Authors: Susan Mallery
She smiled at the memory. “I like Bertie a lot. She’s very stable.”
“Meaning you don’t have to be the only grown-up in the room?”
She nodded. Dylan would know all about that. He’d seen what she’d gone through. Sometimes she wondered if knowing about how difficult her family had been was one of the reasons he’d broken up with her.
“It helps.” She shifted on the sofa. “Enough about what’s going on in my family. What about you? Are you staying with your folks?”
He shook his head. “I came to the island a couple of months ago and bought a condo by the marina. I closed on it last week. I’ll be moving in over the next few days.”
He continued talking about the move, but she wasn’t listening. A condo at the marina? No doubt one of those new, fancy ones. With granite counters and a full-time concierge.
Ridiculous, she thought, her gaze dropping to the brown shag carpet that had to be at least fifteen years old. This was Blackberry Island. The UPS guy just left the packages on the porch.
She was aware that he was clean and smelled good. He looked better. Dylan had left and followed his dreams and now he was a successful, happy doctor. She was stuck in a rut, and for the life of her, she couldn’t say exactly how that had happened. How had ten years passed? How had she never made her break? Was it circumstances, or was she responsible? She had a bad feeling it was the latter.
“It’s late,” she said abruptly, coming to her feet.
Dylan looked startled for a second, then put down his wine and rose. “Sure. It was good to see you, Nina.”
“You, too. Thanks for the ride home. I really appreciate it.”
She walked him to the door, murmured the appropriate polite goodbye, then shut the door behind him. When she was alone, she returned to the sofa and sank onto the cushions. Her life was a disaster, she thought grimly. Or if not a disaster, then at least pitiful, which might be worse.
THE ART OF The Perfect First Kiss. Averil Stanton paused to reflect on the headline, then shook her head. No way.
magazine catered to girls, ages thirteen to nineteen. Talking about a
kiss was too limiting.
She continued to stare at the screen, then tried again. Every First Kiss is Different. Better, she thought. Because there was always a new first kiss. At least for them. Once you got married, the odds of a new first kiss were slim. So was the chance of a new first anything. Though she wouldn’t share that with her readers. They were young and hopeful and why depress them?
She paused to sip her tea. Not that she wasn’t happily married, she thought. Kevin was great, and she loved their life. She lived six minutes from the Pacific Ocean, in Mischief Bay—an eclectic Southern California beach town. She had her work and her friends and—
“Stop it,” Averil said aloud, then slammed her laptop shut and stood. She crossed to the window and stared out at the view of the side yard. It consisted of little more than the neighbor’s fence and the recycling bin, but was apparently more fascinating than her work.
She couldn’t focus, she thought grimly. Couldn’t write. Whatever was causing this was happening more and more. In the past few months, she’d turned in every article closer to deadline. Her boss hadn’t said anything, but Averil knew she would eventually. Digital content had to be produced regularly, and if Averil didn’t step it up, there were a hundred younger hopefuls ready to take her place. The print version of the magazine only came out once a month, but the online presence needed daily updates.
She walked to the battered armchair in the corner and dropped onto the mashed cushion. Maybe she should go see her doctor. Vitamins might help. Or hypnosis. Lately nothing had felt right. She was restless and couldn’t say why. Uneasy without a cause.
She glanced outside again. Maybe a run would bring her out of her funk. She’d already exercised that morning, but a run on the beach might clear her head. Or she could go to the mall and—
She looked up and saw Kevin standing in the doorway to her small office. After dinner she’d excused herself, saying she had to work. Something she was doing more and more, she thought. Disappearing to her private space, only to realize she still couldn’t focus, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything.
Now she saw there was a tightness to his face. She came to her feet. “Are you okay?”
“I decided to sharpen the knives in the kitchen.”
Her gaze dropped to his hand where a fresh bandage covered his middle finger. “Is it deep?”
