A widow for just a year, Deena’s finally rebuilding her life. She married Justin, a Navy sailor, and had Ian, when she was still a teenager, accustomed to being the “good girl,” who acquiesced to everyone. She’s grown up and no longer willing to compromise her own desires. Would Daryl accept this new empowered Deena? When a girl is ready to embrace her own power, she becomes a woman. She answers to herself first. Daryl and Deena are in love. They’d make the perfect family, but since she is unwilling to move to his hometown, it doesn’t seem possible to make it work. Love is never easy when two people live in different cities, and Skyping only goes so far! I drove across the bridge and onto St. Simons Island on July first, exactly one year after Justin’s death.
We’d planned to come here together—a vacation to celebrate the end of his military career and the beginning of a more normal life.
Being married and a single mom most of my life hadn’t been normal. Having your husband away at sea for months on end wasn’t normal. Neither was becoming a widow at twenty-four. “Mama, I need to go potty,” Ian piped up from his car seat directly behind me. “Hang on, sweetheart. We’re almost there.” “Nooo! Now.” “Ian Christopher, don’t you dare pee in this car!” My desire to reach our final destination was overridden by the urgent note I’d heard in his voice. I turned into a nearby gas station guarded by twin palm trees and maneuvered around the pumps to an outside door marked “restrooms.” Better safe than sorry. A hoarse squeal came from Ian’s direction, followed by frustrated sobbing. An unmistakable aroma filled the interior. Too late. At nearly three years old, my little darling still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of reporting his needs before they became an emergency. I touched a button, rolling down the windows. Even a hot breeze wafting in from the ocean was an improvement. “It’s okay. Mommy will give you a bath at the beach house,” I reassured him even though I felt like screaming with my own frustrations. Justin and I had married right out of high school. He’d entered the Navy and I’d gone to college on a scholarship. But I’d never traveled this far from home on my own, nor had I ever rented a cottage alone. Well, almost alone. With my mother’s cautions about sinister strangers, beach bums, and keeping Ian close echoing in my head, I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. She seemed to think I was headed to some third world country, not a quiet, sparsely populated barrier island off the coast ofGeorgia. The hours spent driving made me wish for a bath to sink into—full of hot, fragrant bubbles. Dim lights, glowing candles, and a chilled glass of Chardonnay wouldn’t hurt, either. Suck it up, Deena. You don’t have time for pity. Having a responsible conscience sucked. My son depended on me to be the grownup here, regardless of how tired I was. Following the directions I’d printed from the Internet, I turned onto a narrow paved road, spied the lighthouse, and took a sharp left. To our right, the ocean lapped at a rocky shoreline. Must be high tide. The woman who’d rented us the house had said there was a beach during low tide. I stopped directly in front of the first shotgun-style white cottage, as previously instructed. Keeping the car in sight, I signed us in, retrieved the key, and hopped back into the car. Already I could feel a fine sheen of perspiration under my clothes. Ian’s tear-stained face had gotten to me. “Hey, sweetie, the nice lady inside said there’s a little girl next door to us. You’ll have someone to play with. Isn’t that great?” I tried for an upbeat tone as I drove the last few feet to the third cottage. In the rearview mirror, I could see Ian nodding his head, eyes drooping. While unbuckling Ian from his car seat, a male voice hailed me from the adjoining yard. “Hey, there. You must be the new tenants. Need a hand?” I glanced back over my shoulder and blinked like an owl caught in a flashlight beam. Whoa, Mama. That was our neighbor for the next month? The tanned, toned, sun-streaked blond waved, his grin framed by dimples. He started forward, bare chest gleaming in the sunlight. I got a whiff of Ian’s peed-on, sweaty self as he launched himself at me and clamped his legs around my waist. “No. We’re fine. Really.” Don’t come any closer. Please. Apparently the man couldn’t hear the panic in my voice, because he kept coming. Suddenly, I was painfully aware of the impression my not-so-straight ponytail and road-crumpled sweaty clothes gave, not to mention the stench rising off the child in my arms. I strode quickly toward the cottage door, cringing