Finally, Yours by Elizabeth SaFleur

 

Julianna lifted the door knocker and let it land with a resounding clang. Just like Gerard’s house, impeccably painted in bright yellow and white trim, the door stood out among the worn entrances of the clapboard houses that lined this stretch of Outer Banks beach. His front door was actually a modernly styled set of sandblasted, glass double doors set at the top of a long staircase. It was gorgeous and wholly impractical for a place prone to hurricanes. She loved it.

Two minutes passed with no answer. Her ears strained for some motion inside. Was that singing? It was coming from around the corner.

Her footsteps banged too loudly on the wooden steps as she descended to go around the back through the pool gate. Sure enough, Gerard stood over a grill on the far side of the pool belting out …. something and quite off-key. He was adorable.

She stared at his broad back. He had to be at least in his mid-forties by the gray at his temples, but his body belied that age group by a mile.

He reached down to check some dials on the propane tank and then bolted upright at seeing her. “You made it.”

“I brought wine.” She lifted the bottle, the paper bag around it crinkling. “And a corkscrew.”

“Ah, you were a Girl Scout, I see.”

“Got kicked out when I was twelve.”

He gasped and clutched his heart. “Sneaking in a boy?”

“Sneaking in a bottle of this.” She lifted the wine. “I swiped some horrid Gallo from my parents to bring to the weekend camping trip.”

“Same bottle?" He pointed at it.

She laughed and shook her head. "I have better taste now."

"Well, why don't you open it straight away then?” He waved a pair of barbeque tongs. “You'll find glasses in the kitchen upstairs.”

Was that okay? To go inside?

“There’s hand sanitizer just inside the front door.”

Oh, he read her mind.

He cocked his head back to the roasting meat. “Hope you like medium?”

“They smell heavenly, and that’s perfect.” He must have some appetite because they were huge.

After retrieving the glasses from his fancy kitchen, outfitted with stainless steel appliances, she headed back downstairs. She let her gaze wander as she descended. Hmmm, he had real furniture, not the usual wicker bedroom sets. His walls also were graced with artwork depicting sea battles and castles, a far cry from the usual big splashes of color and fish depictions that most rental houses showed off.

Gerard was just taking the steaks off the grill when she arrived. He turned to her, a platter holding the enormous rib-eye cradled between his two hands. “For you, my lady.” He set it on the long wooden table to the side.

“Perfect.” She opened the wine, poured two healthy portions, then stepped back for him to take his glass.

He lifted it in a toast. “To talking to a live human being for the second time in one day.”

“I’ll drink to that.” They motioned to one another and then each took a sip.

“Where do you want me?” She glanced at the table, which had already been set with a table setting at each end. He'd also put out cheese, crackers, a green salad, and a water pitcher. She did love a man who knew his way around a kitchen.

“Take the opposite end. Better view.”

It had a direct view of the dunes with grass peeking out of the sand.

After they settled into their seats, he dove into cutting up the steak and placing half on each plate. He pushed her portion toward her.

She stared at the huge slab of steak nearly overflowing the dish. “Wow, that’s a lot.”

“Well, whatever you don’t eat, I’m sure the seagulls would be most appreciative."

“Oh, I’m not giving up a meal made for me.” She cut into her steak. “It’s so great eating outside. Stirs the appetite.”

“Yes, but you may want to taste it first before giving praise.”

She dramatically stuffed a large piece in her mouth instantly, regretting the chipmunk cheek look she now sported. Oh, but it was good. She chewed…and chewed some more. Why was Gerard staring at her so hard? She must resemble a starving squirrel, stuffing food in her mouth. She washed down the meat with more wine.

He arched an eyebrow. “Well?”

She gave him a thumbs up – because that was soooo much sexier, right? “It’s great.”

He slumped a little in his chair. “Oh, whew. For a minute there, I thought you were going to relegate me to companion-less dinners for the duration.”

“It’s been lonely, huh?”

