“Butt stuff,” Aubrey said in a dramatic stage whisper.
“Okay, that’s it. Give Ben the phone.”
There was a brief pause, then Ben came on. He didn’t say a word, but she could sense his amusement.
“You’d better take good care of her,” she warned him.
“Don’t you think you should worry about your own problems?”
“I’m not kidding. You’re driving her home, right? Just shove her inside her place, okay? Don’t let her talk you inside. She’s on a man embargo, but it’s been a few months, and she’s drunk…” Not to mention Leah had no idea how long it had been for Ben, and he was still trying to adjust to civilian life. He and Aubrey alone together was a disaster of massive proportions just waiting to happen. “She might temporarily forget about the man embargo and try to seduce you,” Leah told him, “and then she’ll hate you in the morning.”
“So is it her virtue or mine you’re worried about?” he asked.
“You’re not taking me seriously.”
“On the contrary, I’m taking you very seriously. But I’m a big boy, Leah.”
She replayed back in her mind what she’d just said to him and realized that in man-speak, she’d just pretty much told him to go sleep with Aubrey. “Okay, you know what? Forget everything I just said.”
He laughed softly. “You’re cute when you backpedal. Haven’t seen you do that in a while.”
“Dammit! I’m coming down there right now. Wait for me. I’ll take her home myself.”
“I’ve got this, Leah.”
“Worry about yourself,” he said and disconnected.
She agonized for a minute and then decided she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t at least check on Aubrey, even if it meant seeing Jack. She drove to the bar, but though the place was still kicking, there was no sign of Aubrey or Ben.
But Aubrey’s car was still in the lot.
Leah pulled out her phone and texted her.
You’d better be snoring and not having inappropriate rebound sex with Ben, who’d better not be having inappropriate stateside-again sex with you.
There was no response. Crap. But since she didn’t have the moral high ground here, she tilted her head back and stared up at the moon. It was a gorgeous night. Warm. Quiet.
She didn’t want to go back to her grandma’s. She wasn’t sure what to say to Jack, so going to him was out too. Plus there was that little matter in the back of her mind.
You owe him…
Rifling around in the back of her car, she came up with a bathing suit. Then, hiding beneath a towel, she changed.
A long, moonlight swim had always cleared her thoughts; hopefully tonight would be no different.
She bypassed the pier. It was illegal to jump off. Not that she had any problem with breaking a rule now and again, but it was low tide. She was restless, not suicidal.
She walked to the water, which was calm. A half moon cast a lovely, peaceful blue glow as she tried to swim off her regrets. Telling Dee that she and Jack were together. That it had gotten out to everyone in town. What had happened at the bar with Danica.
Leah had known Jack had been dating a couple of other women, and that hadn’t stopped her. In fact, she hadn’t even thought of them when she’d spouted off to Dee.
What did that say about her?
And now, thanks to Aubrey, she was also worried about owing him. At the thought of all that might entail, she got a full-body shiver. Deciding to attribute that to a chill, she kept swimming.
You’re just a screwup, Leah. You’ll never amount to shit.
She told her inner voice to shut up but couldn’t help but wonder if, for the first time, Jack would turn his picker skills on her. Would he find a way to dump her as a friend, citing her inability to finish anything? No, that was nothing new. Her lack of morals, given the lie she’d told his mom? No, Jack lied too. His entire career was based on the lie that he’d wanted to be a firefighter like his dad, when she knew damn well he’d only done it out of obligation. Sure, he’d loved being a Hotshot, but she sensed his restlessness. He wasn’t loving his job.
Damn. They were both so screwed up. She slowed a moment and glanced back to the shore, catching sight of a big, built, attitude-ridden shadow that changed the rhythm of her heart rate even more than swimming. She blew out a breath and kicked it into gear, going hard and fast so she’d be too winded to talk, much less think.
Maybe he’d get tired of waiting.
But Jack had the patience of Job, so it was far more likely she’d drown.
Unfortunately, he’d save her before that happened. He was good at saving her. Dammit. Trembling with exhaustion, she turned back, knowing she couldn’t outwait him. She’d never been able to.
It wasn’t all that difficult to find Leah, once Jack set his mind to it. Since the beginning of time, when she’d been troubled, she’d been drawn to two things.
And the ocean.
She hadn’t come to him. That was new. There’d been a time when she’d have come to him no matter what was troubling her.