as my shirt dampened under Ian’s wet pants. “Thanks for the offer, though,” I threw over my shoulder as I pulled opened the screen door, unlocked the inner door, and swung it open. Lowering Ian to his feet inside the living room, I whirled to shut out the world. “It’s no problem. Where would you like me to put these?” My helpful neighbor smiled from the threshold, our suitcase and duffle bag held easily in either hand. The air in the room was warm and stale. Ian’s odor intensified, rising between us like a wall. “Ma’am?” I closed my eyes for a second, wishing the floor would open up and swallow me. Since that didn’t happen, I forced a return smile. “Anywhere is fine. I’ve got to get Ian into a bath.” He nodded and sat the luggage beside the sofa. “I’m Daryl. My daughter Emma and I are your neighbors.” “Deena. And this is my son, Ian.” “Nice to meet you both.” Daryl winked at Ian and strode across the room to fiddle with the thermostat. “There you go. It should cool off in here pretty quickly.” “Thanks.” My mouth was as dry as my shirt was wet. What was the matter with me? The guy was vacationing here with his family. I was a recent widow and the mother of a child in dire need of soap and water. This was no time for ogling, no matter how appealing my new neighbor. Afraid he’d think I was interested in him, I pulled my gaze from his and looked down. At least my feet looked decent. Before we’d left, I’d given myself a pedicure and donned pretty sandals and toe rings in an effort to increase my self-confidence. “Well, I’d better let you get moved in. If you feel like it later, Emma and I would love to treat you to dinner.” “Thanks, but we’ll manage.” I figured he was just being polite. “I thought the kids could get acquainted. There’s a place within walking distance—great food, if you’re interested.” “Won’t we be intruding on your family time?” Daryl’s smile dimmed and his gaze hovered somewhere over my shoulder. “It’s just me and Emma. To tell you the truth, we’re kind of sick of our own company. But if you’d rather not—” As his voice trailed off, I recognized the look in his eyes, the inability to meet the gazes of those expected to show pity or ask questions you didn’t want to answer. Suddenly, it was my voice agreeing to the plan. “Could we go early? Say, six-thirty? Ian usually crashes around eight.” “That works. We’ll stop by and pick you up.” Daryl looked pleased, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes this time. Maybe my pampered feet had rendered him awestruck, but now he was regretting the impulsive invitation. In any case, we were committed—to dinner, that is. After he’d gone and I’d managed to get Ian, myself, and his car seat clean again, my mind replayed the conversation. There was nothing to prove my instincts were right, but I’d bet good money on Daryl having recently suffered a great loss. In those brief moments of recognizing “the look,” I couldn’t have turned down his invitation if my life had depended on it. Also, he did say it was just himself and his daughter. I wasn’t so far out of the dating scene that I’d missed that all-important tidbit of information. At exactly six-thirty a knock sounded on our door. Daryl introduced us to Emma, a tiny blonde of six, and we set off for The Fourth of May, a restaurant owned by a group of women whose birthdays all landed on—you guessed it—the fourth day in May. Emma skipped along in front of us, holding Ian’s hand. Her lively chatter and energy rendered Ian awestruck. I breathed deeply, enjoying the tang of salt in the air. Daryl pointed out landmarks along the way, explaining that he’d come here every summer for the last five years. He was quite the gentleman—opening doors, his hand hovering at the small of my back as I preceded him across the threshold, stepping behind me when we encountered others on the sidewalk. Several heads turned as we entered the restaurant. What did they see—a family, or strangers ill at ease? With Daryl and I both blond, Emma could have easily been mistaken for mine. Ian was the odd one out, with Justin’s dark auburn hair and freckles. “This okay with you?” Daryl asked, bending toward me to make his voice heard above the enthusiastic patrons. He indicated a table for four nearby. “Yes, if we can find Ian a booster seat.” His nearness, along with the tantalizing smell of crab cakes bordered on sensory overload. “Coming right up.” When we were finally all seated and looking at the menus, Ian cocked his head to the side and squinted at Daryl. “Are you my new daddy?” he inquired. “Ian! Daryl is our neighbor here, remember? He’s Emma’s daddy.” The flush of embarrassment heated my