22. Ditch responsibilities and head to the beach.
Breathe and drop the towel. That’s what people did at the beach, right? They wore swimsuits and didn’t hide behind enormous beach towels. You can do this. I could be fierce. I used to be, I just had to remember how.
I sucked the humid Florida air past my lips, tasting salt from the ocean. My heart skipped, and I gripped the towel tighter.
“She was afraid to come out of the locker. She was afraid that somebody would see,” Morgan sang next to me, her southern drawl even more pronounced than mine.
“You hush up,” I whispered. I was embarrassed enough without her making a scene.
“You promised, Paisley.” Morgan tugged at the towel, but I held firm.
I swallowed, trying to keep lunch in my stomach. “I know, and I’ll do it. I just need a minute.”
Her exaggerated sigh did nothing to calm my nerves. “It’s just a bathing suit.”
“It’s a bikini, Morgan, which is most definitely not just a bathing suit.” I dug my toes into the white sand.
“You’ve got an amazing body. I don’t know why this is such a big deal.” She adjusted her sunglasses and pulled back her ebony hair, her towel long since replaced by unwavering confidence. I may have agreed to a two-piece, but my boy shorts and a halter-style tankini top covered a heck of a lot more than Morgan’s triangle confection. “Look, it’s our one day away from everything before classes start. This was your idea.”
“Right.” Yes, one day of wildness, freedom, where I wasn’t just a Donovan. Besides, the beach was the easiest box to check on the bucket list, and I was down to 231 days.
“Paisley, no one cares who you are here or what you’re wearing. There are no expectations but your own, just another college girl at the beach. Pretend you’re not…you know…you.” She waved her hand at me. “Now drop that towel before I pitch a fit.”
Pretend. Yeah, I could do that. Deep breath. I straightened my posture like Mama was watching and let go of the towel like she wasn’t. Now, if only I could have shed my inhibitions with it. Morgan nodded with approval, and we headed toward a group of acquaintances from school.
“Hey, y’all!” Morgan called, laying out our beach towels at the edge of the group. I gave a small smile and wave, then turned down a beer, which Morgan claimed. By the looks of it, they’d all been drinking for a while. I sprawled out on my towel and debated wrapping myself in it. I was never allowed to be this exposed at home. What would people think? Mama’s voice burrowed through the sunshine.
I ran my finger down the line of my sternum. No, I’d bare this little bit of skin while it was still pretty, before I let the surgeons get their hands on it. And really, it didn’t matter what the outside of my body looked like, not when it was failing from the inside.
“You’re going to burn that fair skin of yours,” Morgan lectured, handing me a bottle of SPF 90. I thought twice, then slipped off my purple watch, stashing it away before slathering the lotion everywhere I could reach. I didn’t want it to get all oily.
Oh, now that was a lie. I just didn’t want to wear the darn thing.
“You blondes always seem to burn faster.” A deep voice spoke from behind me.
I craned my head and lowered my sunglasses. The guy looked like every other college-aged guy I saw, nothing special or descriptive. Maybe being with Will blinded me to other guys, but I certainly didn’t get the hormonal rushes Morgan cooed about.
Crud. He was waiting for a response. Don’t embarrass Morgan. I gave an easy smile. “Sunscreen saves the day.”
Sunscreen saves the day? Kill me now.
He gave me the “Wow, you’re a total dork” look I knew well but masked it with a smile. “Right. Can I…uh…get your back for you?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” I answered, shorter than I meant to.
“Oh, okay?” he said and quickly retreated.
Morgan’s sigh reminded me how bad I was at this socializing stuff. “Just because you’re pretty much married to Will doesn’t mean a guy can’t put sunscreen on you.”
“Being together for a year isn’t married, but I’m not about to let a stranger put his hands on me.”
She spread the lotion across my back, careful to cover me completely. “I know, darlin’. How is it being in the same town with him?”
It took me a second to mull that over. “It’s nice. I’m still getting used to seeing him more than a couple days every few months.”
“Well, y’all rocked that long-distance stuff.” She motioned to my Kindle. “Just don’t forget about the real world, okay?” She gawked past me to a crowd of guys playing Ultimate Frisbee near the surf. “Like that piece of eye candy!”
I peeked to see what had her drooling like a hound. “You know, there’s more to a man than how he looks. You have to know what’s—”
Sweet Lord, have mercy.
My Kindle hit the sand with my jaw. I’d never seen a man so beautiful, so raw in energy, or so…delicious looking. He stood easily over six feet tall and had no problem leaping for the Frisbee. His blue board shorts hung low on his hips, and his chest was beautifully bare, colored in tattoos that stretched across his abdomen, half his chest, and down one arm. The Florida sun caressed the line of his carved abs, giving him a fine sheen of perspiration that made his skin glow.