The words land like stones in my chest. On instinct, I look down to where my hands lie relaxed and deceptively innocent in my lap. It’s weird to be asked about it. With a jolt, I realize I never have. Everyone in my life who ever noticed something was different about me—Peyton, Annabeth, even my brothers, eventually—waited until I explained on my own.
So maybe weird isn’t the right word. It’s nice to be asked. “I’m pretty good at hiding it most of the time,” I tell him, “but you’ve probably noticed that my fingers don’t always cooperate.”
“I did, but—well, we’ve been together a lot lately. There aren’t that many places to look,” he says with an apologetic smile. “I chew on my nails when I’m anxious. I just assumed you were a fidgeter.”
I laugh, and the tension slowly leaves me. It’s nice to be able to tell James what’s going on. Means I won’t have to sit on my hands quite so much around him. “It’s called dystonia. Focal dystonia in my case. Basically, when your brain tells a muscle to move, it’s also telling another muscle not to. With dystonia, both muscles around a joint will contract at the same time. It means my hands clench into fists and spasm—mostly my left hand, but occasionally my right. Sometimes my fingers flex and extend, and become generally uncooperative.”
“It’s worse in your left hand,” he says quietly. “That’s why I’ve seen you try to use your right sometimes even though you’re a lefty?”
I stare at him for a few seconds. He noticed all of that? I’m not sure if that means he’s curious or fascinated, but thankfully his attention feels warm, not clinical. “If I keep dropping my pencil, yeah.”
He winces. “Does it hurt?” His voice is so gentle, it’s almost painful.
“What are the appointments for?”
“Botox,” I say, and throw him a dramatic pout. “It keeps the muscles from cramping. But I get it in my hands, obviously, so I don’t even get to be wrinkle-free from it.”
He lets out a quiet groan. “I’m sorry, Carey.”
“Eh,” I say, grinning, “I don’t have any wrinkles yet anyway.”
“I mean about all of it,” he says, awkwardly rushing to clarify.
Reflexively pushing past the sympathy, I say, “It’s fine. Melly can be terrible, but she’s been there for me when I needed it. She lets me design. She lets me make things. I don’t know another company that would let me do that with my level of experience.” I lie back on the cement and look up at the windows; more of them are dark now than there were before. I imagine looking for another job. Going to interviews. Having to explain to a new boss and coworkers that I won’t always be able to keep my hands still, that sometimes I can’t grip a phone or a pencil or do something as simple as fasten a button. I’ve only written a résumé once and I’m sure it was terrible. I laugh when I remember that, the one time I applied for another job, under “Previous Work Experience,” I included eleventh grade accounting class.
I put my hands over my face and groan. “Want to hear something crazy?”
“I actually started seeing a therapist because I needed someone to talk to, but then couldn’t tell her anything about work because of the way the NDA is worded. How fucked up is that? Okay. I’m going to shut up. I’m depressing both of us.”
“No, you’re not.” I hear James set the empty bottle on the cement. “But come on. Let’s do something.”
I open my eyes to see him towering over me.
“Like what? It’s not like we can go anywhere, and I don’t want to go inside. I have to save my money if I’m about to be unemployed.”
He slides his hands into his pockets, jiggling some change, and I notice his arms again. Tan, nicely toned, not too veiny. Just a smattering of hair. “Let’s swim.”
I snap my attention back to his face. “I already told you, I didn’t bring a suit.”
“When did that ever stop you before?” He starts to unbutton his shirt. His collarbones come into view and—okay, wait, he has my attention now.
I sit up, reaching out to stop him. “I’m not going skinny-dipping at a hotel pool!” I lean forward, hissing, “Are you insane?”
He shrugs out of his button-down to reveal a riveting stretch of bare chest and stomach underneath. I’ve never imagined James shirtless before.
I was not prepared. He’s not at all bulky, but he’s defined, with smooth, tan skin and muscles that lengthen and flex as he moves. My mouth waters again, this time not for the Funyuns.
“I’m not talking about getting naked,” he says, and I try to ignore the way all my nerve endings sit up and pay attention. He unfastens his belt and nods toward the pool. Have I ever noticed the sound of a belt before? Because right now the slide of leather and click of the buckle are bordering on obscene.