cheeks. “Jake got one. Why can’t I?” “Ian, that’s enough.” I ventured a glance at Daryl. “I’m sorry. His friend’s mom recently remarried. Ian doesn’t remember his dad and doesn’t understand why he can’t have one.” Daryl shrugged off the incident. “No harm done.” Thank goodness he didn’t seem the curious sort. Then again, he was in the same situation. Our children were bound to have contact for the next month, especially with Daryl being the friendly sort. No doubt we’d get around to our respective stories after we knew each other better. “Did he die? My mom died.” Emma, who’d been staring at Ian since his outburst, apparently saw a kindred spirit. So much for saving the hard stuff for later. Ian nodded. “Sounds like you two have something in common,” Daryl smiled at Emma, but his eyes held a warning. “What are you having tonight, sweetie? Chicken nuggets or shrimp?” I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention to the children’s menu. During dinner, conversation ranged from the menu choices to sightseeing and dining in the area and which restaurant had the best crab cakes. Neither of us, it seemed, were eager to talk about ourselves and the painful truths. “You’ll have to come with us toNeptuneParkfor the July Fourth celebration.JekyllIslandputs on a spectacular fireworks show we can see from here, but we skip the crowds.” “That sounds nice.” “We’ve got some extra lawn chairs. Everyone lines up along the bank with a picnic and makes an evening of it.” Daryl turned to Ian. “What about you, little man? Do you like hot dogs?” He included the children in the conversation—just enough to make them feel a part of things, but not so much that the evening was all about them. The man had an easy way about him I liked. Maybe too much. I’d definitely have to keep up my guard around him. When the meal ended, Daryl overrode my objections, insisting the meal was his treat. A mini-repeat of that conversation occurred over the ice cream cones we ate on the walk back. Emma skipped ahead, in her own world. When Ian dropped the last of his cone and began crying, Daryl swung him up onto his shoulders and made him laugh instead. “You don’t have to carry him. I can do that.” I reached up for Ian. “Oh, I don’t mind.” Daryl and my traitorous son shared a conspiratorial grin, which fired my anger. “You know, I can manage just fine on my own. I’m perfectly capable of paying our way and carrying my own child.” Daryl’s gaze turned wary. “I’m sure that’s true. You haven’t finished your ice cream and I have. How about we switch him over when you’re done?” His reasoning made sense. Daryl was being polite and generous. I was acting irrational. “I’m sorry. I just want to get used to doing things on my own.” Daryl didn’t comment, but he resumed walking. I fell into step beside him. I’d become the poster girl for falling in line, hadn’t I? Going from a good girl who didn’t want to disappoint her parents to an obliging wife. I’d even gone to college close to home because Justin hadn’t wanted to worry about me when he was away. Secretly, I’d always wondered if he hadn’t trusted me to remain faithful away from the watchful eyes of my parents. For a few years after we married, I’d congratulated myself on not rocking the boat and being the loyal Navy wife. Then, right after I graduated college, Ian had arrived. Justin was at sea.Having had a taste of both off-base housing and hovering parents, I preferred the former. Justin and I had our first real fight about me moving back home before the baby was born. “But honey, think about me,” he’d pled. “How can I concentrate on work or get any rest if I’m worried about you? Sleep deprivation results in tragic mistakes.” “Aren’t you being a tad dramatic, Justin? I’m fine. The baby’s fine. Mama will come here when the baby’s born.” “And what if something goes wrong? I don’t see how you can be so selfish, Deena Rae. If you can’t be considerate of your husband, think of the baby.” He’d continued, outlining his supposed worries over me going into labor alone. In the end, I did as he wanted. Except for the few weeks preceding Justin’s death, I’d continued to live with my parents. I was sick of it. This trip—this extended vacation Justin had intended as a new start for us—had become a trial period of independence for me. If I could handle being in a new place with my son for an entire month, I could venture out on my own. “Emma, go inside. I’ll be there in a minute.” Daryl’s voice broke into my thoughts. Somehow, we’d ended up in front of my cottage with my son fast asleep on Daryl’s shoulder. He turned to face me. “For whatever nerve I struck back there, I apologize.” I shook