Love isn’t on either of their radars, but Carly and Bryant’s paths are about to collide.
“Hey, Riley,” I answer.
“I’m getting married!”
I press my finger against my free ear to hush the echo of crashing waves. My heart flutters out of my chest before it drops dead into its dark dungeon again, but not because my baby sister has decided to promise her love to only one. I couldn’t be happier for her and her now fiancé, Cameron. The problem is, my sister’s upcoming nuptials will put me face-to-face with my ex-fiancé, Dean. Worse, my guess is, Dean will be the best man, which means that I’ll be walking down the aisle with him after all.
Why, again, did I meddle in my sister’s life and introduce her to Dean’s best friend, Cameron, all those years ago? Oh, right, I had a sparkling ring on my left hand and believed in the happily-ever-after crap.
“That’s great, Riley.”
I’m happy for my sister and not even close to upset that she’s embarking on my mom’s and sister Renee’s designated path. Nope, because that ship sailed for me when I left my perfect fiancé at the altar of my childhood church. In the last three years, I haven’t regretted that decision. I mean, who wouldn’t want my life?
My job is more like vacation than work. Traveling to exotic islands with all expenses paid isn’t hard. Living two hundred days of the year with my toes wiggling in the sand is easy. Give me a break; no one’s life compares. I have no one to answer to. I have no one who expects things. I have no one to report to.
“So, you’ll be my maid of honor?” Her question yanks me back to our conversation, like an anchor to a cruise ship.
I was blissfully happy, leisurely sailing along the ocean, by myself.
Maid of honor?
“What about Sara? You two have been best friends since preschool.”
“Carly, she’s not my sister. Plus, all she cares about is planning the bachelorette party.”
Great, so I’ll be drinking out of a penis-shaped cup with a lit-up penis necklace adorning my neck and eating jelly candy–shaped penises. Fun times.
“I’m really okay with just being a bridesmaid. What about Renee? She’s done it before.”
Renee, my older sister, the one who married young, lives two streets over from my parents and buys my mom’s favorite grocery items when they go on sale. You know, she’s the favorite child.
I stop right before I reach the hotel and sit down. My toes dig their way through the small particles of sand. Did I mention I never pay for a pedicure?
“You don’t want to do it? Is this because of Dean?”
I scoff, my toes reaching the cold and damp layer of sand.
“No, that’s not an issue.”
“Carly,” she says my name slow, as though I’m going to admit I’d rather cut off my feet than walk down the aisle with Dean. There is a reason I didn’t do it the first time. “I know it’s hard, but I need my sister. Mom’s going to drive me crazy with her anal obsession of daily calendars, spreadsheets, and time-scheduling.”
I stare out to the moon reflecting down on the ocean. Seriously, people would kill for my life.
“Riley,” I sigh, hesitating longer, hoping she’ll relent and not push me toward standing up in her wedding.
“I ran interference for you.” The slight whine that must be built in the DNA of the youngest child rings in my ears.
Oh, she’s pulling the big guns.
“Different!” she screeches. “Carly, I had to walk down that aisle, ask the organist to stop playing, and tell everyone that the bride just sped off in the limo without the groom.”
She’s got me.
My back collapses into the sand. “Fine.” The entire word depletes my energy.
“You’re the best. I knew I could count on you. When will you get back to Chicago?”
I cup a handful of sand in my palm, letting it slither down my closed fist. This is going to suck. Big time.
I hear the claps from her hands.
“Great. We need to start planning. Oh, I forgot to tell you the most important thing.” The whine in her voice fading.
“I want a July wedding, like Mom and Dad.”
“Riley, it’s April.”
“Why do you think I need you to get back as soon as possible?”
Hearing her excitement over the line probably doesn’t compare to seeing her in person. I envision her wide smile and rosy complexion.
“You really love him, right?” I ask the question that no one cared to ask me three years ago.
“Carly,” she sighs, thinking my question has something to do with Dean.
It doesn’t because I did love him. He just didn’t love me enough.
“Answer the question. I want to hear it from your lips.” I stand up and brush the sand off my butt.
“Yeah.” Her sultry tone confirms what I already knew.
She’s found him, her one.
Cameron is nothing like Dean, and I have to remember that fact during their whirlwind wedding, especially since I’ll be thrown back into a room with him until July.
“You’re going to continue working for your master’s right?” I ask because my mom won’t.
“Yeah. Cameron said he’d support us until I graduated. Isn’t he the best?”
A better man than his best friend.
“Yeah, he is.” I catch a man sitting in the sand ahead of me.
His hoodie-covered head faces the ocean with his elbows propped up on his raised knees.
“Okay, I gotta go. I have to call Darla, Tina—”
“Stay on for just a second more,” I whisper so that the man who I’m fast approaching doesn’t overhear.
“Why? Why is your voice shaking?” Riley asks.
I shush her through the receiver.
“I hate that you travel by yourself so much.”
“I’m not by myself.”
