Finally, Yours by Elizabeth SaFleur

 

Metal hangers clanked against one another as Julianna swiped them across the wood rod. The white crocheted cover-up was too “come hither.” The big flowered one better suited her great Aunt who’s retired in Florida. The blue one brought out her eyes but it was a chambray A-line that made her look like she was hiding something. Dammit, why hadn’t she packed better?

Perhaps it was because she’d never in a million years thought she’d ever care about looking good to a man ever again…like, ever, ever, ever.

Screw this.

She yanked a large T-shirt off its hanger and picked up her shorts. She was being ridiculous. Gerard was only being nice yesterday. When he offered to join her at the beach to build a sandcastle with her, it probably was just his impeccable British manners at work. His interest had likely drifted away in the wind by the time he got back to his house.

She pulled her hair up into a ponytail, checked her mascara—she was being an idiot for wearing it at all—and told herself to just go down to the beach for her own enjoyment. She should not count on him being there.

As soon as she climbed the wood steps that led visitors over the dunes, her gaze landed on a dark-haired man sitting cross-legged on the sand, gazing out at the water.

Oh, wow. He showed up.

Buy was he … meditating? His arms were draped over his knees and his back was ramrod straight.

As she drew closer, she could see his eyes were closed. Unsure as to whether or not she should interrupt him, she dropped to her butt ten feet away and studied the waves.

“Good morning.” His voice was barely audible over the ocean's roar.

Her head swiveled to face him.

“I brought ID,” he called over to her.

A laugh burst from her throat. He not only came, he remembered their conversation.

He uncrossed his legs and stuffed his hand into his short's front pocket. “You think I’m kidding.” He drew out a leather wallet that appeared brand new—the leather shone in the early morning sun—and pulled out a card. He held it up to her, the edges cupped in his hand.

She squinted. “That could be a grocery store loyalty card for all I can make out.” At this distance, she wouldn’t be able to read the top line of an eye chart.

Delightful lines formed around his eyes as a grin formed on his handsome face. “I’m afraid I’m no good in American grocery stores. Too big. I get lost.” He stuffed his wallet back into his pocket.

“Don’t cook?”

He rose. Sand covered his shorts and ankles. “Oh I do … if I have someone to cook for. So, you ready for that sandcastle lesson?” His eyes twinkled down at her.

God, he was big. Even from ten feet away, he appeared at least six foot four inches tall.

He lifted a small mesh bag. Bright plastic pieces showed through the latticework. “Look what I found in the owner’s closet.” He waggled his eyebrows.

She gasped and jumped to her feet. “You broke into the owner’s closet? That’s sacrilege.” When renting a house, one never, ever should break into the private—and usually very locked—closet that held items meant only for the beach house owner.

His shoulders lifted in a delicate shrug. “Well, given I’m the owner, I figured it was okay.”

“But …” She glanced up at his home visible over the dunes. It could easily house four families with its nine bedrooms, nine and a half baths, gourmet kitchen, heated pool complete with built-in spa, and two game rooms. So what if she looked it up? “I thought the owner’s description said…” She slapped a hand over her mouth.

He dropped his chin and stared at her—hard. “Google me, did ya?” And, then his grin was back.

“No.” Rather, she’d done her due diligence. She looked up the listings of every rental agency in the Outer Banks, and discovered the house was listed under a different company than the one who employed her—or had employed her. No owner information on his house was given, naturally, which really irked her.

“Well, I’m disappointed then.” His brows furrowed. “You should always, always know who you’re going to build a sandcastle with. I mean, what if I’m rubbish and steer you wrong?” He stepped closer, and his perma-grin never faltered.

Her feet instinctively stepped her backward. “What I saw yesterday wasn’t rubbish.” Nothing about him or his castle-building skills could be called that. Rather, all his ... tallness, wide smiley-ness, very British-ness gorgeousness was the antithesis of rubbish. Shoot. There just had to be a pandemic going on when this guy washed up on her beach, didn't there?

“Well, then, let’s give her a go. Ready?” He gestured toward his feet.

She quickly glanced around more out of habit than anything else. Only two other people were visible on the beach, both rather far away. But really what could Gerard do to her? Hit her over the head with the turquoise octopus mold he just pulled out of his mesh bag and bury her in the sand?

She pointed. “Is that a seahorse?”

He held up the yellow mold. “Yep. And we’ve got a turtle, two turret molds, a piece of wall, and …” He pulled out a hot pink star and showed it to her. “A starfish. Dibs on the octopus.” He tossed the starfish mold her way, but the wind caught it and it landed halfway between them.

