w. My life wasn’t cut short like I’d feared. I was given a second chance. I’d missed a lot and it was time I stopped missing. Momma didn’t need to hover anymore. I was healthy and I was an adult. I’d stayed home to keep her happy. Now it was time for me to live the life I should have been living. The one I had held off on for my momma’s sake. I knew dad would understand. He’d be sad but he’d get it. However actually telling them I was moving out wasn’t going to be easy.
I WAS SAVED. After three days without Eli, who was at basketball camp, Larissa came and rescued me. She was taking me to the beach to stay with her for the rest of the week. No more feeding the chickens and gathering the eggs or organizing the barn with daddy. That was the worst. I was getting a farmer’s tan and I wanted the kind of tan a bikini line was involved in.
Eli called yesterday and I told him how boring things were. I was fifteen. This summer was supposed to be fun. Not like all my other summers. Helping daddy on the farm was no longer exciting for me. I told Eli this and the next thing I knew his Aunt Larissa who was three years older than us called me. I owed him big.
Larissa would be leaving to go away to college in the fall. But for now she still lived at home with her parents, which were Eli’s grandparents. They had a big fancy house on the beach with a pool that was to die for. I couldn’t wait. Momma agreed I could go. I’d asked her pleading on my knees while I handed her the phone when Larissa called to ask. Of course, she had to talk to Larissa’s mom but in the end she said “yes” and here I was. Standing on the white, sugar sand beaches of Sea Breeze, Alabama. It was full of tourists and boys with tanned bodies and it smelled like the ocean and coconut oil and I loved it. Loved it! This was what I’d dreamed my summer would be filled with. Now I was here and living this life.
I owed it all to Eli and I would find a way to thank him. He loved my chocolate chip cookies. But those seemed inadequate. He deserved more for this rescue. Maybe I would talk to my dad about taking Eli fishing. He got along with my brothers and he liked to go fish in the summer at our hunting camp. My dad and brothers never hunted but they loved to fish. Eli wasn’t one for shooting the deer either but he also loved to fish.
Larissa was flirting with the lifeguard and I couldn’t blame her. He was very attractive. Smiling at the idea of finding someone my age to flirt with I put down my towel and took off my cover up. The hot pink bikini I had on covered more than what most of the girls wore out here. A lot more than Larissa’s. But it was all my daddy would approve of and getting him to approve of this one had almost been impossible.
I thought about putting in my earbuds, listening to music and enjoying the view. But then I changed my mind. I liked the sound of the waves and people surrounding where I lay. I pulled Pride and Prejudice out of my bag. This would be my sixth time to read it. Hands down this was my favorite book.
Just as I was about to finish chapter two a shadow fell over me. I figured it was Larissa. Looking up I grinned, about to ask if she had herself a hot date. My eyes locked on a familiar face. One that was older, a face I remembered, from two long summers ago. A face a girl would never ever forget. His silver eyes were stunningly breathtaking.
He was sixteen now but his muscular bare chest looked at least eighteen. I hoped Larissa didn’t see him. Her tiny bikini and D cup boobs would draw his attention real fast.
“Bliss,” he said, remembering my name.
“Nate,” I replied as I sat up. I’d day dreamed about him often since that meeting on the beach when I was thirteen years old.
He smirked like he was impressed. Like he expected me to remember him but wasn’t positive I would.
“I was beginning to wonder if you still lived around here.” He spoke then moved to take a seat beside me. He made it look sexy and cool, just like I remembered from that summer. He wasn’t awkward, didn’t weirdly squat, like most people do in the sand.
“You’ve looked for me?” I asked. My heart doing a happy flutter in my chest. He had actually wanted to find me.
“Of course I did. You’re my favorite memory about this place. Sure as hell ain’t my grandpop’s bar.”
He cursed. Eli never cursed. My brothers did when my parents weren’t listening, but they didn’t do it in public. When they were out having to work on the farm they would curse for the sake of cursing. The way Nate did it seemed much older. Like he was sure of himself.
