Authors: Tess Oliver
Copyright© 2016 by Tess Oliver
Cover Model: Josh Mario John
Cover Photographer: Lane Dorsey
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All Rights are Reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Table of Contents
I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She was an angel, a hard core, bone-fide angel and in her short life, she’d already had a taste of hell.
The sun was
no more than a flicker on the horizon. A thick, clammy haze covered the restless water. When its colors weren’t being muted by the fog, Rockwood Beach was just as I’d pictured it, ivory sand, deep blue ocean and green succulent covered hillsides.
On my last day of incarceration, Officer Rickley, the prison guard who had walked around most days, not just with a stick up his ass but an entire fucking pitchfork, had shot me a curt nod good-bye and pushed the button for the gate. I stepped out onto an empty sidewalk. No family or friends to meet me. I was alone, with no prospects for a future. But I knew exactly where I was heading. I knew I was going straight to Rockwood Beach.
My eyes swept across the sand, and there, in the center of the murky, cold mist, was the girl. The air around her was crystal clear as if a murky fog couldn’t get near her. After a week of rising at dawn just to catch a glimpse, I knew her routine. She’d stop to scold Rex, her giant dog, for plunging headlong into the flock of resting seagulls. The lecture would be followed by a lot of apologetic tail wagging and a hearty pat and smile from the girl. The smile, alone, was worth getting up for at the crack of dawn. I knew that she’d stop halfway to the pier, the place where the sand arched out toward the water, and look for unbroken sand dollars. I knew that eventually her thick, long waves would get in her way and she’d reach up and tie them back with the hair band she kept on her small wrist. And I knew that no matter how spryly she moved along the wet sand, trying to keep pace with her dog, the heavy, slow sadness would follow her stride. It would show in her stunning face or in the set of her slim shoulders or even in the way her feet hit the sand. It was always there, like a heavy, plodding weight as if the gravity under her feet was pulling just a little harder than normal.
We were neighbors, but I hadn’t found the courage to introduce myself. I’d never been shy when it came to women, but I wasn’t exactly the type of person you wanted showing up unexpectedly at your door. My size, the maze of ink from a tattoo habit that had helped me through the worst of times, and that fresh out of prison aura that had followed me through he metal gates didn’t make me the kind of neighbor who could just stop over and borrow a cup of sugar. And, the woman down on the beach wasn’t just any woman.
A week before, I’d walked out of the Orson State Penitentiary, lost, shiftless, a man adrift, dropped unceremoniously back into a world where he’d never done anything right. During my two year stint inside, life on the outside had not stood still. It had spun on as usual. My dad had died of cancer, and those last minutes that you saw in movies where people rushed to the dying father’s side to confess sins and finally say I love you, Dad, words that had always needed to be said but that were always somehow stuck in an angry, dry throat, those minutes, had been lost forever. My friends, the ones who had kept their noses mostly clean, had finished college and started careers and families. My mom and sister had gone back east to live with our aunt. During the two years in Orson, they’d sent letters and cookies and pictures, but they’d never sent an invitation to join them. I hadn’t expected it. Mom and I had never had much of a connection. I was too much trouble, too untrustworthy, too much ‘not the son she’d hoped for’. Sometimes one good dose of trouble could turn your life around, put you on the right path. But I’d taken the opposite side of the forked road and headed off looking for even more trouble, like a junkie constantly searching for the next high. And I’d done plenty of that too. I’d quickly discovered that high and trouble worked well together, especially when your logical conclusion was prison. I hadn’t made jail time a life goal, but my parents and teachers had spent so much time warning me that I’d end up in prison, it seemed like the right thing to do. Didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
Angry feathers and squawks woke the sleeping beach below as the seagulls took flight. I stared down at the unearthly beauty on the sand. She hugged her dog, the luckiest damn dog in the world, far as I was concerned. As she straightened, she broke her routine. No smile. She gazed up at the house, the crumbling, waterlogged beach house I’d rented with a small inheritance from my dad. The damn fog, the relentless, transparent haze hovering in the air, blotted out some of her features, but it didn’t matter. I had them memorized, the almond shaped blue eyes, the button nose, the cherry lips that could keep any mortal man awake at night.
Those same incredible lips parted in curiosity as she stared up at the house. I backed out of view and waited for her to turn away.
I walked across the warped floor. The smell of mold and briny moisture puffed up with every step. I sat down on the lumpy mattress I’d tossed on the floor in the corner and leaned back against the cold plaster wall. It wasn’t much of a place, but it was where I wanted to be.
Rachel knocked on
the coffee shop door just seconds after I stepped inside. Her smile poked out from beneath the fuzz-trimmed hood of a plump winter coat. I held open the door, and she slipped inside holding her usual container of baked goods. Cinnamon, brown sugar and buttery goodness wafted up from the box.
“Cold as heck out there. I brought you a blueberry scone for breakfast,” she huffed as she carried the box to the counter.
“You are a saint. I’m starved.”