They both looked down at the thing and then back up at each other. His eyes were more green than blue now that she really looked into them.

“Well…that’s a conundrum.” He scratched his chin. “Oh, bother.” He dramatically anchored one foot by grinding it in the sand and stepped forward with the other. He scooped up the wayward starfish and jumped back to his original place. “Breaking the six-foot distance doesn’t count if one foot stayed in the safety zone.” He threw the mold with more effort and it landed at her feet.

She laughed for the second time in less than five minutes. No one had raised up mirth in her so quickly in years. Oh, shit. She liked him—like really liked him, and they’d spent maybe ten minutes together in total? He probably leaves his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor and toothpaste in the sink, she told herself. She couldn’t afford to have fantasies about men right now.

“Now.” He dramatically looked around. “Finding the right spot is key. Too close to the shoreline and your work is washed away. Too far, and the sand’s no good.”

“Sand connoisseur?” She arched an eyebrow at him.

“I’m a connoisseur of many things.” He waggled his eyebrows once more and then lowered himself to the ground.

Was there anything sexier than a man with a sense of humor? No.

The man also turned out to have quite the work ethic. For long minutes, he dug a trench. She followed his movements, instinctively knowing this is what he intended—for her to mimic him.

“Do you always start with the moat?” she called over to him.

“Not always. Sometimes I like to start with the tower.” His hands molded a long spike—a very phallic-looking spike. “Other times, I like to go straight to the canal way, to get the water flowing, to see how malleable the sand is going to be that day.” His hands gently scooped up two balls of sand. Dark hair dusted his forearms and she wondered what it would feel like scratching across her back as he held her.

Forget what she told herself a second ago. Her mind—and lady parts—conjured up all kinds of things this man could be very, very good at. The way his fingers moved with such intentionality, the way his eyes flicked up to her face, got her imagination flowing like lava.

“Not bad," he called out. "Use your lovely fingernails to create grooves to mimic bricks. There you go. Yes, like that. I do love a woman who knows how to use her manicure."

She was laughing again. "I knew it. Men do love us taking care of our nails."

He winked at her. Oh, my. Now all she could think about was using her nails on him. She pulled her beach cover-up from her clammy chest. Man, the sun was hot today.

A wave washed up so close it touched her feet. The cool water in contrast with the heat sharpened her senses a little. She dug into the sand with more gusto. Must. Stop. Thinking. Steamy. Thoughts.

When another wave lapped at her toes, she found herself stretching out her legs to meet it. She sat back, straightened her legs and held her face up to the sun. Another wave climbed higher up her legs, and a slight chill broke over her skin. So good. When a third wave tickled even further up her thighs, she sighed, and widened her legs. The tingly water was like a hundred liquid fingers, and the curious thought that the water was caressing her on purpose arose.

“Falling down on the job?” Gerard's voice mixed with a bird crying overhead.

“What?” Oh, she’d gotten so caught up in watching—and feeling—the water climb the sand and her that she’d stopped building her castle. Or, whatever it was. Her lumps sort of resembled a structure.

"Good idea, though." He fell to his backside and stretched out his legs, as well. Water whooshed over his body, and a smile spread across his face. “Feels good, doesn’t it? The cold water in contrast with the sun?”

She cocked her head at him. “Just what I was thinking.” Sort of.

“I could tell. And, maybe more?”

His words didn’t cut through the ocean roar but she’d read his lips. Had he whispered on purpose? Made her look at his mouth, which she could not stop staring at? He had nice lips, full and soft-looking.

Oh, shit. Her brain would not get the memo that they were building a sandcastle together, not engaging in foreplay.

She rolled back to her knees and attacked her sand structure. He did the same. For long minutes, he’d build something and she’d try to mirror his creation. In the end, when they’d built three towers each with a moat to surround them, they both stood to admire their work. Her cover-up was soaked and heavy with caked sand, and her shoulders ached from effort. Wet sand was heavy.

A sigh escaped her lips. "I think your role as Sandcastle Master is intact. Why does yours look like the Taj Mahal and mine looks like condemned property?"

"I wouldn't say condemned." He slapped sand off his palms. "Maybe needing a few renovations." He stepped forward, and she moved to give him space. He knelt before her creation and pressed the back of his hand into her tallest tower. "There. A crest."

Oh. Cheater. "You used your ring to create the designs yesterday."

He did that winky thing again with his blue-green eyes. "Now you know one of my secrets."

“Well,” she said. "I'd say you still win."

He laughed. “You just need more practice. I’m sure those hands can work magic.”

Oh, he did not just say that, and was he now staring at her legs?