“The worst. Who knew the highlight of my day would be going to the store?” He took a bite of his steak.

For long minutes, they ate and only the sound of distant ocean waves filled the air. Her mind fought for something witty to say, something interesting throughout the meal. Gah, if she was boring, this might be the end of her one and only potential at human interaction until this whole pandemic thing was over. Plus, she really liked him.

Oh, admit it, she told herself. You really like him. He was funny yet calm, warm yet not pushy.

“So,” she asked. “Besides sandcastles, what else do you do to occupy your time?”

He took a big sip of wine to wash down his food. “Sailing, over on the bayside. I’ll take you some time. Well, once this six-foot nonsense is over.”

“Will it ever be over?” It really was beginning to feel like there was no end in sight.

“I promise.” He winked. “Everything ends at some point.”

“Yeah, but before I die, I’d like to be able to …” She stopped herself. The wine had gone to her head and made her all touchy-feely-needy. It always had.

His stare bore down on her. He did that a lot, stilling and honing in on her like she was the most interesting thing in the world. “I know what you mean.” He finally moved, snapped his napkin on his lap.

Did he? If he read her mind, he might be a little shocked at what he saw. She was. Skin. Bed sheets. And, more. Sooo much more.

Physical intimacy had never really been that important to her before, but now? That’s all she could think about. What it’d be like to curl up in a man’s arms, feel skin-on-skin contact, stand in the shower together with nothing but water between you and him, what it felt like to have sex, something she hadn’t done in …. She couldn’t even think about how long it’d been. Surely, her lady parts had grown cobwebs by now.

Oh, God, his eyes. Was he seriously reading her mind because if he was … he’d see how she’d thought about him, shirtless and wet and … She took a sip of wine, as if that’d help contain her filthy brain. They ate the rest of their meal in semi-silence, offered just a few "mmms" and "this is really delicious" polite dinner talk.

Once done, he stood and arched his body over the table. He refilled her glass. “Tiramisu or apple pie?”

She was stuffed but she wouldn't be rude. “No contest. Pie.”

He clucked. “Damn. Thought for sure you’d go for the tiramisu.”

“Oh, and why’s that?”

“You got ‘elegant lady’ written all over you.”

If he only knew… “Thank you, but if I drink any more I’m not sure how much 'lady' will be left.” She took a swallow of the wine anyway. What the heck. He couldn’t touch her. She couldn’t touch him. And she certainly wasn’t driving anywhere.

“Be right back with more sustenance then. Pie and tiramisu.” He did a flourish thing with his hand and he was off.

She took the moment to stare out at the dunes. The sky had turned pink and yellow in the fading sunlight. Her thoughts drifted once more to dirty, dirty places, and she gave in to the warmth of the wine and soft ocean air. It really was nice just being next to a man instead of herself all day, watching people in the far off distance, families hug and …

Gerard was back in a flash with the promised sweets. He placed an entire pie in the center of the table and returned to his spot.

“This looks delicious. I’m only having a little because while I might be on semi-vacation, my diet shouldn’t be. I’ve already drunk way too much wine.”

He plopped himself in his chair again. “Oh, don’t worry about that. There are no calories at the beach. Besides, you’re perfect.”

She choked a little. “Thank you. Flattery will get you …”

He cocked his chin. “Yes?”

She just shook her head. They stared at one another for a few minutes – just like they had on the beach earlier. He finally took in a long lungful of air and then placed his forearms on the table. “This has been very nice. Thank you for coming over. I almost forgot how to talk to a live person.”

“It has. Want to do it again?” There was no harm in at least hanging out.

“Oh, thank God.” He dramatically pressed back into his chair. “I was really hoping you’d say that.”

She laughed. “My place tomorrow? Maybe … lasagna?” It really was the only thing she could make well.

“See … you really are a man’s fantasy.”

She swallowed. “Nah.”

“Oh, you are. You’re … I’d just like to … ”

“What?” Please say something sweet. Please don’t be creepy. Even if she’d mentally undressed the man a dozen times in the last twenty-four hours, she really was hoping he might be a gentleman on the inside.