Except, of course, at the moment he was the source of her trouble, even though it was of her own making. The last time that had been the case, she’d left Lucky Harbor.
But he knew she couldn’t leave now. She was here for her grandma, and though Leah had plenty of faults, her grandma meant too much to her. Unlike himself… He tried not to resent that, but there was no getting around the fact—he did resent it. He was pissed off that she had no idea what she’d meant to him back then.
The soft, snuffling question came from a sleepy Kevin in the shotgun position at his side. Reaching over, Jack ruffled Kevin’s fur reassuringly, getting licked from chin to forehead for his efforts. Kevin wandered a little bit away and started sniffing. Knowing the signs, Jack grabbed a baggie from his truck and waited.
Kevin continued to sniff around each and every rock within a twenty-foot radius, and then repeated his efforts. Twice. Finally, he sat and yawned.
“Just do it already,” Jack said, waving the bag. “Before the pretty girl comes out of the water.”
Kevin tipped up his head and stargazed.
“Fine.” Jack shoved the bag in his pocket, his eyes following the form swimming out past the waves. She’d always been a hell of a swimmer. He could see flashes of pale skin as she moved quickly and efficiently at a full-out pace.
Clearly, she was trying to outswim her demons.
His heart squeezed a little, making room for a few other emotions besides his temper. Empathy. Maybe even reluctant affection. He could’ve gotten into the water with her, but it was after midnight and Christ, he was tired.
Nothing good ever happens after midnight.
His mom had always said so, and in this case, he was willing to bet it was true. So he sat on the sand, positioned halfway between her car and the water, giving her no easy escape. And waited.
When Leah had first moved to Lucky Harbor, right next door to his childhood home, his life had been long summer days of riding bikes and body surfing, and longer summer nights lying in his bed listening to her father yell at her through the open windows.
You never finish a damn thing, Leah. Not one damn thing. And you never will… You’re going to amount to nothing.
Jack had been missing his own father at the time, and his gut would coil into a knot as she’d been spoken to so cruelly and thoughtlessly. “What the hell is wrong with you?” her dad would yell at her. “Didn’t you hear me? Are you deaf? Are you stupid? Maybe that’s it, you’re stupid. Is that it, Leah Marie? You’re fucking stupid?”
Jack could still remember being flat on his back staring up at the ceiling, his hands fisted into tight balls, thinking that the wrong dad had died. It’d been the unforgiving, thoughtless wish of a grieving kid, but he’d never forgotten the fury coursing through him at what Leah endured.
Or how sick he felt for her every time she’d crawl out of her window and into his. She’d stand there bathed by the moon’s glow, eyes filled with hurt, and he’d want to slay her dragons. He’d scoot over and make room for her, and she’d curl up on his bed, letting him hug her while she cried. And sometimes, much later, in the deep dark of the night after she’d finally fallen asleep, he’d cry too.
He shook all that off now. He didn’t want to think of Leah as the skinny, mistreated, spitfire waif she’d once been. Nor did he want to think of her as his girlfriend, pretend or otherwise. He didn’t want to think of her at all. He wanted to be in bed with Danica, losing himself in the softness of her lush body.
Instead he was here. Danicaless. And in spite of a very long shower, he still smelled like wine.
The wind kicked up, and the temperature dropped. Not long now, he thought. Leah was tough as hell when it came right down to it, but she’d never liked to be cold.
At his side, Kevin stirred, sniffing the air, glancing restlessly at Jack.
“Yeah, she’ll come out soon,” Jack assured him. And then they’d deal with this mess she’d made. He wasn’t sure what he wanted more. To wrap his fingers around Leah’s pretty neck, or…
And actually, it was the “or” troubling him now. Because he was having lots of odd and unexpected urges as it pertained to Leah, and he didn’t know what to do about them. Once upon a time, she’d been the only highlight in his day, the only one to make him smile. She was still that person, but there was something new between them, and he wasn’t sure if it was good. In fact, he was pretty sure he should be running like hell.
Finally she swam in, and then she was standing up in the water, and he nearly swallowed his tongue. It’d been a damn long time since he’d seen her in a bathing suit. Maybe since high school, when she’d been a head taller than all the other girls and skinny as hell.
She was still tall but she’d filled out in all the right places and then some. She wore a black bikini, nothing but a few straps low on her hips and two triangles over her breasts, and as a wave knocked her around a little, everything jiggled enticingly.
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