Beach Read

Page 52

“Shit,” he said, this time under his breath. “This will only take a few minutes. Can I meet you at your house?”

I stared back at him, fighting the hurt building in my chest.

So what if he was kicking me out right after sex to take a mysterious call?

This was fine. It had to be. I had to be fine.

He was out of my system now. That was how it was supposed to work anyway. It had never been the plan to lie naked with him while he catalogued every piece of me with slow, careful kisses. Still, my stomach was sinking as I stood and gathered my clothes.

“Sure,” I said. Before I’d gotten my shirt on, Gus was halfway down the hall.

“Hello?” I heard him say, and then a bedroom door closed, shutting me out.

It was eleven when I walked back into my house. Gus and I were supposed to leave for the cookout soon. Pete had told Gus that Sonya couldn’t make it until later anyway so our best bet was to come for the first half of the day-to-night affair (pun unintended) and leave long before dessert wine and fireworks. When Gus had told me, I’d suggested I drive separately so he could stay until the bitter end.

“Are you kidding?” he’d said. “You can’t possibly imagine how much cheek-pinching you’re saving me from by coming. I’m not going to be alone with that crowd for more than thirty seconds.”

“What if I have to use the bathroom?” I’d asked.

Gus had shrugged. “I’ll make a getaway and leave you behind if I have to.”

“Aren’t you like four hundred years old?” I’d replied. “That seems a little old for both cheek-pinching and such a deep-seated fear of cheek-pinching.”

“I may be four hundred, but they’ve got at least a thousand years on me, and the talons of vultures.”

It was strange that that conversation had only happened about twelve hours before what had happened just now. More goose bumps rose along my spine.

The thought of never being with him again sent a new ache pinballing through my body, hitting every part of me he’d studied with his eyes and mouth and hands. The thought of never seeing him like that, naked and vulnerable and without any walls, whispering secrets straight into my bones, made my stomach drop.

One time, that was Gus’s rule. And this would definitely count.

He just had an important phone call, I told myself. It’s not about the rule or you or anything. But I couldn’t be sure.

I didn’t hear from Gus again until 11:45, when he texted me, Ready in 5?

Hardly. Even burning off energy walking back and forth, I was still thrumming with the memory of what had happened and anxiety about what came next. I hadn’t expected him to just drop it, text me like it had never happened, but probably I should have.

I sighed and texted back, sure, then hurried into the bedroom to change into a white sundress and a pair of red sandals I’d gotten during my last Goodwill run. I threw my hair up, then took it back down before putting on as much makeup as I could in the two minutes I had left.

Gus had cleaned up a bit. His hair was the same matted mess, but he’d put on a reasonably wrinkle-free blue button-up, the sleeves rolled up around his rigid-veined forearms. A nod was my only greeting before he climbed into the driver’s seat.

I got in beside him, feeling at least twice as awkward as I’d worried I would when I’d imagined some version of this scenario. Dumb bunny, dumb bunny, dumb bunny! I chastised myself.

But then I thought about the way he’d kissed my stomach, so tenderly, so sweetly. Were there really one-night—one-morning stands that felt that … real?

I looked out the window and put on my best (horribly inaccurate; 0/10) carefree voice. “Everything okay?”

“Mhm,” Gus answered.

I tried to read his features. They told me enough to know I should be worried but no more.

By the time we reached Pete and Maggie’s street, it was already crowded with cars. Gus parked around the corner and led the way through a side gate that opened onto one of the paths through their garden.

We bypassed the front door, instead winding around the house to the backyard.

A chorus of voices rose up, calling his name. When it ended, Pete sang, “Jaaaanuary!” and the rest of her guests followed suit. There were at least twenty people crowded around a couple of card tables under an ivy-draped trellis. Beer bottles and red cups littered the star-spangled paper tablecloths and, as promised, a long table at the edge of the patio was not only crowded but stacked with aluminum trays of food and cans of beer.

“Now there’s my handsome nephew and his lovely companion.” Pete was standing at the barbecue, flipping burgers in a KISS THE COOK apron. She’d added in Sharpie (JK! Happily married!) and Maggie was wearing her own white apron, whose message was entirely handwritten: KISS THE GEOLOGIST. Guests were crowded around a card table on the cedar-stained deck in the center of their whimsical garden, and past the edge of the deck, a few more were splashing around in the giant blue swimming pool.

“Hope you kids brought your suits!” Pete told Gus as he bent to hug her around her spatula. She loudly kissed his cheek and pulled back. “Water’s just perfect today.”

I glanced Gus’s way. “Does Gus own a bathing suit?”

“Technically speaking,” Maggie said, drifting forward to kiss her nephew on the cheek, “no, he does not.” She turned to plant one on me next, then went on, “But we keep one here for him all the same—he was an absolute fish when he was little! We’d take him to the YMCA and have to set a timer to drag him out of the pool, to keep him from peeing in it. We knew he’d never get out of his own volition.”

“This story’s completely made up,” Gus said. “That never happened.”

“Cross my heart,” Maggie said in her wistful, airy way. “You couldn’t have been more than five. Remember that, Gussy? When you were a little guy, you and Rose would come to the pool with us once or twice a week.”

Gus’s face changed, something behind his eyes, like he was sliding a metal door closed behind them. “Nope. Doesn’t ring any bells.”

Rose? Pete’s real name was Posey, a little bouquet. Rose must’ve been her sister, Gus’s mom.

“Well, the fact remains,” Maggie went on. “You loved to swim, whether you do it now or not, and your suit’s just waiting in the spare room.” Maggie looked me up and down next. “I’m sure we could find something that would fit you too. It’d be long in the upward direction. And the across direction. You’re a tiny thing, aren’t you?”

“I never thought so until this summer.”

Maggie rubbed my arm and smiled serenely. “That’s what living among the Dutch will do to you. We’re hardy stock out this-a-way. Come meet everyone. Gussy, you say hi too.”

And with that, we were spirited through Pete and Maggie’s back garden. Gus knew everyone—mostly faculty and the partners and children of faculty from the local university, along with two of Maggie’s sisters—but seemingly had very little to say to any of them beyond a polite greeting. Darcy, Maggie’s youngest sister, was a good three inches taller than Maggie with yellow, straw-like hair and giant blue eyes, while Lolly was a good foot shorter than Maggie with a blunt gray bob. “She’s got horrible middle child syndrome,” Maggie whispered to me as she guided me and Gus to another nook in the garden where they’d set up a beanbag toss. Two of the Labradors ran amiably back and forth, making half-assed attempts to catch the beanbags as the kids threw them.

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