I pull a couple of plates from the dishwasher and put a muffin on each one. “You know, most moms would have more to say about their daughter living with a random dude than how captivating he is.”
“Are you saying I’m wrong?”
“Oh, not at all. But don’t let that face fool you, he’s a captivating pain in the ass.”
“Must be why you get along so well,” she says with a winning smile.
“So where is he?”
The coffeemaker gurgles in the background and I carry the plates to the table. “He went back to bed.”
She looks at her watch and then back up to me, lips turned up in a knowing smirk. “What did you do to him?”
“Me?” I do my best to look innocent. She isn’t buying it. Busted, I set her muffin down in front of her and turn back to the kitchen. “Let’s just say date number two was a doozy.”
“Remind me again? The coffee guy and—” She pauses when she sees me nodding. “Oh dear.”
“You guys were excited for that one. It wasn’t fun?”
I’m not sure I’d describe it as fun, but it was definitely something.
Going off what little I’d told him about McKenzie, Josh had arranged for us to spend the day fishing on the Columbia. I’d been so excited I was up and dressed and in the kitchen making sandwiches before he was even out of bed.
We were set to meet and check in at the dock before sunrise. Hot barista—aka Kota—was already there, a drink tray with four coffees in hand. Points for the boy. I made a mental note to thank Dave, because looking at Kota? Dave did not oversell.
The sky was sherbet-colored and blurry, the air still dawn-cold while we introduced ourselves. Kota had dark hair that was shaved over his ear and dyed red at the tips. He had earrings, and a tattoo that peeked out the back collar of his shirt. I’m not even going to lie, I was smitten.
Then McKenzie pulled up.
We’d been standing at the side of the boat, conversing easily as we warmed our hands on the cups of coffee, when a red Honda Civic pulled into the lot. I noticed the way Kota stumbled in his story about the time Dave ate a bad egg salad sandwich at the shop. But he was still talking, and he was still pretty, so I didn’t let it distract me too much.
I heard a car door close and then the sound of boots crunching across gravel echoed through the early morning. I turned to McKenzie and smiled, waving an arm over my head. As she waved back Josh quieted, obviously checking her out. I assume it went something like this: Hot, good body, not immediately crazy. I owe Hazel big.
At least it should have.
But next to me, I felt Kota stiffen, and watched as recognition straightened his easy smile. As McKenzie neared, I saw it flicker across her face, too.
Shrugging it off, I rushed forward to meet her.
“You’re here!” I said, wrapping her into a tight hug. She smelled exactly like the salon I’d grown to love and I hoped Josh was paying attention as I subliminally threatened his balls if he somehow screwed this up. I stepped away, bouncing a little on my feet and clapping. “I’m so happy you came.”
“Of course!” Her eyes flickered over my shoulder, her spine stiffening.
I turned, looping an arm through hers as I led us back toward the guys. “Everything okay?”
She fell into step at my side, covertly looking at me from beneath her lashes. “What’s that guy’s name?”
The waves crashed against the pier as the tide came in, and a seagull squawked overhead. “That’s Josh! The friend I told you about. I swear you’re going to love him, he—”
“No, the other one.”
I glanced up at them, and then back again. “His name’s Kota. Do you know him?”
“Sort of,” she said under her breath, just as we reached the others.
“Josh, this is McKenzie.” Josh reached out to shake her hand and—huh. He gave her his pretty-boy smile. Not the small, sweet version he saves for the cashier at the grocery store, but the one I love—the one that reaches his eyes and carves a dimple into his cheek.
His unexpected, sun-coming-out smile.
Easy, Josh, let her settle in before you hit her with both barrels.
“And Kenzie,” I said, “this is—”
“Hey, McKenzie,” Kota cut in, a muscle twitching in his jaw.
Josh glanced to me, and then back at them. “You two know each other?”
“We went out a few tim—” Kota started to say, before Kenzie held up her palm.
“Fucked. We fucked a few times—and then he didn’t call me back.”
“Euuusssh” was pretty much the only sound I could make as the awkward ballooned around us. I looked to Josh for help.
He clapped his hands in front of him. “Maybe we should split up and do something else?”
McKenzie took a step forward, hooking her arm through Josh’s. “Not necessary.” Her smile was aimed at him but the venom in her voice was all for Kota. “I’m here with you.” A meaningful pause. “He doesn’t matter.”
“Mmokay?” The plea for help in Josh’s eyes was as clear as a flare shot up over his head.
We turned at the sound of our guide descending the plank that led to the dock, clipboard in hand. We checked in and were welcomed aboard and given slickers and boots. Introductions were made before a brief spiel about life preservers and where we were allowed on the boat, and where we weren’t. We were told to watch for ropes on the deck because they’re everywhere and dangerous and easy to trip over. The words death trap were definitely used. We talked about motion sickness and were told exactly where we could barf. I met Josh’s eyes over Kenzie’s head and was almost giddy to see him already smiling in my direction and mouthing the words, Not on my shoes.
Inside jokes, the sign of a true bestie.
Things seemed fine as we headed out on the water and started to fish.
I listened to everything our guide said, and did as the deckhand instructed. Kota was at my side, working his hot-dude charm. Despite the awkward start to the date, he was actually pretty funny. Even so, it was hard not to let my attention wander to where Kenzie—clearly putting on a show for Kota’s benefit—was laughing and clinging to Josh’s arm like he’d just proposed to her.
At one point my line pulled and began to disappear off the reel; whatever was on the other end was really trying to get away. The deckhand came over to help, as did Josh, but Kota and McKenzie sort of disappeared into the background. By the time I had my fish held in front of me, they were off on their own.
Josh eventually caught a fish and we took a few photos, but when an hour had gone by and our dates still hadn’t returned, we dug into our lunches and started to just … talk. Josh told me a little more about the kids they mentored down at the office, about Emily’s wedding and how he never worried about her, even for a second, because Dave was exactly who he would have picked.
I talked a little about my mom and Winnie and being excited for school to start again. I told him about the time I ran into my gynecologist at parent-teacher night and he pretended not to recognize me.
“That doesn’t exactly seem odd,” Josh said, leaning over to check his line. Occasionally a sturgeon would make itself known by jumping off in the distance, but nowhere near the hooks. At least, not yet.
“Why do they do that?” I asked, watching the shiny body flip through the air before landing with a splash. “I get why they do it when they’re hooked—I’d put up a fight, too. But this seems counterproductive. Like, you’re a fish and people are trying to find you. Hide!”
Josh laughed and rested his elbows on the edge of the boat. He was so handsome. Once he got over this Tabby thing he was going to have women lining up. But now, I could still see the reserve pinching his shoulders in, making the hesitation he felt spread across every one of his features. “I don’t know if anyone has asked the sturgeons directly, but I think it’s to clear their gills? Or maybe avoid predators.”
I squinted off into the distance. “Maybe it’s just fun.”
Josh grew quiet and I looked over to see him watching me. “I never thought of it that way before.” He turned back to look over the river; the water had turned a little rougher and we leaned into each other, bracing instinctively. “I can’t believe I’m encouraging this conversation, but you were telling me about your gynecologist snubbing you and I’m actually curious to hear how it turned out.”