my head and sighed. “It’s not your fault. I’ve been living with my parents since Justin died. They mean well, and they’re terrific grandparents, but the situation is stifling. They don’t seem to realize that I’ve grown up, experienced marriage and motherhood. Sometimes they treat Ian as if he’s more theirs than mine.” Realizing I’d come close to a rant, I hushed. “I’m not seeing the connection. What does that have to do with me buying you dinner or carrying Ian?” I shook my head, feeling foolish and ungrateful. Why had I chosen this moment to vent? “Forget it. I’m tired and overly sensitive right now. But I appreciate you trying to make us feel welcome. It may not seem like it, but I’ve enjoyed the evening.” Daryl hesitated before smiling. “My pleasure. Believe me, I love my daughter, but after awhile I need adult conversation. Specifically, topics that don’t include acquiring the latest Lil’ Bratz doll or that Yu-Gi-Oh character.” “Well, you’re safe with me since I’ve never heard of either one.” “You’re lucky.” Daryl smiled and tilted his head, considering me. “But I think you’re wrong.” Ian squirmed and rubbed his eyes. I reached out to take him from Daryl. “About what?” “Safe isn’t what I feel around you.” His words were spoken as we leaned toward each other to transfer Ian. The husky quality of Daryl’s voice raised goose bumps along my arms. For long seconds we froze, so close I could see flecks of navy and turquoise in his irises. A warmth that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with invaded my body. In my haste to create distance between us, I jerked Ian from Daryl’s arms and he awoke with a cry. “I’d better—” “Right.” Daryl’s eyes were shuttered now. “See you tomorrow.” With a quick wave, he turned and walked away toward his own door. Whew! I’d have to watch myself around our good neighbor. A summer fling wasn’t on the agenda. This vacation was all about establishing my independence and putting a healthy distance between me and my parents. I didn’t need anything else to complicate my life. As it turns out, I didn’t see my sexy neighbor again until late the next afternoon. Ian and I started out early and drove around the island, taking pictures of stately live oaks draped in Spanish moss, salt marshes, and strangely shaped birds standing at the water’s edge. We ate lunch at the Crab Trap, bought swimsuits at a strip mall, and watched folks pulling in crabs on the pier. I was reclining on the couch, reading, when Emma knocked on the door. “Hey, Miss Deena. Can Ian come out and play?” “He’s taking a nap, Emma.” “Oh.” She looked wistfully at my glass of lemonade, its sweat running down the glass onto a coaster. “Come on in. I was thinking about having a cookie with my lemonade. Would you like some?” We’d made another stop that morning—to a local grocery store. While a lot of this trip had been paid for way in advance, I couldn’t afford to eat out for the whole month. Emma didn’t need any coaxing. We relocated to the tiny kitchen/dinette area and I heated the cookies in the microwave. “My dad likes these, too,” Emma mumbled around a bite of a pecan chocolate chip. Subtlety wasn’t her strong suit, and I wasn’t born yesterday. “I’ll let you take him a couple when you go home, okay?” “We don’t live here, you know. Just for the summer.” “The whole summer? Doesn’t your dad have to work?” The questions spilled out before I could harness them. She gave me a “Duh!” look and giggled. “He brought his computer with him.” A virtual office? Maybe he designed software or computer games. “We live inNew York,” she volunteered. “It’s lots different than here.” “I’ll bet.” I thought I ought to change the subject, but the one we had was more fascinating than it should’ve been. The need to know more about Daryl was strong. The thought startled me. Justin and I were high school sweethearts. He was my first and only lover, the only guy I’d ever been serious about. But this was different. This wasn’t a schoolgirl crush growing into something else, I realized with sudden clarity. This was a very grown-up, man-woman interest. Was he interested in me too? I shook off the thought. It didn’t matter. I needed to stand on my own two feet first. I owed myself that much. My position as a real-estate agent had flexible and sometimes odd hours, but I loved it and was doing well. With the survivor benefits we received monthly and most of Justin’s life insurance money in a trust for Ian’s college education, I’d soon be able to afford a house in the suburbs. “Miss Deena? Did you hear me?” Emma’s singsong voice brought my mind back into focus. “I’m sorry, honey. What did you say?” “I asked where you