“How long are you in town for?” I asked specifically wanting to appear as cool as Nate did with his cursing. Though inside I felt something else. I was like a silly little girl that wanted to squeal that he was here. That my dream guy had returned to Sea Breeze.
“All summer. My parents think I need a break from Rosemary Beach and my friends. In other words, I’m being punished.”
“Punished?” I asked from fascination.
He grinned then winked at me. “A story for another time. No need to scare you off. Hell, I just found you.”
Scare me off? Hardly. I wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, I would sit in this spot all summer and refuse to leave if it meant Nate Finlay would be by my side.
Seven years later . . .
SENIOR PROM. I didn’t go to mine. Much like everything else in high school. I missed it all. It wasn’t until I turned nineteen that I went on my first real date. The only experience I had with boys until then was one summer when I was fifteen. I spent it with a boy. One I’d never forget. He was like everything else in my life that had been good . . . before the cancer.
In late October after he’d returned to Rosemary Beach, Florida, I began experiencing fatigue with a fever. Neither could be explained. By November both were out of control and I was then diagnosed with leukemia. My world changed in one visit, that consultation with the doctor and my family. And the boy I thought I loved was put away in my memory to adore. When I was scared, I brought him to mind, which back then was way too often.
I didn’t answer his calls or respond to his texts and around Christmas he gave up trying. What would I say to him? The idea of that boy seeing me hairless with all the side effects of chemo would ruin those special memories of the summer we had together. So, I preserved them yet in return lost him. Everything soon became all about surviving each day. Beating the darkness of the cancer that ravaged my physical body. In the end, I won.
Yes, I have beaten cancer. However, since my mother lost her father to cancer, my mother continues to hover over me. She can’t allow me to live normally although I’ve been cancer free for almost four years now. Dad said to “be understanding.” My mother was terrified when I was first diagnosed. She cried a lot back then and held me. I often wonder if I fought so hard to beat it because I didn’t want my momma to hurt. I couldn’t stand the idea of how she’d suffer if she lost a child.
Now here I was at twenty-two, still living at home taking photos of the oldest of my three younger brothers Cruz. Snapping photos of him with his date to the prom. Living through watching him was something I was accustomed to. Although I was ready for that to change. I was glad my brothers had normal lives and I’d been able to experience the normalcy I lost by observing them. Cruz had done all the things I hadn’t been able to do during my bout with leukemia.
Watching my momma and daddy, especially momma, being parents to healthy kids was nice and I loved to see it. The boys gave up a lot during those years that my sickness owned our family. They had to stay with my parents’ closest friends, Willow and Marcus Hardy. Mom and dad had lived with me, at the Children’s Hospital in Atlanta.
Cord was now sixteen. Our parents had missed his tenth birthday because I was going through chemo that day. Clay had turned eight that very same year and they’d also been absent for that. I was lucky the boys weren’t bitter. The leukemia didn’t only rob my teenage years, but it also stole many of their memories. Memories my parents should’ve been a part of. Instead, the boys made me cards, sent me boxes filled with magazines and books, along with cookies they made with Willow.
Finally, as a family, we’d come into balance. We were mostly normal now. As I took the last photo of Cruz and watched momma kiss his cheek, I could smile and know everything was okay. I was here to see my brothers gro
“Drive careful,” dad called to Cruz. He was taking Dad’s new blacked out Jeep and dad really loved that Jeep. This was one of the many ways my parents tried to make it up to the boys. They knew they’d missed a lot of their life because of me. So, they tried to make what they weren’t missing extra special.
“Have fun! Text me photos!” my mother yelled to them as they left. As if Cruz would be taking pictures and texting them to his mother. I tried not to smile, but failed, the idea was funny to me.
“Mom, he won’t be taking any pics.” Cord broke it to her with a roll of his eyes before momma turned around and grinned. “I know. I said it to Christina. She will. She’ll be glad to.”
Christina was his date and girlfriend. They’d been together for about three months. This was a record for him. My brother went through girls like crazy. Christina he called his “girlfriend.” This was a first for Cruz.