Water rushed up in a sudden gush, and one of her towers fell. A curse rode on her breath. She fell to her knees and furiously scooped up new sand to repair it. A pang went off in her chest at losing his crest on her tower, and she furiously slapped at the sand.

A shadow formed across her. She jutted backward in an awkward crab-like crawl. Gerard had breached their six-foot distance. He immediately raised his hands and stepped backward.

Neither of them said anything for a minute, rather just stayed in position, frozen.

God, she hated this. She hated her automatic reactions when taken by surprise. She hated how she couldn’t even build a sandcastle with someone outside without feeling on guard. Couldn't she just forget all about her violent ex-husband and find something new and normal? Well, as normal as one can get in a pandemic situation...

“Are you okay?” The concern on Gerard’s face hadn’t abated one bit.

The ocean has seemed to retreat, the waves growing more distant from where they sat, and the roar had dulled. Hearing him wasn’t difficult.

"Fine," she squeaked out. Gratitude, gratitude, remember gratitude, she chanted inside her head. I’m healthy. I’m safe. I’m fine, god damnit. Her hand rested over her heart, and it slowly returned to a normal rhythm. She got on her feet.

"Sorry." He placed his hands on his hips and looked down at the sand. “I didn’t mean to rush in like that. It’s just …”

“It’s okay. It’s hard to keep the distance when we’re all so used to…” What? Was she used to anything anymore?

“Yes. And, when you seemed to panic there—”

“I don’t panic.” Yes, you do. It was something her husband complained about incessantly. You’re always seeing the worst outcome, Julianna, he’d screamed at her one night. You’re so pessimistic. And, then he’d cracked her across the jaw.

They stood there silently, just staring at one another. “I understand,” he finally said. “Being on guard for so long, well, it’s a hard habit to break. I mean, I was a security guard for a long time, so I ... uh, see the signs."

Oh, man. She scratched at her cheek, her fingernails brushing off sand.

“Hey, did you hear the stay-at-home order ends in a week?" he asked. “Things will still be in semi-lockdown, but…”

She shook her head a little at the change in topic. "No. I didn’t hear that."

"They’re opening up the county and the bridge. We’re no longer captive. We can go wherever we need to, with precautions. Like, maybe have dinner outside somewhere sometime. In public. Would you ..." He stopped mid-sentence. 'I mean, I could ..."

"Then I can go back, I suppose." Whenever restrictions were lifted, she should go back to her house, start packing and head back to Atlanta where she might find a new job. The thought made her stomach churn.

"Or," he started. "We could just have a chat over the phone. I mean, if you ever just want to talk."

Gah, what an idiot. Could she ever drop her own guard down long enough to trust anyone, like maybe—just maybe—this guy who maybe just asked her out?

She looked out over the water. She'd come here to start over. “Hey, how about we have a six-foot distance dinner poolside tonight? My place. I’ve got steaks. I mean if you eat—”

“I do. I eat just about anything.”

"Good, because you might be taking your chances. I haven't cooked for anyone in a while..." Yep, she was an idiot alright. Scare him away, will you?

“I'm pretty easy." He stuffed molds into his little mesh bag. "Say, six p.m.?"

She nodded. Okay, she had a date. They'd have dinner poolside with him at one end of the table and she at the other end. No biggie. No biggie at all.

They headed back to the beach access walkway with her leading the way.

“So, have you given any thought to how you might get back to the UK?” she called over her shoulder as she took the first step.

“Oh, I’m not going back.”

She stopped and turned to face him. "Never?"

“I can’t imagine not waking up to this view every morning.” He stared at her. He then kept staring at her—like for an eternity. "Tell you what, Julianna. How about I cook the steaks and you tell me how you like it? In fact, I'd very much like to know how you like everything.”

Everything?

He ran his hand through his hair. Dang it he had nice hair, too. "Then when we no longer have to stay six feet apart, I'll know...”

She swallowed. Oh, my. "Do you think that will ever happen? Us being able to-"

"Yes. Because whoever is in charge of giving us this beach—" he flicked his eyes heavenward "—would never have put you in my path without wanting us to build a sandcastle together someday, don't you think?"

She shrugged. "I don't believe in fairytales anymore." She climbed more steps and fought with her cover-up to stay down over her legs until she got to the top.

"Well, good. I don't either." His face beamed up at her from the bottom step. He slung his mesh bag of molds over his shoulder and grinned. "I believe in something better."

"Is there anything better?" The sun cut into her eyes and she had to shield her face with her hand.

He grinned. "Oh, yes. Being understood."