Shaking my head again, I whisper, “Don’t say things like that to me. You know how stuff is, Sean. You can’t—” I break off and look him in the eye. “I know you, that’s all. You don’t have to say things for my benefit.”

“You think I’m pretending?” He sounds surprised, but the way he looks at me says something else—like he thinks I’m a battered kitten. “I told you that I love you. I asked you to be with me. I’ve never said either of those things to anyone, not since before Amanda…”

That should make me happy, but it doesn’t. Instead, it fills me with despair. Sean deserves happiness and he won’t find it with me. Maybe we’re just sucking each other down. Maybe Mel was right and two crash and burns can’t save each other. Maybe Sean is just another person to talk to on the way down.

“Can you… do something for me?” I choke on my words, partly because I don’t want to ask him, and partly because I wanted him to offer it.

“Anything.”

I don’t want to ask, but I have to. “Can you buy me for a few days? I mean, since you’re here and Miss Black isn’t going to like you being around me without paying. Plus, she was pissed when I lost you. And Naked Guy said he booked me this weekend. I’d rather not experience that.” My lip curls in disgust that’s impossible to hide. Plus, I’m pretty sure he’ll hammer my ass into the ground.

Sean’s face is all sympathy, right up until I mention Naked Guy. In a flash, all his emotion disappears. He pulls out his phone. Miss Black is on speed dial. Can I pick ‘em or what? You never know when you’ll need a hooker in a flash. I’m an ass. Besides, who am I to judge. I’m the girl who’s the hooker, after all.

Biting my lip, I glance at my boots while he calls. I hear someone pick up and Sean answers, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Same arrangements as last time. Yes, the same girl. Actually,” he pauses and looks over at me, “Send me two. Yes, preferably the one you sent me before with the dark skin and sharp tongue. Yes, exactly. I want them both. Is that a problem? Good.” There’s a pause and Sean looks down at his watch. “Nine works fine. That cost more than each of them separately.” He’s silent for a moment and shakes his head. “Fine, but lock in that rate for the next three weeks. It turns out that I’m not leaving town for a while. Yes…Done.”

Smiling too wide for words, I jump at Sean and hug him hard. “You bought me and my besty? You’re not hoping we make out in front of you, are you?” I tease.

“No. Jeeze, I try to give you guys a night off and—”

I squeal way too loud, “Awh! You’re such a good man!”

Sean laughs as I crush his ribs. “Only you would be glad that I bought two call girls.” The smile on his face is deep and reveals the little dimple on his cheek that I love so much.

I squee and jump on the back of Sean’s bike, clutching him tightly with my thighs, as he revs the engine and takes off still laughing.

CHAPTER 10

Sean drives down to Ocean Parkway to Jones Beach, where we spend a good chunk of the afternoon. It’s as close to my wish as I can get. Laying with my back in the sand, I watch the waves pound into the shore. It looks different than it did before Hurricane Sandy. The place has a different vibe, like underneath the new layers of sand and dune grass, it’s still devastated—or maybe it’s me who feels that way. Every day feels like a balancing act between trying to keep my feet in reality and pretending away my troubles. Too much reality all at once is a bad thing and I’ve already had too many bad things to last a lifetime.

I shivered a few moments ago and Sean got up without saying a word. I watched his broad back in that tight black tee shirt, and those jeans that hugs his h*ps perfectly, as he walked over to the store and disappeared inside. A moment later he returned with an oversized blanket and steaming cups of something good.

I sit with my arms wrapped around my ankles and let him drape the blanket over my shoulders.

He asks, “Hot chocolate or coffee?”

“Ooh, cocoa please.” Sean hands it to me and sits down so we’re hip to hip. I’ve taken off my boots, but Sean is still wearing his. I bump his shoulder gently. “There should be a NO BOOTS ON THE BEACH sign.”

Sean glances down at his shoes after taking a sip of his coffee. “I’m glad there’s not.”

“Why would you possibly say something so hideous?” I smirk at him over the top of my cup and try to take a sip. The steam travels up my lip and warms my nose.

Sean looks at his boots and then over at me. “I didn’t want to tell you this, Avery, but—I hate the feeling of the sand between my toes.”

My eyes go wide and I spew the cocoa in my mouth, coughing. “No! You can’t mean that!” I think back to the other times we were at the beach and he never said anything. I’m questioning everything based on this statement, like it’s a pivotal point in our relationship, when Sean starts laughing.

When I turn to face him, he says, “I’m kidding. I’m just too lazy to take off my boots.”

Narrowing my eyes, I give him an evil look, before glancing back at my hot cocoa. I really, really want to keep it, but there’s no way I can resist. Placing the cup down in the sand, I stand and brush myself off, like he offended me. “We can’t be friends anymore, Mr. Ferro. I don’t joke about the beach.”