Hadley Stone was his long running torch. She was a year older than Cruz and the daughter of a rock star, who happened to be friends with my parents. Jax Stone had been a major teen idol back when my dad was in college. He was now a rock legend, though he married one woman, and stayed with her all these years. They raised two daughters together, their stability making him popular, because usually it was the other way around.
Hadley, however, was different. She had been sheltered because of Jax’s fame and she wasn’t very social. Every time we had a get together with my parents’ group of friends Cruz would constantly flirt with Hadley. It was comical and a little sad. She wasn’t interested in the least.
Cruz typically got any girl he wanted. He looked just like dad at that age. Momma said he was the spitting image of daddy. But Hadley wasn’t impressed. It was good for him I guess. Cruz had an ego Hadley kept in check. He needed that to keep him grounded.
“I’m going to the movies with Hendrix.” Cord headed for the old blue Ford truck that he shared with Cruz on a schedule.
“I thought y’all had been banned from the theatre,” momma reminded him.
Cord glanced back over his shoulder. “Not the one in Mobile. Just Sea Breeze.”
“Don’t get into trouble,” dad said, in his stern and fatherly voice.
Hendrix Drake and Cord couldn’t go anywhere and not get into trouble.
“Good luck with that,” I replied.
Momma looked at me concerned. “Those Drake boys are a mess.”
I laughed, in my opinion, that’s the pot calling the kettle black. People said the same about the York boys. Momma’s boys were as bad as the Drake’s. It’s why my best friend Eli Hardy and I have been referring to the Drake’s and my brothers as “the terrible six,” since shortly after their births.
“I need to talk to y’all while the boys are gone,” I then told mom and dad. My youngest brother Clay was staying the night with Keegan Drake. I needed to take this opportunity to tell them I’d be moving out. Next week was closing fast.
“Okay,” momma replied, studying me closely now.
Dad added “can we talk over dinner?”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s fine.” It wasn’t going to be easy either way, with or without food didn’t matter.
“What’s this about? Are you feeling okay?” Momma suddenly looked terrified. She lived with the fear of my resuming sickness and I wished she wouldn’t.
“I feel great. It’s not that.”
“You look a little pale,” she said, putting her hand to my forehead.
“Momma, I’m fine.”
This was why I had to leave. She’d always treat me like this. The sick little girl who she had to take care of and protect.
“If you think you’re getting sick we need to see a doctor . . .”
“Momma, I’m not sick,” I interrupted her again.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m moving out.”
They both suddenly froze. Neither had a response.
OCTAVIA’S? SERIOUSLY? OCTAVIA’S? She was naming it after herself. I wondered why this surprised me. Octavia was brilliant and had also been blessed with a dose of creativity. A generous one I admit. But she was also the only child of the Beckett Department Store founder. Much like myself Octavia was privileged, born into wealth and raised with advantage, although hers affected her differently.
This was why my mother was not happy about me announcing our engagement. Mom didn’t care for Octavia. She said she wanted for me what she and dad had but that wasn’t going to happen. Mom thought I would have that with Lila Kate. I knew what they were all thinking. They had my wedding planned and booked the moment Lila Kate was born. When they found out Lila Kate was a girl they all started planning it in their heads. Sure they didn’t say it but they sure as hell thought it. The whole damn bunch even if they don’t admit it. Octavia wasn’t Lila Kate. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
The problem with Lila Kate was we thought of each other as family. She was just like another little sister. She knew it and felt the same way. Our mothers, however, were still holding onto hope and believing we could still get married. That we would magically come together.
Octavia fit me. We were more alike than my mother realized. We both wanted to make our own mark on the world separate from our well-known parents. We wanted to travel and didn’t want kids. She was a touch spoiled. No, actually Octavia was ruined, but we’d agreed to sign prenup agreements to protect both of our interests.
What my parents had was rare. You didn’t find a lot of them out there in this world anymore. Sure, I’d grown up around family and friends that lived in similar circumstances and had great marriages. But I wasn’t like them or their children. I didn’t want to settle down in Rosemary Beach, breed and raise my offspring. Neither did I desire afternoons filled with golf followed by dinner at the Kerrington, the elite country club in town. I wanted to chase a life that I didn’t know and depend on myself for a living. I wanted to be my own man.
