“I’m still on vacay,” Luke said. “Resting.”
“If only,” Jack muttered.
“Resting,” his commander repeated.
“I’ll be back in town for the internal review on Monday,” Luke said.
“See that you are or don’t bother coming back at all.”
Luke opened his mouth, but the line was dead. He thought about what would happen if he left town now. He’d get to keep his job—a job that, until recently, had defined him. Still defined him, even if he felt he’d let everyone in San Francisco down.
But if he left now, Ali was possibly going to be arrested for a crime she didn’t commit.
“If you get yourself fired,” Jack said, “you could—”
“No,” Luke said.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“I don’t care. I’m not going to get fired.”
Jack sipped his soda and thumbed one-handed through his phone for a minute.
From inside Luke’s pocket, his own phone vibrated. He pulled it out, saw the incoming text from Jack, and slid him a look. “Really? You texted me?”
Jack opened a package of peanut M&M’s. He tossed one up in the air and caught it in his mouth.
Luke shook his head and read the text out loud. “Take a job here in Lucky Harbor.” He looked at Jack. “What?”
Jack shrugged. “You know you want to stay close to Ali.”
Luke sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “I’m not right for her.”
Jack coughed and said “bullshit” at the same time.
“Look,” Luke said, “I’m on a roll right now with screwing things up. I’ll disappoint her. In fact, I already have. She deserves better.”
“She deserves to be allowed to make up her own mind,” Jack said. Then he shrugged again. “Or you can just keep things all fucked up, retire, and then paddleboard for the rest of your life. You know, if real life is too hard for you.”
After her ceramic class at the junior college, Ali drove through town toward the beach house. It was a dark night, a jet-black sky littered with stars that twinkled like diamonds. She headed up the hill, getting more and more tense until she pulled into Luke’s driveway. At the sight of his truck there, she let out the breath she hadn’t realized that she’d been holding.
He was still here.
Not for long, she reminded herself, and got out. She waved at Edward, who was getting out of the Dial-A-Ride van.
“You hanging in there?” Edward asked.
He smiled at her clearly standard response, but his surprisingly sharp eyes said he wasn’t fooled. “You’re a sweet girl,” he said, “sticking around to watch out for him.”
She let out a low, mirthless laugh. “You have that backward, don’t you? You know that Luke watches out for himself.”
Edward nodded. “He does. He also watches out for everyone else, always.”
She knew this to be true. She’d managed to hold onto some good resentment when it came to Luke thanks to their last conversation, but she found herself softening now.
“But I’m really talking about his heart,” Edward said. “You’re watching out for his heart. No one does that. He doesn’t usually allow it. But he’s allowed it with you. Either you pushed him into it, as his grandmother always did with her nosiness, or he cares about you. A lot.”
Ali slowly shook her head. “I think you’ve misunderstood—”
“You care for him, too.”
“Well, of course,” she said. Way too much. “But—”
“No use backtracking now. It’s all over your face.”
She sighed. “Anyone ever tell you that you’re a little nosy too?”
He smiled. “You’ll do, Ali. You’ll do. Here’s some advice—he thinks he’s so big and bad, thinks that nothing can get to him. But we both know otherwise. He’s been hurt and disappointed by people who’ve claimed to care about him. You won’t do that. You love him. You’re good for him.”
She stared at him. “I don’t—” She closed her mouth, her heart picking up speed. She couldn’t find her words. “We’re not…” She shook her head and spoke the one truth she knew for a fact. “He’s leaving.”
“You’re good for him,” Edward repeated with utter steel. “We all see it.”
She was almost afraid to ask. “Who’s all?”
“I take it you don’t go to Facebook very much.” He smiled again. “Probably for the best.”
Shaken, Ali went inside. The house was empty, but Luke had painted the living room. She walked through the kitchen, where her attention was caught by a movement outside the window. She grabbed a flashlight and headed out to the dock, finding Luke sitting there in the dark, feet dangling in the water, head tipped up, staring at the stars as if they held the secrets of the universe.
There was a bottle of Scotch at his side. “What are you doing?” she asked.