“No. It’s fine. But while I was looking for a bandage, I found something else.” He stepped more fully into her office and held up a small, round, plastic container. “We’d agreed to start trying for a baby, Averil. Why are you still taking birth control pills?”
Averil felt instant heat on her cheeks as she instinctively looked for a place to hide. Or a way to escape. As Kevin stood between her and the door and she wasn’t willing to try leaping out the window, she was trapped.
“It’s not what you think,” she said loudly, even as she knew it was. “Having a baby is a big decision. You can’t expect me to get pregnant just like that. It’s not fair or reasonable.”
She tried to stop the words, knowing they could come back to bite her in the butt later. Because Kevin was nothing if not fair. They had talked...endlessly. For weeks and weeks. They’d made lists of the pros and cons and had mutually agreed it was time to start their family. Only she couldn’t seem to stop taking the pills. Every morning she told herself she was ready, and every morning, she carefully swallowed the next tiny pill.
“You’re still on birth control.”
He made the words a statement, but she nodded anyway. She braced herself for the fight, but instead of saying anything, he turned and left.
Averil stood in her office, trying to steady her breathing, wondering what would happen now. Finally she went down the short hallway and into the other spare bedroom. The one he used as his office.
He sat at his desk, the disk of pills next to his keyboard. He wasn’t typing, but he didn’t look up at her, either.
She’d met Kevin six years ago. She’d been in her senior year of college. A journalism major, sent to report on a street fair in Mischief Bay. Not her usual assignment. Averil had been the go-to reporter for her college newspaper, accustomed to hard-hitting stories on criminals or cover-ups. But one of the junior reporters had flaked out, and she’d agreed to fill in.
She was just pretty enough to be used to a lot of male attention. Tall and blonde, which made her practically an indigenous species on a California beach. She’d been taking notes and shooting pictures, when a guy had approached her.
He’d been kind of cute, about her height, skinny, with the intense look of someone with more intelligence than the average man-on-the-street. He’d held out her camera bag and said,
You left this on the bench back there.
She’d smiled and thanked him, then had playfully asked,
Are you going to hit on me now?
He’d shaken his head.
No, but I will tell you that you shouldn’t use autofocus in this setting. It’s letting in too much light, and you’ll lose contrast in the scene.
An unusual response. She’d studied him more closely, taking in the gold flecks in his brown eyes and shape of his mouth. He’d lacked the deep tan of a surfer—no surprise there. Engineer, she thought. Or computer science major.
You do like girls, right?
He’d smiled at her, then. A slow, sexy smile that had made her toes curl in her Keds and caused the noise around them to fade into the background.
I’ll take the pictures,
he’d said, reaching for the camera.
You make your notes.
I’m writing an article for
The Daily Bruin. She paused.
That’s the paper at UCLA.
I know what it is.
You’re out of college?
Yup. Just got a job at a software company here in Mischief Bay.
He’d slipped the strap around his neck and started making adjustments on the camera.
I went to MIT.
Smart, great smile and he had a job. Things were looking up.
He hadn’t hit on her, but he had asked her out. It had been three dates before he’d kissed her and nearly four months before they’d had sex. The day after she’d graduated, he’d proposed. She’d said yes to him and a full-time job at
“About the pills,” she said, stepping into his office.
“You said you were ready. You said you wanted to have kids. Have you changed your mind?”
“No. It’s just...” She took a step forward. “There’s a lot going on.”
“What’s going on now that isn’t going on all the time? We’re settled in the house, we have money in the bank. You have your job and your novel. What are you waiting for?”
She wished he hadn’t mentioned the novel. The one she was supposed to be writing. The one that was little more than a few notes and a hundred and forty-seven false starts. Saying you were going to write a novel was easy. Actually writing it—not so much.
“I’m feeling pressured,” she said, hearing the defensiveness in her voice and not liking it. “It’s so soon.”
“Our fifth anniversary is in a few months. It wasn’t exactly a shotgun wedding.”
He looked at her then, his brown eyes filled with what could only be betrayal. He looked as if she’d cut out his heart.