She also wanted to get to the bottom of who he was—fast. Something she should have done with her ex-husband instead of playing the silent mouse and letting him run the show. And if this guy was going to be her neighbor and she lived alone, well … it was part of her self protection, right? To have a man right next door who might actually care if she suddenly disappeared? A man she could fantasize about with no consequences because they’d never get to act on it?

He studied her. “Like how it will be when we can build a sandcastle together. And maybe get a hug. I rather miss those.” He looked out over the dunes for a brief second and then back to her.

Her insides lit up a little. That was downright sweet. “That would be nice. Touching is highly underrated. Even among friends.”

“I totally agree. I really regret I can’t play footsie with you under the table.”

A laugh bubbled up in her throat. He made her do that a lot, and he really did have a nice face. Guileless and confident.

“Me, too.” She took a generous sip of water for a change when an idea struck. She slumped down and held her leg out. “What do you think? Possible?” It would be a far cry from her fantasies but at least it was human contact.

He tossed his napkin on the table “Challenge accepted.” He eased down in the chair until his head rested against the back of it. “Almost.” He twisted his body and then she felt it. His foot touched hers.

She jutted it back instinctively. It had just felt so ... foreign. Gah! Was she now hopeless when it came to men?

“Sorry, big feet.” His smile didn’t waver.

Oh, great, now she was thinking about size… “Oh, no, my fault. It’s just been a while.” Heat crawled up her face.

He looked thoughtful for a minute. “Can I run something by you? It’s a little radical, but … well, I’ll just come out with it. You’re a nice woman. I promise you I’m a nice guy. We’re both alone. What do you say to forming a pod?”

“A what?”

“A self-contained unit where we are both healthy and can be physically closer without harm. But it means at first we have no outside contact with anyone else for two weeks. That way we’re sure we’re safe. It means not even going out to the store. Have everything delivered. I’ll do the same. I already do, frankly. Then, we can …”

“Hug?”

“Build that epic sandcastle together, too.”

Could she do that? Did she want to do that? Her body screamed at her, are you kidding, lady? Say yes, say yes. “With just me?”

“With just you. I like you, Julianna. You’re easy-going, kind, smart. We do have to work on your game of footsie, though. It’s rubbish.” He winked.

“No footsie. Just …” She swallowed. “Maybe a hug.” This lack of touching thing sucked but their togetherness, their podness, could only present “options.” That's all she was really up for. Nothing certain, she silently declared. She might not even remember how to kiss let alone anything else.

He sobered instantly. “Deal. Everything will be your call.”

“Really?” Just like that?

“Caution is wise. I admire it.” He tilted his chin in a half nod.

“Okay, then. Let’s do it. We’ll be a pod.” A stupid giggle came out of her throat. This man really did reduce her to a nincompoop sometimes, but in a nice way. He didn’t make her feel stupid like… Scratch that. Thinking of The Other, her ex-husband, was too negative, and he didn’t deserve a single thought ever again.

He rose. “I’ll wrap up the pie for you. You can take it with you.”

Oh, no. She had to lose 5 pounds in the next 2 weeks if this man was getting a hug from her--maybe. Nothing certain.

“How about you bring it over tomorrow. It will go well with lasagna.” Plus she wouldn’t be tempted with it in the house. She had a feeling her mind was about to go Defcon One in the fantasy department now and sweets had an amazing fulfilling effect when other options were limited.

“Ah, my price of admission has been set. Consider it done.”

“Oh, I’m not that easy, Gerard.” She just had to add a wink, hadn’t she? This man really did make her do radical things.

He chuckled. “Come on, I’ll walk you over. Don’t want anything happening to my podmate.”

If anyone had told her last year she’d be happy to be considered a podmate, she’d have instantly believed zombies had taken over the land. Well, given the year, anything was possible. Like maybe she’d let this man touch her. In two weeks.