Authors: Crystal Walton
Impact Editions, LLC
Copyright © 2015 by Crystal Walton.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except for brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Published by Impact Editions, LLC
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Book Layout ©2013 BookDesignTemplates.com
Cover Design © 2015 Victorine Lieske
Author Photo by Charity Mack
Light Unshaken/Crystal Walton.
Today was real. It had to be. Waves of confirmation rocked into the sound of seagulls gathered at the shoreline. Yet as real as the overspray felt against my skin, spending an afternoon lying on the coast of Oregon could’ve been a dream. Same as the entire summer.
Sunlight shriveled behind the clouds. A chill broke through August’s heat and shook down my body with ripples of something that’d been gone for months.
I couldn’t place its source, only that it didn’t belong. Not after all I’d gone through to find faith in the life Dad taught me to hope for. Just because summer was ending, didn’t mean anything had to change.
Burying my doubt, I dug my fingers into the cool sand alongside the blanket.
Before the shadow passed, a gentle touch to my cheek drew my eyes to an assurance more dependable than the sun, looking back at me. I couldn’t help smiling. Dream or not, the same contentment I’d given in to since Riley proposed eclipsed everything else.
He zeroed in on my expression as though willing it to reveal some hidden secret. “What are you thinking about?”
Like he had to ask. I imitated his lopsided grin. Wet and sandy, his hair still fell around his face in perfect disarray. He slanted to the left. Sunshine pierced the clouds and poured onto my face. I pulled him in front of me to block the glare. “I was just thinking I’d take you over the sun any day.”
“Is that right?” His lips brushed my forehead, glided to my ear, and trickled down to my collarbone. “And what makes me better?” Each word clung to my skin with the ocean’s mist.
“For starters, the sun can’t make me forget how to breathe.”
His lips hovered at the corner of my mouth. “And that’s a good thing?”
Did he expect me to answer? Or move, period? “Yes,” I finally said, “a
He leaned back to give me some space. Not that it made any difference. His smile wasn’t exactly helping the no-breathing scenario. Then again, breathing wasn’t that important. I tugged on his shirt, inviting him to resume the only thing that was.
Moments like these made his record deal feel a world away. “Sure we can’t stay right here forever?”
“And miss your senior year of college?” He winked. “No way.”
My squawk could’ve passed for the nearby seagull’s. “I seem to remember
not making a big deal of graduation.”
“I know. I know.” I coiled the blanket around my finger and watched the tide chase the shoreline. Water crashed against the rocks, the wavering against the unwavering.
I didn’t have to tell him what I was thinking. He circled the sapphire engagement ring on my left hand. “Pretty sure the guy who gave you this won’t let anything come between you.” He toyed with the hem on my shorts, grin slanting. “I thought this summer would’ve proven that, but if you need a little more convincing . . .”
Biting back a smile, I tried to squirm out of his hold. His cell phone rang from the corner of the blanket beside his guitar. He didn’t take his eyes off me.
“You gonna get that?”
With one hand behind my ear and the other sliding to the small of my back, Riley pulled me toward him. “Wasn’t planning on it.”
My fingers grazed his unshaven cheek and ran down his hairline to his neck. Wrapped in the tenderness of his kiss, I let the salty taste of summer overshadow any doubt.
Something slammed into the back of my hand and bounced beside us. The first
against the ground turned into a second and then a third until the beach’s sandy resistance drew the rogue volleyball to a stop two feet from our blanket. The sunlight dimmed again. This time by a much less welcome barrier.
If my brother smirked any wider, the tops of his cheeks would bulge over his eye sockets. Austin snagged his accomplice and spun it in his hands. “Sorry.” He shrugged. “It slipped.”
Slipped. Yeah, right into the back of my fiancé’s head. Sure. I rolled my eyes at his not-so-subtle chagrin over seeing me in a relationship.
Austin towered above us. “Mind if I steal Em for a few minutes?”
Riley offered him a genuine nod of grace, hopped to his feet, and whisked me up to mine. Lightheaded, I clutched his arms for balance. He lifted my chin and studied me with eyes that made the ocean’s blue pale in comparison. So much for balance.
Austin turned and halfheartedly repressed a gagging sound. Riley’s desire to respect him was the only thing keeping me from shoving him into the water.
Riley grabbed his guitar and glanced at his phone, his gaze taking him somewhere else.
I whirled my hair up into a ponytail. “Who called?”
He looked from me to Austin. “My agent.”
“Did he leave a message?” My voice barely crested the roar of the waves in the background.
“Nah. He’ll probably call back.” Shrugging it off, he pocketed his phone and grazed my cheek with a kiss. “Meet up with you in a few.” He dipped his head at Austin and jogged toward our group of friends at the opposite end of the beach.
Austin spun the volleyball in his palm. “I know I’m not nearly as captivating as Mr. Perfect. But since I did come all this way to see you, I figure you can tear yourself apart from lover boy long enough to spend some time with your favorite brother.”
I held the corners of the blanket and shook the infinite grains of sand into the air. With any luck, they’d blow straight into his face. “You’re my only brother, Aust.”
“Hence, your favorite.” He lugged his burly arm around me and flaunted that goofy grin he knew I couldn’t turn down. “C’mon. Take a walk with me before we head out.”
I draped the blanket across one arm, looped the other around Austin’s, and resigned to forgo my escape on the southern end of the beach.
The sun beat through the thin film of water covering the tops of our feet. Austin dipped his shoulder into mine as we walked. “You miss San Francisco?”
I looked down the shore at the obvious answer to his question. “Parts, but I wouldn’t trade getting to spend the summer with my friends for anything.”
He fanned his arm in a semicircle in front of the famous Haystack rock. “I don’t suppose getting to spend afternoons on the coast of Cannon Beach has anything to do with it?”