Hmmm. She sat next to him and eyed the bottle. One-third gone. She eyed Luke. Probably also one-third gone. He’d been on the water, she guessed, given that he was in his board shorts, which were so low tonight as to be almost indecent. His long-sleeved T-shirt was thin and fit to his leanly muscled torso, his mouth turned up in a trouble-filled smile as he studied her right back.
He looked like sex walking, and at just the thought, her body quivered. “I’m mad at you.”
“You might have to get in line,” he said. He hesitated. “I’m sorry I was a dick.”
She sighed. “You weren’t. I care about you, Luke.”
Tilting his head up, he met her gaze, his own fathomless. “Ali—”
“I care,” she repeated. “But I’m not going to let what I feel for you—no matter how it turns out—define my happiness. No one but me can do that.”
He looked at her for a long moment, then the corners of his mouth quirked. “You’re the strongest person I know, did you know that?”
She stared at him, stunned. “No.”
“You are.” He tipped the bottle back and took a long swallow. When he was done, she held out her hand for the bottle.
With an amused glint in his eye, he handed it over.
It took less than a second for the liquor to burn a hole clear to her belly, and she coughed.
He patted her on the back and took the bottle back, and also another shot. She looked at his profile, barely outlined by the night sky, and felt her heart clench. Either she was having a heart attack or everyone else was right—she really was falling for him hard and fast. “Do you believe in love?” she asked.
It was his turn to choke, and he lowered the bottle, swiping his mouth with his arm as he stared at her.
“I’m just asking,” she said quickly. “Not declaring or anything.”
“Okay, but why are you asking?”
Fair enough question, but she’d sort of hoped he’d let it go. “People keep suggesting that maybe I’m falling for you.”
He stared at her. “I don’t think I’m authorized to have this conversation.”
“Hey, I’m not saying it’s true or anything,” she said defensively. Sheesh. “But I guess now I know how you feel about it.”
He caught her when she would have made her escape, moving faster than a man with a third of a bottle of Scotch in him should be able to move. He held her next to him on the dock in the dark, with the crickets singing and the water slapping up against the pylons below them.
So peaceful. So devastatingly peaceful.
“I enjoy your company,” he finally said.
She turned her head and gave him a glare—wasted on him because he was staring out at the water as if transfixed.
“I even crave it,” he said, sounding insultingly surprised. “More than I’d thought possible.”
“Well gee,” she said, “thanks.”
He looked at her then. “But much as I do, you know that this isn’t leading to a walk down the aisle, a tricycle in the yard, or us getting old and sharing dentures.”
“Do people actually do that? Share dentures?” The alcohol had made its way through her system now so that she felt nice and…buzzed. “Because that’s kind of ick…”
“Yeah.” She blew out a breath and nodded. “I guess I knew all that already, since we’re supposedly not going to have more sex, even though we already blew that.” She paused. “But tell me again why we’re supposedly not going to have more sex?”
He paused, like he was having trouble remembering himself. “Because someone’s going to get hurt.”
“Ah.” She nodded and was relieved to find that Scotch was good for more than just a buzz. It worked as a numbing agent as well. “Something we can agree on then, because that does happen to me. Sex, then hurt. Every time so far, actually.”
He turned his head, his eyes reflecting regret and sorrow. “Ali—”
Not wanting sympathy, she grabbed the Scotch and toasted him. “To…” She broke off and considered. “Not having any more mind-blowing sex.” She took another sip. This one didn’t burn nearly as badly. In fact, it went down smoothly, and a delicious warmth began to spread within her.
Luke let out a low laugh and took the bottle back from her.
“You think I’m funny?” she asked.
“No. I think you’re dangerous as hell. And sexy as hell. And smart as hell, smarter than me.” He toasted her now. “To you, Ali.”
“For what? Driving you crazy?”
“Well, you are very good at it,” he said.
Now she laughed, and tried to reach for the bottle again, but she missed. Huh. And that’s when she noticed that her vision was blurry. She blinked, but it didn’t help, so she used both hands to try to make a double-fisted grab for the bottle and still missed.