I wouldn’t have invited your daughter and your brother.”
“Oh.” Embarrassed by the conclusion she’d jumped to, she took another step back and lost her balance over the step. With lightning reflexes, he caught her arm and pulled her against him.
Her palms collided with his chest, the bare skin still cool from the water, so firm beneath her hands, the blond hair crisp beneath her skin. She knew she should pull away, but she couldn’t make herself.
Okay, that did the trick. She snapped her gaze away from the sun-browned skin, the drips from the ends of his hair that made paths along his chest, avoided his gaze and turned toward her daughter.
* * *
“My God, Mercy, I wanted to lick him, head to toe. What is wrong with me?” Brioney asked as the two of them cleaned out one of the ocean view rooms on Sunday afternoon. The couple who had stayed here had been reasonably neat, but Lord, there was even sand in the bed.
Mercedes shook her head. The three of them, Mercedes, Jessamy and Brioney, had been best friends since kindergarten. They’d been through the ups and downs of men and jobs and ambitions. Mercedes had been there for the drama of Jessamy and Blue’s break-up, for Brioney’s own stormy relationship with Cameron and her teen pregnancy. She trusted Mercedes as she trusted her own sister, but she couldn’t talk to Jessamy about this. No. Way.
“Are you seriously thinking about going out with him?” Mercedes asked.
Brioney blew out a breath. “Jessamy would be pissed, wouldn’t she?”
Mercedes frowned as she wiped down the plate-glass window. “I don’t know. They were together for a long time. And they were close. I mean, I remember them talking about happily-ever-after, don’t you? And her talking about the sex?” Mercedes rolled her eyes. “I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to get the sex she talked about having with Blue.”
Brioney did remember. She blushed at the memory of some of the things Jessamy had told her. Could she ever be with him, knowing he’d done those things with her sister?
“I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just a fantasy. I’ll never act on it. He’s been too good of a friend for me to chase him off when it’s over. I’d hate for Joy to get hurt because she couldn’t see him anymore.”
“So you’d go into it thinking you’d end it? You don’t think he’s a forever kind of guy?”
“No. Lord. He has a million different jobs, each one easier than the last. He has no ambition. I need more than that for me and for Joy.” She blew out a long breath after smoothing the duvet and straightening, stretching her back with her fists pressed into the aching muscles. “Cameron will be in town this weekend. Maybe he’ll help me work off some tension.”
“I cannot believe you sleep with your baby daddy, still.”
“Not all the time, and not, you know, with any expectations. We suck as a couple, but we’re really good in bed.”
“You’re an idiot. You say you’re thinking about your future, and Joy’s, but you can’t do that if you’re holding onto your past.”
“I’m pretty sure Blue isn’t my future. I mean, technically, he’s my past, too, since I’ve known him forever.”
“He’s a good guy, though. He would never hurt you.”
Mercedes was probably right about that. Blue didn’t have a vicious bone in his body. “So why don’t you go out with him?” Brioney asked her friend, even though just thinking the question gave her a twinge.
“Because I like a little bit of pain,” Mercedes said with a wink. “Otherwise, it’s no challenge.”
Was Brioney like that, too? Is that why she kept Cameron in her life? When Cameron arrived, she could see then if her attraction to Blue was just sexual frustration, or if these feelings were something more.
* * *
Wearing a tank and cut-offs, Brioney opened the door to Cameron, feeling a little slutty. She didn’t usually dress like this, but she wanted a reaction, to gauge if this weekend would be one where they slept together, or not.
“Hey, Brioney, looking good,” he said in an off-handed way, not really looking at her, but past her to Joy, who came running out of her room when she heard his voice.
“I’m going to be a marine biologist,” Joy announced first thing as he swept her into his arms.