“There is that.” In slow motion, I took in all nine miles outlining the beauty that had captured my heart over the last three years I’d been at Reed College. But it was so much more than that. “To be honest, I can’t imagine not staying and interning at the center this summer. Guess it sounds crazy, but—I don’t know—I feel like I’m meant to be there.”
I’d spent so long doubting I’d ever find a place I could say that about. Funny how needless that worry seemed now. The center had become a part of me. A part I’d fight for.
The stack of rejection letters I’d received from my requests for grant money tunneled to mind. “We’re running out of funding. Trey does his best to hide it, but it’s kinda hard to keep that from the one who does the books.”
Grains of sand burned into my feet, the thought of watching the center have to close searing deeper. I couldn’t let that happen. Especially not when Trey was depending on me. Even if he didn’t want to admit it.
“Poor guy’s dealing with enough right now. Wife leaving. Divorce attorneys fighting. It’s a mess. Last thing he needs is the stress of losing the center too.”
It still burned me. Trey’s wife walking out on him after thirty years. With the excuse of “
I never got to live my own dream,
” no less. Wasn’t sharing in each other’s dreams supposed to be a part of marriage? And did she really have to leave
When he needed someone to stand by him probably more than ever?
A burst of wind rolled off the ocean. I caught the blanket before it slipped off my arm and raked my bangs out of my face. “And don’t even get me started on the lack of support from the city. I get that the school district has to make budget cuts, but honestly, how do they expect kids to stay out of trouble if they take all their extracurricular activities away?”
Austin pried my fingers loose from his forearm. “Easy there, Em. You’re not passionate about this or anything, are you?”
“Maybe a little.”
After Riley’d awakened that sense of purpose in me last year, it was hard to restrain it. A gravitational pull lured my focus toward him as he sacked out on his towel. Seemed ironic. I’d tried so hard to convince him passion was a gift. Now I had to convince myself of the same.
Austin grinned. “Sounds like you’re right where you belong, then.”
For the kids’ sake, I hoped so.
A shriek rang from the water and tore my gaze toward my two best friends. Knee-deep in the ocean, Trevor held Jaycee from behind.
“Dunk her,” A. J. hollered from a little farther down the shore.
Jaycee circled around to Trevor’s back and hoisted her legs above his waistline. “Don’t you dare. The water’s freezing.”
Trevor stood tall—shirt off, ball cap on backward—challenging the wind to a match he appeared confident he’d win. “I don’t see you manning up, Bowers.”
Now he’d done it.
A. J. lunged to his feet, about to show him up, but Ashlea latched on to his bare arm. Squealing, she practically climbed on top of him when an incoming wave threatened to creep up higher than the last. It was hard to miss the way her emerald eyes danced above her freckled nose. At least, when they focused on anyone but me.
Her loose red curls whipped around her shoulders toward us as if she heard my thoughts. I spun in the opposite direction, almost dislocating Austin’s arm as I went.
He stumbled forward. “What’d you do to earn that death stare? Run over her cat?”
“Cute. I didn’t
anything.” I dragged my toes in the sand. “Ashlea gets all overprotective of A. J. Like she’s not convinced he let go of his feelings for me or something.”
I kicked a broken seashell into the water. “Positive.” After the way he’d barely spoken to me the last few months, I doubted A. J. even counted me in the
category anymore. I hugged the blanket to my stomach to hide the hole left from losing his friendship.
Austin must have sensed I wanted him to drop it. Either that, or he got sidetracked by the pair of tan legs stretched out on the sand a little ways ahead of us, where his girlfriend sat with her back against the volleyball pole. Hailey twisted her long wavy hair to the side and saturated her face with a spray bottle.
How did he manage not to mention he was dating someone before showing up with her this week?
He followed my line of sight and laughed. “You’re not still mad at me, are you? Things are in the early stages with Hailey and me. It’s not like we’re
I resisted the urge to dig my fingers into his ribcage. “You better tell me when you
get engaged. None of this surprise stuff.” I pinched his arm. “I mean it.”
“Okay, okay.” He danced out of my death grip. “You’ll be the first to know.”
A rush of water splashed over my shins and coated my ankles in frothy white foam. I twisted my engagement ring around my finger, thoughts churning with the waves. Some marriages made it, didn’t they? “Mom and Dad’s anniversary would’ve been this week.”
“Still is.” Austin hooked his arm around my back. “Even though he’s gone.”
I rested my head on his shoulder and let the tide draw the ache of missing Dad into the ocean. “Do you love Hailey?”
“Love?” He scratched his cheek. “I’m pretty crazy about her, but there’s a lot more to a relationship than all that love-at-first-sight stuff. I want to give it some time. See what’s left when that fades.”
Hand on my hip, I shifted my weight to one leg. “Who says it has to fade?”
Another snicker. “Dopamine doesn’t last forever.”
“They have biology classes at that fancy college of yours, don’t they?”
I craned my neck and fluttered my bangs off my lashes. “Oh, brother. Here we go.”
“I’m just saying, you can’t bank on those butterflies lasting. This isn’t a country song, Em. It’s life. And like it or not, life throws us into fires to see what we’re made of. Like a goldsmith.”
“Wow. Thanks for that abstract metaphor, oh wise one.” I bowed, hands folded. “Riley and I went through a pretty intense fire last year. Think we’ve already passed that test.”
I shook off the stitch of apprehension clipping into my side and raised my chin. “Our happily-ever-after isn’t going to fade. It’s real, permanent.” It had to be.
“I hope that’s not true, or I’m gonna have to attach a permanent gag bag to my shoulder.” Angling toward the ocean, he let out the full hurling sound he’d saved from earlier.
Would he ever grow up? “I get it if you think I’m not ready for marriage—”
the one who thinks that?”