Beach Read

Page 61

He turned me against the table and eased me onto it as he walked in between my legs. He caught the collar of my open robe and slid it down my arms, leaving me bare on the table. “I’m working,” I whispered.

He lifted one of my thighs against his hip as he pushed in closer. “Are you?” His other hand rolled across my breast, catching my nipple. “I know you have a bet to win. This can wait.”

I dragged him closer. “No. It can’t.”

FOCUS WAS A problem. Or rather, focusing on anything but Gus was a problem. We decided to go back to writing in our separate houses during the day, which might’ve been a more successful solution if either of us had enough self-control to not write notes back and forth all day.

I want you, he once wrote.

When did writing get so hard? I wrote back.

Hard, he wrote.

He wasn’t always the instigator. On Wednesday, after resisting as long as I possibly could, I wrote, Wish you were here and drew an arrow down toward myself.

You’re not the only one, he wrote back. Then, Write 2,000 words and then we can talk.

This proved to be the key to getting anything done. We changed the goalposts. Two thousand words and we could be in the same room. Four thousand words and we could touch.

Our whole arrangement was seeming less like a sprint and more like a three-legged race, full of teamwork and encouragement. Ultimately, I was still determined to win, though I was no longer sure what I was trying to prove, or to whom.

At night, we went out sometimes. To the Thai restaurant we’d ordered from so many times, a cute little place where everything was gilded and you sat on cushions on the floor and ordered from a menu whose cover was mock papyrus. To the pizza place we’d ordered from so many times, a less cute little place with plasticky red booths and interrogation-room lighting. We went to the Tipsy Fish, a bar in town, and when someone Gus knew from town walked in, he nodded hello without jerking his hand away from me.

Even as we played darts and, later, pool, we stayed connected, visibly together, Gus’s hand curled casually around my hips or resting gently under my shirt at the small of my back, my fingers laced through his or snagged on his belt loop.

The next night, when we were leaving Pizza My Heart, we walked past Pete’s Book Shop and saw her and Maggie inside, having a glass of wine in the armchairs in the café.

“We should say hi,” Gus said, and so we ducked inside.

“It’s our anniversary,” Maggie explained airily.

“With North Bear,” Pete added. “The day we moved here. Not our anniversary—our anniversary’s January thirteenth.”

“No kidding,” I said. “That’s my birthday.”

“Really?!” Maggie seemed delighted. “Well, of course it is! The best day of the year—it only makes sense God would pull that.”

“A perfectly good day,” Pete agreed.

Maggie nodded. “And so is today.”

“I’d move here all over again,” Pete said. “Best thing we ever did, apart from falling in love.”

“And adopting the Labradors,” Maggie added thoughtfully.

“And extending a certain invitation to book club, which seems to have worked out all right,” Pete added with a wink.

“Tricking us, you mean,” Gus said, smiling.

He looked at me, and I wondered if we were thinking the same thing. It might not’ve been the best thing I ever did, moving here, showing up at Pete’s house that night for book club. But it was a good one. The best in a few years at least.

“Just stay for one quick glass, Gussy,” Maggie insisted, already pouring into the clear plastic cups they used for iced coffee.

One glass grew to two, two grew to three, and Gus pulled me onto his lap in the armchair across from them. Their hands were draped loosely between their chairs, knotted together, and Gus’s were rubbing idle circles on my back as we talked and laughed into the night.

We left at midnight, when Pete finally pronounced that they should be getting home to the Labradors and Maggie started whisking around to clean up, but we were too tipsy to drive, so we walked through the heat and mosquitoes.

And as we did, I thought over and over again, I almost love him. I’m starting to love him. I love him.

And when we reached our houses, we ignored them and followed the path down to the lake instead. It was a Friday, after all, and we were still bound to our deal.

We stripped off our clothes and ran, shrieking, into the cold bite of the water, hand in hand. Out until it hit our thighs, our waists, our chests. Our teeth were chattering, our skin was alive with chills as the icy water batted us back and forth. “This is terrible,” Gus gasped.

“It was warmer in my imagination!” I shrieked back, and Gus pulled me in against him, wrapping his arms around my back and rubbing it to bring warmth into my skin.

And then he kissed me deeply and whispered, “I love you.” And then again, with his hands in my hair and his mouth on my temples and cheeks and jaw, as a ratty plastic bag drifted past on the surface of the water. “I love you, I love you.”

“I know.” I sank my fingers into his back as if my grip could stop time and keep us there. Us and the too-cold lake and the litter swimming through it. “I love you too.”

“And to think,” he said, “you promised you wouldn’t fall in love with me.”


The Book

“I DON’T WANT TO do this,” I said. Gus and I were standing at the top of the stairs outside the master bedroom.

“You don’t have to,” he reminded me.

“If you can learn how to dance in the rain—”

“Still haven’t done that,” he interrupted.

“—then I can stare the ugly things down,” I finished.

I opened the door. It took me a few breaths before I could calm myself enough to move. A California King sat against the far wall, flanked by matching turquoise end tables and lamps with blue and green beaded shades. A framed Klimt print hung over the high gray headboard. Opposite the bed, a mid-century-style dresser stretched along the wall, and a small round table sat in the corner, draped in a yellow tablecloth and decorated with a clock and a stack of books—my books.

The room was otherwise ordinary and impersonal. Gus opened one of the drawers. “Empty.”

“She’s already cleared it out.” My voice shook.

Gus gave me a tentative smile. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

I went forward and opened the drawers one by one. Nothing in any of them. I went to the side table on the left. No drawers, just two shelves. A porcelain box sat on the top one.

This had to be it. The thing I’d been waiting for. The deep, dark answer that I’d expected to spring out at me all summer. I opened it.


“January?” Gus was standing beside the round table, holding the tablecloth up. From below, an ugly gray box stared back at me, complete with a numbered keypad on its face.

“A safe?”

“Or a really old microwave,” Gus joked.

I approached it slowly. “It’s probably empty.”

“Probably,” Gus agreed.

“Or it’s a gun,” I said.

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