Sean can tell that I’m not serious, but he doesn’t react, which works fine for me when I turn and lunge at his boots. Grabbing hold of one, I wrap my arms around and pull. Sean flips backwards and makes a surprised sound as I yank harder. Well, fuck. They’re stuck. He’s wearing real biker boots so they’re stiff as hell and they won’t slip over his ankle.

There’s an expression that I’ve heard but never really understood until that second: If you’ve got a tiger by the tail, don’t let go. Catching a glimpse of Sean’s eyes, I see what level of screwed I am, and it’s well into orange or DEFCON 1, depending on how you look at it. DEFCON sounds more badass than colors. I like to say it out loud when no one’s around. The government probably tapped my phone and assigned me my own agent because I say DEFCON way too much. If I ever get a dog, guess what his name will be? DEFCON the badass Dog!

Okay, back to the present where I’m tugging Sean’s leg, literally. I could let go and expect mild retribution, or I can keep tugging and drag his butt into the surf. A wicked smile slips across my face as I pull his ankle fast and hard. Sean just managed to sit up when I start to run with his leg in my hands. He yelps and falls back into the sand again as I drag him as quickly as I can toward the water.

My problem is follow through. I have plenty of determination, so that’s not what stops me. It’s that I get too excited. Giggles take hold of me when I see his face. Sean realizes what I’m doing and looks like a cartoon character, which is so wrong on him, that I can’t stop laughing.

Sean’s lips twist into a smile a second later, “You’re dead, Stanz.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll have to manage to get up first, Ferro.” Digging my heels into the sand, I tug faster. The sand is damp and cold under my feet. We’re nearly there. Sean digs his fingers into the beach, like that’ll stop me.

“If you get me wet—”

I laugh and spurt out, “Psh. Like I’m ever dry around you?” A wild grin crosses my face as my cheeks burn.

Sean blinks at me and stops struggling. “You did not just say that.”

Ha! A sexy diversion! Just what I needed. I keep tugging and can feel the cold water under the sand now. The waves are crashing right behind me. My plan is to pull him into a wave and then run like hell in the other direction. Good plan, right?

“I think I did,” I giggle. The damn giggles tickle me so much that my body is shaking.

Sean stares at me, not realizing that the next wave will crash into us. The beach is damp and it’s getting harder to pull him. Just a little bit more. I strain, but the sand has collected around his perfect butt, so now I have to pull him over a hill.

Sean flinches, like he just realized he’s going to get soaked. His blue eyes go wide when he sees the massive wave coming. Close enough. Dropping his foot, I try to take off and run the other way back toward dry land, but Sean manages to whirl around and grab my ankle. I fall face first into the sand and Sean’s hands grab my ankles, then my calves, and finally my hips. He rolls me over so that I’m on top of him.

Just as the wave is about to wash over us, he grins like a little boy, and says, “I should have taken off my boots, huh?”

The beach has two types of water, and it’s based on the season. You can have the pleasure of swimming in damn cold water, or in the wintery wonder that’s called holy-fuck-are-you-insane iceberg cold water. You can tell which one it is by the expletives coming from people’s mouths when they wade in. We didn’t get that chance, but it was the latter. Squared. With a penguin on top. Holy fuck.

The wave washes over us, swallowing Sean and I whole. He doesn’t release me, but I can feel the ocean pulling us back as the wave recedes. Sand rushes by my hands as I try to pull away. Somehow, Sean manages to sit up and hold me in his arms. Seaweed is tangled in my hair and touching my face, and my underpants are mostly sand at this point.

I’m shivering and yelling, but Sean just laughs. “You’re such an ass!” I beat my fists into his chest and try to get up. Another wave is about to break. Sean’s fingers are locked around my waist.

When I look up at him, his eyes glitter with mischief, and he shakes his head. “And it’s a lovely ass too, or so I hear.” He grins at me. “Get ready for round two.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I would.” His arms lock around my waist as icy cold water crashes into my back. Screaming, I hold onto him and cling.

When the water rushes back into the ocean I start laughing again. My hair is dripping ice cubes down my back. I shiver and look at him. Sean rarely looks this happy. It’s like every worry, every pain he’s ever had, was washed away. It makes me want to stay here with him, which is complete crazy talk because it’s freezing. “I think there are icicles in my panties.”

“Don’t talk about your panties unless you want me to rip them off.”

I giggle way too much. After I manage to put on a straight face, I lower my voice and speak seriously. “Mr. Ferro.”

“Miss Stanz.” His eyes lock on mine, but the corners of his mouth twitch like he’s repressing a grin.

“When did we get so formal?”

“We didn’t,” he says casually. “You only call me by my proper name when you’re aroused.”

My face scrunches as my jaw drops. I’m ready to contest it, to deny his accusation to the death, but a wave hits my back and I shriek as I fall into him. I had no idea my voice could hit that note, or that Sean could laugh so much. His warm hands hold me in place on his lap as the sand around us washes back into the ocean with the wave. His h*ps are half buried.

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