In a couple more visits, he wasn’t going to be able to do that. Brioney had to admit, he wasn’t a bad dad, though he wasn’t around much. He lived in Houston, which was about four hours away. And he’d grown up really nice. She had to remind herself why they weren’t together—he’d hidden behind his parents when they said the baby wasn’t his, that she was just grasping onto him to ruin his future. He’d been a summer boy, had already been accepted to Tulane when she’d peed on that stick. But she’d never been with anyone else—still had never been with anyone else. His parents had insisted Cameron continue pursuing his education, and her parents, well, they were gone. Her older brother Fitz, who was raising her, Jessamy and Brandon, essentially told Cameron’s parents to fuck off, that he would make sure Brioney and her baby got everything they needed, and they and their deadbeat son could take a hike.
After Joy was born, Cameron had come crawling back, wanting to be part of her life. Brioney allowed it, for Joy’s sake, but she’d never forgiven him for letting his parents accuse her of being a liar.
“A marine biologist? Where did that come from?” He looked past her to Brioney.
“We went out on Blue’s boat last weekend and one of the fishermen caught a shark. It’s all she’s been able to think about.” Brioney closed the door behind him.
“Blue’s still around?” He set Joy down with an exaggerated groan. “Man, he used to be able to get the best—”
Brioney cut him off with a look. He nodded his understanding and turned to his daughter. “What do you want to do this weekend?”
“What are my choices?” she countered, as she always did.
“You are your mother’s daughter. I heard the water park in Port Isabel is open, and it’s fun. Have you been?”
Of course she hadn’t been. It cost an arm and a leg, and Brioney didn’t have the money, or the time, to spare.
“No, we haven’t been,” Joy said, her voice relatively calm, though her eyes were bright.
“Would you like to go?” he asked.
“I would. Can Mom come, too?”
“No, sweetie,” she said before unease could do more than flash across Cameron’s face. “This weekend is for you and your dad.”
As she said it, a strange sense of peace washed over her. Yes, she’d have time free to study. Not that Joy bugged her when she knew she was studying, but Brioney felt guilty not spending their limited free time together.
Joy’s face fell. “You’d have fun.”
“I need to study. You have fun for both of us.”
“You need anything?” Cameron asked Joy, standing uneasily in the entryway.
“I have my bag,” she said, and hurried to her room to get it.
“You can come, if you want,” he offered awkwardly.
She shook her head. “I have things to do around here. Enjoy your day.” Her daughter reappeared, and she kissed her, hugged her hard, and sent her off with her daddy.
Since Brandon was still asleep, the house was quiet. She could get a lot done.
But she could only sit at the books for an hour, when her toes flexed into the carpet one too many times. She looked out the window at the sunny day. There wouldn’t be many beautiful days once November arrived. She’d take her book to the beach, sit in the sun and study. Sure, it wouldn’t be quiet, and she’d be easily distracted, but the urge was fairly overpowering. Ridiculous, when she should be appreciating the quiet house.
But she needed it. She wrote a note to Brandon, pulled on a different T-shirt—this tank was one thing for greeting her ex, but another to wear out in public, packed a couple of bottled waters and a towel into her book bag, along with her textbook and her composition book, tucked her keys and phone in the front pocket of her shorts, and headed out the front door.
She walked the few short blocks to the beach, feeling the heat of the sun relax her shoulder muscles. She lifted her arms over her head, hands clasped, to stretch, and tightened her toes in her flip-flops. The beach wasn’t as crowded as usual, one of the reasons this was her favorite time of year. Not as many people, not as loud. She found a spot where her view of the water wasn’t obscured, spread her towel with two snaps, and stretched out on it. She knew that a few hundred yards down the beach, either Blue or Logan would be renting chairs and canopies to tourists, but she didn’t come here to see Blue. She came here to feel the sand, to let the sound of the waves relax her, let the rhythm somehow wash the words she read into her brain. The glare of the sun on the page was nearly blinding, and she dug into her bag for her sunglasses.
Finally she settled into the chapter and made notes as the warm breeze flowed over her. She didn’t know how long she’d been there when a shadow cast over the page.
Blue dropped to the sand beside her. “Surprised to see you here today.”