and Ian live.” Emma’s impatient answer came at the same time a rap sounded at the door and Ian tottered into the room. “I’ll get it.” She ran to open the door. I picked up Ian and kissed his cheek with a big smack, making him laugh and wiggle to get down. He more or less slid down my leg and ran toward the cookie jar. “It’s Daddy!” Emma said as Daryl came through the door. “So I see.” “We saved cookies for you, Daddy.” She pulled on his arm toward the kitchen. “You did? Is that what smells so good in here?” Daryl allowed himself to be drawn forward but stopped when he reached me, his gaze focused on my face. “I thought maybe it was just you.” Bless his heart. The man was so out of my league. He continued to regard me steadily, and I practically became a puddle at his feet. “Did you make them?” he asked. “Make what?” I said, not thinking. Daryl suppressed a grin. “The cookies.” “Oh. Yes. No! I mean. . .I bought them, but we heated them up. They taste more like homemade that way. That’s why you smelled them.” Good Lord, I was babbling like an idiot—something that had become a habit around this man. Emma folded paper towels in half and placed cookies on them, like she’d seen me do hers. “These are ready to heat, Miss Deena, but I’m not allowed to use the microwave yet.” “Thanks, honey. You’re a big help. I’ll take it from here.” Thank goodness for distractions. I kept busy for the next few minutes, serving my guests. Daryl took a bite and groaned, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed. I felt the reaction clear to my toes. All too soon, the kids disappeared into Ian’s room to play, leaving Daryl and me alone. “Thanks for the snack. It hit the spot.” Daryl slapped a hand to his midsection, reminding me of the washboard abs hidden beneath his Dave Matthew’s Band T-shirt. “You’re welcome,” I responded. The silence stretched, becoming almost unbearable. Daryl cleared his throat. “I hope Emma didn’t talk your ear off. She can be a chatterbox.” “No. She was fine. We were getting acquainted, talking about—” I thought back to the previous conversation—“where we live when we’re not vacationing.” “New Yorkfor us,” Daryl volunteered. “But I’m sure you already know that by now.” “Right. And we’re inAtlanta. I sell real estate.” With the ice broken, the words came more freely. I learned Daryl wrote novels under a pen name and was becoming fairly well-known. I shared some funny stories about my more colorful clients. He spoke of Emma’s budding artistic talent, a legacy from her graphic artist mother, and he commiserated with me over the trials of potty training. “It’s my fault. I just didn’t feel like dealing with it after Justin died, and I put it off for too long.” “How long has he been gone?” “One year yesterday.” “Wow. You should have said something. That’s a tough day to get through.” “Not exactly something you share with strangers.” “Is it weird for me to say I don’t feel like you’re a stranger? Too soon?” His words were spoken softly. “I rarely date, Deena, but there’s something about you that I’m drawn to.” I hesitated, torn between what I felt I should say and the truth. “I feel the same way. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. How can that be?” “Maybe because we both know what it is to lose someone we love.” Daryl shrugged and closed his hand over mine. “I just know I want to see where this could lead.” “I’d like that too.” That evening, Daryl and I cooked dinner for the four of us—a simple meal of boiled shrimp and crabs with red potatoes and fried okra. Daryl and Emma teased me about the southern fried vegetable, but managed to put away their fair share of it. Daryl helped me wash up afterwards. Then we all went for a walk along the beach, the water lapping at our toes. In the waning light, Daryl and I walked behind our children, talking as if there was a time limit on getting to know everything about each other. When our respective spouses entered the conversation again, we hung back, keeping the kids in sight. Daryl’s wife had died in the aftermath of 9/11 when Emma was a baby. An asthmatic working near Ground Zero, Beth had a severe attack from all the dust, smoke, and ash flying through the air. In the confusion of the day, she’d been overlooked, huddled in the doorway of a building three blocks down from where she worked. By the time she’d been found, it was too late. With the wind blowing our words behind us and away from the children, I told Daryl things I hadn’t told anyone. The argument Justin and I had, the truth becoming more apparent with every sentence spoken. We’d grown in different directions with distance and time spent apart. I was no longer