“You are now. This is what Mom’s talking about, Carly. You have to settle—”
I’m behind him, and my eyes watch him for any quick movements. He doesn’t even stir, like he has no idea he’s not alone on this beach. Once I’m a safe distance from him, my eyes fixate on the pier that goes back to the resort. My feet move faster, digging further into the sand to gain momentum.
“Okay, go call your friends,” I say.
“Carly, what was that?”
“Just some guy on the beach. I wanted to make sure someone could call the police if needed.”
With every new glow of a resort light in my view, another one of my body’s limbs relaxes.
“I worry about you,” she says.
“Oh, I’m fine. Go call your friends.”
“You’re safe now?”
“Okay, love you. Call me when you get back.”
“Congratulations, Riley. I love you, too.”
I hang up and glance behind me. The suspecting male is in the same position. I look to the wooden stairs that lead me off the sand and to the resort and then back to the ocean one last time for tonight. How could anyone not love to stare at this every night or to fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves? My job should be on some newspaper article for the best career choice.
My barefoot steps on the wooden plank of the stair, and a scream echoes through the ominous air. My mind floods with horrific images, and I instantly glance to where that man was sitting.
Did he pass me up for his next victim?
Immediately, news images of vacation stories when young girls go missing flood my head. I’d be a worthless witness because I never saw the guy’s face. I mean, a gray sweatshirt isn’t really a clue to catching an abductor.
My stomach plummets when I find the spot on the sand empty. I whip around so fast that the tail of my ponytail hits my cheek. The man is sprinting toward a woman who’s waving her hands on the other side of the resort.
Wait, that bleach-blonde hair is familiar.
My eyes shoot out to the dark water. Two flailing arms are swishing the water back and forth.
“Help!” I scream to no one who’s immediately around me.
I sprint after the man, my feet sore from the friction of the sand.
He strips off his sweatshirt, revealing a back most men would envy. He doesn’t bother slipping out of his sandals and dives into the first wave that combats him. The foreign male swims toward whom I now recognize as my client Mr. Fuller.
By the time I reach Mrs. Fuller, I’m heaving for breath. One hand is clasped over her heart, and the other is over her mouth.
“Here.” I take one side of her expensive silk blouse to cover her bare breast.
She looks down. “Oh my God.” Even though her skin is a golden hue from her extended time in the Caribbean, a pink flushes her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs, buttoning up.
“What are you sorry for? Loving your husband?”
She smiles briefly and turns her attention back to the ocean. The man has his arm around Mr. Fuller’s neck until he reaches the shallow area and can no longer swim. Picking Mr. Fuller up as though he’s a child, no muscle strain whatsoever, the man carries him over, placing him on the sand.
“Oh, Kevin!” Mrs. Fuller says, falling to her knees at her husband’s side.
Just then, the staff from the hotel rushes out to the beach with cases full of medical supplies.
Mr. Fuller coughs a few times, and the resort medical group assists him to roll over to his side.
The man stands idly behind everyone, catching his own breath. My eyes concentrate on the droplets of water dripping off the hard ridges of his muscles. His hair is dark, and it matches his features of his olive skin tone and a scruff that I assume is his vacation growth.
Most would collapse into the sand right next to Mr. Fuller, but this man appears unfazed from the exertion his body must have taken from swimming through a current and dragging at least two hundred pounds back with him.
As Mrs. Fuller is busy holding her husband’s hand and the medical group is concentrating on checking over Mr. Fuller, my eyes fixate on the man in front of me. This is what I imagine encountering one of the most beautiful people from those special edition magazines would be like. Even his crooked nose suits him better than if it were straight. A dangerous yet safe element surrounds him.
My vision awakens thoughts of him exhausting me in bed, only to cuddle me afterward. With that thought, my heart’s rhythm syncs with the fast beat of the steel drums echoing from the resort.
My eyes cast further down from his perfect abs, but a deep throat clearing interrupts me. My eyes fly back up to his face. The right side of his lips quirk up in the most egotistical smirk I’ve ever encountered on a man. Again, it fits him though. His confidence is sexy and appealing, and beads of sweat form across my hairline.
Straightening my shoulders, I pull the hem of my T-shirt down over my hips. I break the few feet between us, holding my hand out in front of me. “Thank you, sir.”
He studies my hand for a moment, wipes his own hand on his drenched shorts, and shakes mine, firm and quick, leaving a few pieces of wet sand on my palm. Nothing too meaningful, except for the zing of electricity up my arm.
“Hey.” His gruff and unapproachable voice makes me distance myself from him.
Once Mr. Fuller has sat up and appears to be okay, Mrs. Fuller springs to her feet. Rushing over to the man who has yet to give me his name, she tackles him, and he practically falls over— if the man built of bricks could actually collapse, that is.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she gushes.
He chuckles. “You’re welcome,” his husky voice says.
She steps back, straightening out her blouse that became wet from hugging Mr. Fuller.
“Oh my,” she fawns. She glances back to me, widening her eyes.
I shoot a smile to appease her, but she bugs them out more, nonverbally saying, Look at this man. I roll my eyes, silently telling her, Yeah, I’ve seen him, but unfortunately, he isn’t as pleasant as he looks.