“Thought you’d be working.”
“No, I told Leeayn I’d work today, since Cameron has Joy, but she didn’t schedule me. Just as well, since I’m behind on my reading.” She held up her book.
He angled his head to read the title. “Macroeconomics Business and Policy. A little light reading?”
“Yeah? How’s it going?”
She stuck her composition book inside the textbook and closed it. “I wish I’d chosen another major.”
“Like what? Music?”
She snorted. “What would I be able to do with that?”
“Sing. You have a beautiful voice.”
“Thanks, but musicians are a dime a dozen. I just want something so I can give Joy a good life. I know I shouldn’t have waited so long, but…”
He put his hand over hers. “You’re doing a good thing. Once you have your degree, what are you going to do?”
“I thought maybe I’d be a manager or something. As long as I could stay on the island.”
That didn’t leave a lot of options, she knew, and if she truly wanted the best for Joy, she’d leave the island, go to another city.
“You’re getting red.” He touched the tip of her nose. “Did you bring your sunscreen?”
She’d grown up on the island, where sunscreen was as much a part of life as flip-flops. But she’d forgotten it today in her desperation to get to the water’s edge.
“Gah. No.” And she usually kept it in her bag for Joy, but she’d run out when they’d been on the boat and hadn’t replaced it.
“Come on, I have some at the booth.”
“I probably should just head home.” She opened her bag to tuck her book and notebook inside.
“Ah, come on. We’re in for some rain this coming week. You need to get outside while you can.” He hopped to his feet and stretched a hand to help her up.
She hesitated, thinking it would be just as easy to push herself to her feet, but instead, she put her hand in his lean one, the palm hard and callused, strong and firm as he wrapped his fingers around her and tugged.
“Did you like college? Getting to go away, I mean?” she asked as they walked, once he released her hand.
“Not really. College was a challenge for me.”
“Was it? I wouldn’t have thought so.”
“Really? Why not?”
“I just remember high school being really easy for you.”
“Sure, it was, but that was part of the problem. I didn’t have any study skills, and college was exponentially more challenging than high school. Plus, you know, even though my parents weren’t particularly strict, having that freedom was heady.” He turned to look at her. “I do wish you’d gotten to experience that, if for no other reason than to say you did.”
She’d made her decision when she decided to keep her baby. And now it was too late, she was too old, and really, almost ready to graduate. “Did it get easier?”
“I got used to it, but I was never really disciplined. It’s pretty amazing, actually, that I got into UT because my grades weren’t great. I would have tanked grad school.”
“Is that why you came home?”
“Austin was great, you know? Great. But it wasn’t the place for me.” He motioned for her to precede him up the steps to the boardwalk. “This is home. Always has been, always will be.”
* * *
Blue told himself he was only checking on Brioney and Joy because Cameron was in town. He didn’t trust the guy. He remembered too well how he’d hurt Brioney when he left.
He hadn’t been to Brioney’s house since he and Jess had broken up almost seven years ago, but his bike flowed along the roads as if it had been yesterday.
Blue bounced the book on the tips of his fingers, his excuse for coming to the house tonight. He rang the doorbell. A few minutes passed before Brioney answered, pushing her hair over her shoulder, bare in the skimpy top she wore. And were her lips swollen?
“Blue, hi. I didn’t know you were stopping by.”
Her voice was husky, too, sexy as hell. “Yeah, ah, I saw this book on sharks and thought of Joy.” He held it up, like it was evidence, glancing past her at Cameron, who’d stepped out of the living room, adjusting his pants. Blue almost didn’t recognize the anger that rose in him, that she was fooling around with the guy who had treated her so badly. “Where is she?” He turned what he hoped was a bland expression to Brioney. Of course she would be here, but Brioney wouldn’t be making out with her ex, with her daughter nearby.
“She’s in the living room. We were watching a movie.” Her tone was almost accusing.
Had that been what they were doing? Watching a movie like a normal family, when Cameron had walked away? His temper flared. He buried it and forced a smile.