the dependent young bride he’d left behind. Even though he’d changed, he didn’t like the differences in me. We weren’t the same people who’d vowed to love forever. Without asking me, Justin had signed on for another tour of duty. I felt betrayed, as if he didn’t want or need Ian and me. He’d died on the trip back to his base. Doing eighty in a fifty-five stretch of road, his truck had rolled down an embankment when he’d tried to take a curve without slowing down. When I finished the story, Daryl threaded his fingers through mine. I shivered despite the warm evening, and he drew me into his arms. We held each other, drawing comfort from one another until an excited squeal from Ian pulled us apart. The next day I didn’t see Daryl at all, except to wave at him as he ended his early morning run throughNeptunePark. He’d explained that he usually took weekends off while he was here on St. Simons, but that he needed to get ahead on his latest manuscript in order to take the fourth off. We hadn’t even kissed, and there was nothing formal between us other than the “see where this could lead” conversation, but I felt oddly connected to him. I missed his easy laugh and the unique essence-of-Daryl smell. At odd moments, I found myself remembering his bare toes sinking in the sand beside mine and the feel of his arms around me. Was I falling back into old habits again? I didn’t think so, but it was too early to tell. Following someone else’s dictates and trying to keep the peace wasn’t how I wanted to live again. Could Daryl handle the Deena I needed to be? We celebrated Independence Day the old fashioned way. Daryl spread a blanket on the ground and we staked it out as our spot. Lunch was hot dogs and hamburgers. I brought the buns, fixins’, and drinks. Daryl brought the meats and cooked. We ate too much and ended up dozing in the sun while the kids played games nearby. Overhead, seagulls scouted out stray crumbs and swooped in for the bounty. As the day wore on, my comfort level increased. Was this really how it could be: easy camaraderie, helping each other with the kids, sharing in the chores, a feeling of friendship? I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Instead, night fell. And with it, the fireworks lit up the sky. Ian watched with open-mouthed awe, and we all applauded the show’s finale. The day had been idyllic and wonderful. As we’d prearranged, Daryl and I met in my screened-in porch after the kids were put in their respective beds. From there, he could see his cottage, about twelve feet away, in case Emma needed him. We sipped cold beer and rehashed our kids’ antics throughout the day. The thought brought me up short. What was I doing here? Daryl and I lived hundreds of miles apart. I could tell he liked living inNew York, and while I wanted some space from my parents, I didn’t want to take Ian so far away that they rarely got to visit. Nor did I want to start over with my career. “You know what I’ve learned about you already?” Daryl asked. I shook my head. “You’re a worrywart.” “How do you figure?” I wasn’t about to admit it was true, but come on now, I’d had to learn to think ahead with a baby to take care of and an absent husband. “I can practically see the wheels turning, churning out all the ‘what ifs’. Don’t borrow trouble. Let’s take this one step at a time and see what happens.” “And what if—” “Shhh! It’s time for that next step, don’t you think?” Before I had time to formulate a reply, Daryl covered my mouth with his. The fireworks earlier in the evening paled in comparison to the Technicolor shower of sparks behind my eyelids. There was no coaxing or hesitation. You might say we dove headfirst into sensation. The warmth I’d felt in his arms became a three-alarm fire as we deepened the kiss and opened our hearts. I could hardly breathe. After an eternity, we eased apart. I’d never experienced such a weak, trembling feeling from a kiss. My first impression of the man had been a bulls-eye. Whoa, Mama was an appropriate, if inadequate, response. For a while we just sat, arms around each other, my head on his shoulder, catching our breath. What exactly do you say after an experience like that? “I think I’d better ease out of here before. . .” Daryl let his words dangle between us, firing our imaginations as to what would happen if he didn’t go. When I didn’t respond, he rose and pulled me to my feet. I walked him to the door, reluctant to end the evening. “Deena?” His whisper shivered over my skin as he drew me into his arms once again. “Yeah?” I whispered back. Our tones were reverent, stunned. He touched his lips to mine, a feather-soft parting. We didn’t dare