Rachel was my shop neighbor and best friend. Her bakery was conveniently located next to my coffee shop, and we had a great symbiotic relationship. Her baked goods were the perfect complement to my coffee, and my shop provided her with a nice, steady source of income. Of course, both of us suffered financially during the fall and winter months when kids were in school and beach vacations were on hold until warmer weather crept along. I still had my usual customers, mostly locals, who were either retired or worked odd hours. There were also the diehard surfers who liked the swell brought in by cold weather. Most of them dropped in for their daily shots of espresso after a brutally cold morning on the water. After hours on the waves, the crumb cakes and blueberry muffins hit the spot too.
Rachel and I planned that when we had the money and energy, we’d buy our places outright and open up the wall between the shops to make it a coffee and bakery destination. But, for now, things worked just fine.
Rachel pushed back her hood, revealing her glossy black hair.
“You cut your hair,” I noted.
She swept the long bangs aside. “I decided I needed to change things up a bit. You like?”
“Do you really need to ask? As I’ve told you before, I’d trade my wavy mop for your sleek locks any day.”
“But you’re blonde, and everyone knows that men prefer them.” She winked. She had a forest of black lashes to go with the black hair, which made her green eyes stand out brightly.
“Please, dishwater blonde or raven black. Don’t think there’s even a question about which one of us was blessed by the hair fairy. If there is such a person.”
“I might have been blessed by the hair fairy, but you were blessed in every other area, Jacy, my gorgeous friend and business partner.” She started unpacking her goods.
I went into the back room to put down my things. I was having one of my wading through molasses mornings where I could feel myself moving and thinking and doing, but it was all happening in slow motion. Molasses mornings happened less often than they used to, but they were still there to plague me. Bad memories that were as dark as the molasses itself were the cause of my slow mornings. And those memories were permanent.
I returned to the counter. Rachel had put the scone on a napkin. I broke off a corner and pushed it into my mouth, then set to work filling coffee pots. “How did your date go?” I asked but almost certainly knew the answer. Last night was date two, and every guy Rachel met was Mr. Wonderfully Right on the first date, but mysteriously transformed into Mr. Horribly, Terribly Wrong on the second date.
“Holy maple oat scones, don’t even ask. He started on about how he and his mom had this awesome stamp collecting hobby, and that was it. I slurped down my plate of shrimp scampi and made the excuse that my stomach hurt from eating too fast.”
The rich, familiar aroma filled the air as I opened the coffee containers and measured out the scoops. “There are worse things than a man with a stamp collecting hobby, Rach.”
She arranged the muffins on the tray. “
With his mom
, don’t forget that little nugget.” She walked over with a muffin and nibbled it as she watched me set the pots on to brew. “What about you, Jacy?”
“Oh, I’ll eat my scone in a second.”
She huffed hard enough to blow some crumb topping off her muffin. “Jacy, you know I’m not talking about the scone. When are you going to step out into the mire and muck of the dating world? It’s been months since the divorce was finalized. Come on, join me in the quest. If nothing else, it’s highly entertaining.”
Rachel knew I was divorced, and she knew the marriage hadn’t been good. A complete understatement, if there ever was one. But that was all she knew. I wanted, no, needed, that time in my life to stay hidden on a secret shelf, never to be revealed to anyone. My parents and my two brothers knew, but only because it would have been impossible to keep from them.
“Just not ready. I don’t know if I ever will be.” I pulled stacks of cups out from under the counter. “He was there again,” I said, quickly, not even sure why I brought it up.
She spun back around from her task of stacking cookies on a plate. “The mystery man of Rockwood Beach? The stranger whose extremely broad shoulders nearly span the front picture window of the old Bombay Cottage? The stranger, who, no doubt, has a body, arms and face to go along with those shoulders?”
I laughed. “That’s the part you remember most? The shoulder width?”
“You’re the one who brought them up in the first place.”
“I was trying to relay how menacing he looked from my vantage point on the beach. It lent an extra layer of intrigue to the story.”
“Still, I’ll bet a guy like that doesn’t sit around on a Saturday night and lick stamps with his mom.” Rachel finished organizing the baked goods and picked up her box. “Ugh, I’m spending the rest of the morning decorating cupcakes for a party at the retirement home. Who do you think he is, this man who fills a window?”
“I’m guessing someone who needed a cheap place to rent. Probably just some surfer or guy passing through on his way to bigger waves and better beach weather. That cottage looks as if one good wind gust could destroy it. I don’t think anyone has lived there in years.”
I walked through the shop and started pulling the chairs down off tables.
Rachel stepped out from behind the counter. “You should walk over and say
You must be curious to see what he looks like up close. I know I am.”
I lowered a chair to the ground and positioned it under the table. “I probably should. I mean, just in case he has any questions about the neighborhood. It would be the polite thing to do.”
“Right. Very polite.” She winked. “And then you can check him out from head to toe to see if those impressive shoulders pan out all the way down to the feet. I’m out of here. I’ve got naked cupcakes waiting.” She blew an air kiss my way as she sidled past with her empty box. “Have a good morning, and I’ll keep a look out for menacing strangers with ridiculously big shoulders.”
I chuckled. My smiles weren’t easily won on mornings like this, but Rachel was someone who knew how to crack under the surface and make me temporarily forget everything from the past.
I looked outside the door window as I flipped over the open sign. The fog was lifting and it seemed that the sun would be shining soon. It would help. Sunshine was always better than gloom.