“Cameron. How’s it going?” Uninvited, he stepped into the house and closed the door behind him, like he belonged here.
“Great.” Cameron recognized the challenge and lifted his chin. “Pool business has never been better. I have four crews working at all times. Good money.” He moved closer to Brioney and folded his arms over his chest. “Brioney and Joy were telling me about your boat. Just the one?”
“Well, there’s just me.” Blue forced a casual tone. “But I love doing it.”
“And you still do the rentals on the beach, too?”
Blue rarely felt defensive about his life choices, but he was already off-balance finding Cameron here. “With Logan, yes. I like meeting the tourists.”
“Plus, you know, not a whole lot of pressure.”
Blue remembered, clearly now, how he’d hated Cameron even before Brioney turned up pregnant and he dumped her. He could see why Brioney was attracted to him, tall, dark and handsome, broad shouldered. But he was a rich, entitled asshole.
“I like my life,” he said, just as Joy came out of the living room, rubbing her eyes.
So she’d been asleep. Maybe Brioney had been making out with her ex. Again, he battled back the anger.
“Hey, Blue, what are you doing here?” Joy asked, her voice slurred by sleep.
“I came to bring you this book.” He held it out to her. “I saw it at the store and thought of you.”
His words penetrated her lethargy, and she bounced forward to take the book from him. Immediately, she let it fall open and flipped through the pictures. “This is great! Thanks, Blue!” She hugged him, quick and hard, and moved away, looking through her book.
And then he was left, awkward, by the door, as Cameron and Brioney watched him. He no longer had an excuse to be here, so he stepped back, his hand on the doorknob. He looked at Brioney, wishing he could ask her what the hell she was thinking. But it wasn’t his business.
“I’ll see you around,” he said instead, and let himself out.
* * *
Brioney flopped onto her bed—alone—feeling a little dirty. She’d thought all week about taking the edge off her libido with Cameron, but when the time came to follow through, she couldn’t go through with it and sent him home. Something about them pretending to be a happy little family left a bad taste in her mouth.
Blue stopping by hadn’t helped. The posturing between the two men had been subtle, but kind of exciting. God, what was wrong with her?
Would she have settled for Cameron if Blue hadn’t stopped by? The way Blue had looked at her….
She rolled her shoulders, as if that could relieve the tension running through her. At least she knew it wasn’t just sexual frustration. She was attracted to Blue.
What would Jessamy say? Could she really get involved with her sister’s ex?
She pushed the thought aside. She didn’t need that drama. She had her daughter, she had school, she had work, she had singing. She would get out her guitar right now to work this off, if she didn’t think the noise would wake Joy.
At least Cameron was gone, and she wouldn’t see him for another month. She had known he was an asshole, but thought maybe he might have outgrown it until she saw him with Blue tonight. She wished she’d risen to Blue’s defense, but honestly, she’d never thought Blue was the type to need defending. He was living the life he wanted, wasn’t he? She’d always just assumed. Maybe it was time to ask.
What was she doing? Was she really thinking about getting involved with Blue? Her sister’s ex? A man with whom she had nothing in common? She thought he was interested—why else was he coming around the bar, inviting her to go on the boat, bringing Joy a book?
Joy. She’d been trying to show her daughter how to follow her dreams. How could she do that and be involved with a man who had none? At least Cameron was ambitious and successful, and wasn’t that what she wanted for her little girl?
But did she really want to wait to find love?
Her head was starting to hurt, and she would never get to sleep, so she got up and headed to the living room for the television. She didn’t let herself watch TV much while she was in school because she could better use the time to study. But tonight, she wouldn’t be able to study, so she may as well clear some shows off the DVR.
She was halfway through an episode of her favorite romantic series when footsteps padded into the living room and Joy plopped on the couch beside her. Without a word, Brioney lifted a corner of her afghan. Joy curled up against her, and even though it was late on a school night, she let her daughter watch a few minutes until she fell asleep again, nestled against her side.
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