“Kevin, no,” she breathed as she started toward him. “I’m—”
He waited. “You’re what?”
“Nina told you to wait, didn’t she?”
Averil had to hold back the overpowering need to stomp her foot. “You always bring up Nina. Why do you hate my sister?”
“You know I like Nina a lot. I bring her up because she’s always with us.”
“That’s ridiculous. She’s a thousand miles away.”
“No, she’s not. She’s the voice in your head. You talk to her every day for weeks until you two have a fight, and then you complain about her every day until you two make up. She’s the opinion you care about most.” He returned his attention to his computer screen. “It’s never you and me making a decision. It’s always the three of us.”
She wanted to tell him he was wrong, but he wasn’t. Her and Nina’s last blowup had been about three weeks before, and they hadn’t spoken since. Funny—Averil couldn’t even remember what they’d been fighting about.
She looked at Kevin. She could feel his pain. He wanted more, and as much as she wanted to give it to him, she couldn’t. The problem with Kevin was that he saw her as more capable than she could ever be. But how was she supposed to tell the man in her life to expect less of her?
“I need more time,” she told him. “Please, stop pressuring me.”
She waited, expecting him to say that asking her to keep her word wasn’t exactly applying brute force, but he only nodded.
“I love you,” she whispered.
He looked at her then. “Sometimes I’m not so sure.”
* * *
The next morning, Nina woke without the alarm. One of the perks of a Saturday morning. She’d had a restless night. While she’d avoided the brownies calling her name, she’d given in to the wine. Worse, she’d dreamed of Dylan on and off. Probably the result of seeing him and then watching
The Day After Tomorrow.
She would guess that most women remembering a breakup went for a more classic romantic comedy or a movie that would make them cry. She would have, as well, but it was right after seeing
The Day After Tomorrow
that Dylan had broken up with her. She’d been making a point on global warming, and he’d announced he wasn’t going to be coming back to the island on weekends anymore.
Now the shots of ice and snow were firmly linked in her brain with the pain of losing the only man she’d ever loved. In her pathos, she’d noticed that the sheer size of the storm had matched the vastness of the emptiness filling her heart. Dylan had filled so much of her world, and now he was going to be gone.
All this time later, he was back. Not that it was going to be an issue for her, she told herself as she sat up and stretched. It wasn’t as if he’d sought her out. Their meeting had been completely random. Even on an island this small, she was unlikely to run into him very much.
For the best, she thought, standing by the bed. She would simply—
“Crap. My car!”
She’d never called Mike about it. Never asked him to tow it to his shop and start work on it. All because she’d been distracted by a handsome man from her past. Dylan had a lot to answer for.
She glanced at the clock and saw it was nearly eight-thirty. Which meant Mike’s repair shop had been open for an hour. Saturdays were busy for him, and she was pretty sure someone else would have gotten the beat-up truck that was his loaner car.
She walked into the kitchen and picked up the phone. Mike’s business card was one of a dozen held to the refrigerator by a tacky magnet designed for the tourist trade. No surprise to anyone, Nina’s mother collected them.
Mike answered on the third ring. “What?”
“It’s Nina Wentworth.”
“Hey, listen, I’m good but I’m not that good. I’ll get to it later today. I’m guessing the fuel injector, but I mean it. That’s a guess.”
Nina blinked several times. “Excuse me?”
“Your car. That’s why you’re calling, right? You’re not going to try to sell me any damn magazine subscriptions, are you?”
“What? No.” She walked over to the kitchen table and sat down. “My car is there?”
“Sure. I got a call yesterday just before closing to go pick it up. I had Benny drop off the loaner last night. You telling me you don’t know about this?”
She stood and walked into the living room. As she looked out the front window, she saw a battered pickup in the driveway.
Dylan, she thought, unable to believe he would have bothered. But there wasn’t another explanation.
“I, ah... Thanks, Mike,” she said. “I’m sorry to bother you. Let me know when it’s ready and I’ll be in.”