I shoved those thoughts aside. That was the life my mother wanted for me. Not the one I wanted and she knew it. She’d respect it. Time to focus on what I needed to do. I was here to get Octavia’s shipment moved in while she was in Rome buying more. Her grand opening was two weeks away. There was a lot to be done in fourteen days and I had a feeling I was going to be stuck. The only positive was I’d have time with my grandpop while doing this shit for Octavia. My mom’s dad owned a restaurant in Sea Breeze, Alabama where the first Octavia’s was opening. Next month the tourists would come and she wanted to be ready for them.
I pulled the keys to her store from my pocket and headed for the seaside location. Of course, her store was right in the most expensive part of the strip. Grandpop’s place wasn’t anything like this. It was far from the higher end, brand new construction. His place had character that didn’t overwhelm you. Octavia’s business had polish and flair, but it didn’t have a history like grandpop’s.
The door to Octavia’s swung open and out stepped a tower of boxes. I stopped, because the tower was tipping towards me, and just before it crashed I spoke.
“Careful,” I said, before reaching to steady the body behind the cardboard. “Can you see where you’re going?”
A heard a squeal and then they came down. I moved to help when my eyes locked with a pair I knew all too well. I’d only seen eyes like that once before and they were blue and deep and cool. The long thick dark hair tumbling down past her shoulders was also familiar to me. She was older and her body now curved in all the right places. She had definitely developed since the teenage years. No
longer fifteen she’d become a woman.
Bliss York had been my first love. Or so I’d thought back then. Come to find out she’d been my first lust, because I had no idea how to love. Her face could stop traffic and that was without any makeup. She was as natural as I remembered. Nothing fake about her. Her smile had once made everything perfect in my world.
“Oh, I’m sorry . . .” she said, trailing off as her eyes scanned my face. I saw the realization there. She remembered me. Knew who I was. The boy who had given her that first kiss. Told her he would love her forever. Then I left after a summer of what I thought was the beginning of forever. I’d been a bit of a dreamer back then. It was before I realized that women weren’t as soft and pretty on the inside as they were on the outside. My mother was perfect, inside and out, but my little sister Ophelia had a definite evil streak.
“You work here?” I asked before she could say my name. I didn’t want to remember that summer. I had remembered it for far too long. Once I finally got it through my head that Bliss York wasn’t the perfect girl, I’d let myself forget her entirely.
She opened her mouth to speak, then slowly nodded her head.
I knew that Octavia had hired someone to help her get things ready. I just hadn’t been told her name. Not that it mattered. That was seven summer’s back and a part of my past that would stay there.
I picked up a fallen box. “I’m Octavia’s fiancé Nate.” That should answer her questions and also lead her to believe I didn’t remember. “I’ll get these boxes to the recycle bin.”
I didn’t wait for her to give me her name. I went to work picking up the rest of the fallen boxes. She didn’t move for what felt like several minutes, but was just a few fleeting seconds. I was tense. Not sure why. If she told me who she was and asked if I remembered, I could still act as if I’d forgotten. Seven fucking years had passed. We’d been kids then. We weren’t now. I was a different person and I was sure she was too.
“Okay, um . . . thank you,” she said. I wanted to look up and watch her go. To take in the woman she’d become. To see just how much her body had changed. The glimpse I’d allowed myself at first had been impressive and I wanted another. She had been a beauty back then. Now she was gorgeous and I had to fucking work with this beauty for the next two weeks.
This would only happen to me.
I turned to walk off with the boxes when the door opened back up.
“I’m sorry. I forgot to tell you where the recycle bin is located.” She sounded formal, nervous and unsteady. I could ease her worry by just being honest and clearing the air right now. But that meant I had to remember her. The girl I’d purposely forgotten. I’d told her I loved her and she had been the only girl I’d ever said that to. You live and learn in life and I’d lived and learned with Bliss York.
I have to stop musing on this shit.
“It’s just behind the building there,” she pointed.
I nodded. “Got it.” Then I walked off. I didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t even thank her.
“Do you need help?” she called out.