“You can go in wearing what you’ve got on,” he says. “Come on.”
“I didn’t bring that many clothes,” I whine.
He grins down at me. We both know I’m stalling.
With his belt unfastened, he bends and places his hands on his knees, bringing his eyes almost level with mine. He looks pointedly at my clothes. “They’ll dry.”
He holds out a hand.
Moments pass during which I contemplate all the ways this could end badly, before I think, But how badly, exactly? Someone sees us having a good time and swimming in our clothes? Is that really so terrible?
I take his hand—it’s really warm—and let him help me to my feet.
“Maybe take this off, though.” He points to my denim jacket, buttoned all the way to the top. I know it’s ridiculous, but I’m instantly anxious about being able to unfasten the buttons in front of him.
As if reading my mind, he takes a step closer. “Can I help?”
I nod, too flustered to insist that I can do it myself.
First of all, he knows this. Second … I just really want him to.
With steady fingers he reaches for the bottom button and coaxes it through the material. It’s so quiet I can actually hear the sound of the fabric sliding over metal, the water where it laps against the side of the pool. The way I’m holding my breath.
Breathe, Carey. You will definitely ruin the moment if you pass out, fall, and have to be dragged unconscious from the water.
He moves slowly but surely, from my waist, over my breasts, and to my neck. His eyes never stray from where his hands are working, but even in the dark I can see the way his cheeks are flushed. Does he notice how hard I’m breathing? I’m doing everything I can to not dwell on the fact that he’s shirtless and essentially helping undress me.
When he’s done, our eyes meet only briefly before he steps back, arms falling loosely at his sides.
“Thanks.” I don’t think I’ve ever been this turned on, and he only helped me unbutton a jacket. Lord help me when I see him wet.
Lost in this image, I startle when he finally pulls his belt free with a distracting snap. He sets it with his watch on one of the lounge chairs. I take mine off, too.
“You ready?” he says, recovered and grinning in a way I know I’ve never seen before, not even when I was teasing him about a tie he wore one day, and then my chair immediately broke in hilarious karmic retribution.
I nod my head. “No.”
He laughs and his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat and I’m reminded that there is bare skin below—
He unbuttons his pants and steps out of them, leaving him in only a pair of black boxers.
“On the count of three,” he says, and I’m rendered momentarily mute, unable to drag my eyes away from his legs and his hip bones and the small stretch of fabric in between. “One. Two—”
He never gets to three. I think of the afternoons on the river, the sun scorching in the sky but the feeling of glacial water on my skin. I remember the rush of gripping the rope and the freedom of letting go, trusting that the water would be deep enough, even though there was every chance in the world that it wouldn’t.
I race toward the edge and jump. My heart is in my throat as I’m swallowed by darkness, beating a hundred times a minute when I surface again.
I tread water, using my hands and feet to turn just as James’s shout cuts through the air. His cannonball creates a giant splash, and I laugh as he bursts up again.
“You had your feet in it, this shouldn’t be a surprise,” I say, cracking up and scooping a handful of water to throw at him.
He chases me around and I swim away, squealing. He dives beneath the surface, his hand gently finding my ankle and skimming up my calf. I kick and flail, the filmy layers of my skirt billowing up around my legs in a pink cloud. I think I kick him in the face. When we finally come up for air we’re still laughing.
“I can’t believe I agreed to this,” I say. “You’re a bad influence.”
He reaches up to push back his hair. “Me? I’m the goody-goody here. I’ve never skinny-dipped in my life.”
“And you still haven’t,” I say, splashing him again and then screeching as I try to get away. He dives beneath the water, and it feels like I’m looking into a shimmering fun-house mirror, trying to figure out where he’ll pop up again.
I never find out because his arms loop around my waist and I’m pulled under and spun around; a grinning James appears right in front of me. Bubbles escape his mouth as he laughs, but his eyes go wide when I turn the tables and lunge for him. I chase him around the pool, but my hands only skim his legs. And then he stops, surprising me with how close we are, and my palms slide up his stomach and chest.
When we break the surface, I realize we’re right at the side of the pool. He spins me so I’m against the wall and his arms gently cage me in. I’ve never been this close to James McCann before.