She retracts her hand before it lands on his bicep. “We owe you.”
He shakes his head, little beads of water falling from his dark strands onto his shoulders. “No, ma’am. I’m glad your husband is okay.” He smiles, and an amazing mouthful of sparkling white teeth emerges.
My knees weaken.
“No, please. He could have drowned,” she continues.
Mr. Fuller slowly rises to his feet with the help of two medics. “I wouldn’t go that far, Marci.”
She leaves Mr. Lifeguard to help steady her husband. Once she swings her arm through his, he glances over to me and winks.
The two of them have been married for forty years. They’re empty nesters, except for their two poodles, Bella and Stella. They are one of those couples who can make critics like me believe in true love. Almost.
“You’ve gotta be shitting me.” Mr. Fuller’s mouth hangs open.
He waves off the medics, and they slowly walk back up to the resort. His stunned eyes are set on the man who saved him, as though he’s a kid standing in front of his childhood hero.
The guy looks at me from the corner of his eye, and then he studies the sand at his feet.
“Bryant Garrity!” he exclaims.
Mrs. Fuller’s face matches Mr. Fuller’s excited tone of voice, as though she knows the man.
She sneaks a look my way. I can tell the name gives her no recollection. I shrug, having no idea who the hell Bryant Garrity is. The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I don’t recall anyone by that name on this trip.
“Yes, sir,” he answers, stepping forward and holding out his strong, large hand.
“Holy shit. A Heisman Trophy winner as well as a first-round draft pick and pro-bowl quarterback of the Chicago Knights just saved my life?”
“Some might assume I was a bum about to assault you.” He glances over to me, winks his cocky eye, and then gives Mr. Fuller a firm handshake.
“No, who would ever think that?” Mrs. Fuller adds.
I feel myself shrinking into my body.
“You’d be surprised, ma’am.”
Again, his damn blue eyes sparkle my way, and suddenly, with the words that came out of his mouth, the tornado of lust that his looks whirled me in moments ago dies a still death.
“Please be our guest for dinner tomorrow night,” Mr. Fuller requests.
The guy, whom I guess I should refer to by name, Bryant, shakes his head. “Not necessary.”
“Please, Bryant, we’d like to thank you for saving—”
“His life,” Mrs. Fuller interjects.
That low chuckle easily leaves his throat once more. “Um…sure.”
Mr. Fuller looks over to me, and soon, all three of their sets of eyes are pinged right in my direction.
“Carly, can we make a reservation for a private party on the beach for four?”
I eye Bryant, who’s now holding his arms over his chest. I swear, he could squash a watermelon with those biceps.
“Of course, Mr. Fuller. I’ll call first thing in the morning.”
I pull out my phone to set a reminder to get that done before the day’s activities tomorrow.
“Don’t forget to block time for the dinner in your calendar, too, Carly.”
I look up, and Mr. Fuller’s eyebrows are raised in my direction.
“You had help in rescuing me, too,” he continues.
“Oh, not really.” I toss off any compliment of helping.
“No objections, Carly. You will not hole yourself up in that hotel room of yours for another night here.” He laughs as my mouth hangs open.
It’s like I’m thirteen again, and my mom just told a boy on the phone that I was in the bathroom. I’m fairly sure a professional quarterback never sits alone in his hotel room.
“Great.” I lean forward and place my hand on Mr. Fuller’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re okay, but I’d better get going. Call me if you need anything.” I flip my direction to Bryant. “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Garrity. Thank you for your heroic efforts in saving Mr. Fuller.”
I’m respectful and polite, right?
Bryant holds his hand out in front of me, his eyes squarely on me. “Have a nice night.” He pauses.
“Carly,” I bite out my name, not allowing myself to be discouraged that Mr. Fuller said my name no less than three times in the last five minutes.
“I’m wondering what your last name is.”
The two of our hands are slowly moving up and down.
“Lincoln,” I say.
He shoots me what I assume is his winning touchdown smile, and damn if my stomach doesn’t feel like a roaring stadium.
“Have a nice night, Mrs. Lincoln.”
I let go of his hand, and he chuckles again.
Seriously, what is wrong with this man?
“It’s Miss,” Mrs. Fuller corrects him.
I roll my eyes, earning another damn chuckle. Is there nothing this man won’t laugh at?
“Oh, here I thought, you holed yourself up in your room because you missed your husband.”
“You’ve got it all wrong. Our Carly is as single as they come.”
I choke on my own air. Seriously, Mrs. Fuller?
He tucks his hands into the wet pockets of his shorts, the shorts currently hanging off those sculpted hips. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I move to pass him, and my toe hits something hard in the sand, catapulting me forward. Wanting to stop myself, I have no choice but to grab ahold of him. His hands instantly grip mine, and I fall into his strong, muscled arms.
Damn him and his mouthwatering body.
“I gotcha,” he says softly.
For a moment, I stare into his eyes, believing him.
Quickly, I straighten my body with his assistance of placing me back on my two feet.
“Have a good night,” I mumble, wanting to bend down to pick up the flashlight the medics left behind and chuck it into the ocean.