do more. Daryl lifted my chin with one finger. Our gazes met and held. He mouthed a “wow” and grinned. I nodded, trying unsuccessfully to suppress my own ear-to-ear. He slipped through the screen door, still grinning. When Daryl wasn’t around, I tried to remember all the reasons we should take things slow. I had a child, as did he. If we screwed this up, they would get hurt. Also, we lived too far apart and were both settled in our separate lives. There were grandparents and careers to consider. At the same time, I felt a desperate need to see him every chance I could. We spent as much time as possible together after that first kiss. Daryl would race through writing his daily page quota, then head straight for my house. The kids adjusted, going from amicable to squabbling, then settling into a routine after they’d thoroughly tried our patience. We explored the island and its rich history. Daryl even carried Ian up all one hundred and twenty-nine steps to the top of the St. Simon’s lighthouse so we could take pictures from there. One Sunday we took a drive aroundJekyllIsland, looking in awe at the still-elegant summer homes built for the rich and famous many years ago. My feelings for Daryl grew. I’d become very fond of Emma as well. So much so, that I couldn’t imagine going home and not seeing them again. Daryl and I managed an hour alone each evening, but it never seemed to be enough. After every encounter, our kisses lasted longer, our hands roamed farther, and it became almost impossible to say goodnight. Before we knew it, two full weeks had gone by and we were into the third. My day of departure loomed like an expected storm, and a feeling of desperation lodged itself next to my heart. I’d never felt this way before, and it scared me. I couldn’t afford to fall so hard that I’d lose all perspective. When I’d tumbled head over heels for Justin, I was an impressionable young girl, unsure of myself. I’d become a doormat, allowing him to call the shots so we wouldn’t have an argument. But now I was older, more confident. Having Ian had changed everything. I had to keep his best interests in mind. No matter how many scenarios I thought of, nothing seemed fair to all of us. I told myself this was a summer fling; when it was over I had to move on. On Wednesday of my third week on the island, Daryl told me he wanted to take me on a date that Saturday night—just the two of us. He said he’d made reservations at a nice restaurant and had arranged for a sitter. “We’ll probably be out late. Why don’t you let Emma sleep over with Ian so we won’t have to rush back?” I asked, my heart pounding as we cuddled in a loveseat on my screened-in porch. Daryl’s arms tightened around me, understanding my unspoken invitation. “Are you sure?” “Are you sure we can’t move it up a couple nights?” He sucked in a deep breath and huffed out a humorless laugh. “I thought maybe you weren’t ready. I didn’t want to push.” “Are you serious? I’m dying here.” I tilted my head up as Daryl’s descended. Our mouths meshed in a fierce can’t-get-enough kiss. He pulled me up over him and scrunched down in a half-lying position. His right hand closed over my breast as his rigid length pressed into my abdomen, and we froze from the overload of sensation, gasping for oxygen. Slowly, the sound of crickets and surf overpowered the sound of my own heartbeat. “Daryl, the kids. We can’t—” “I know. I know,” he groaned, tucking my head into the crook of his neck. We lay that way, touching from head to knees, our bodies screaming for a release we couldn’t allow ourselves that night. We murmured apologies and promises to each other, stealing little kisses in between. But the close proximity and our feelings wouldn’t allow our need to subside. Eventually, we had to part. Neither of us got much sleep that night. We existed in a haze of sensual need until Saturday evening finally arrived. I was relieved to see our sitter was the nice lady who’d rented us the cottages. With our children in good hands and assurances that we could stay out as long as we liked, we left the shore and headed inland to the Black Water Grill. Daryl had dressed up for the occasion, wearing crisply pressed khaki slacks and a powder blue shirt that complimented his eyes. To say that he cleaned up nicely would have been an understatement. Dinner was wonderful. Just spending time alone, being able to have all-adult conversation, was a treat. My feelings were too intense. Things had happened between Daryl and me so fast. Maybe we needed some time and distance for perspective. When I voiced my thoughts, Daryl disagreed. “Most people who date see each other once or twice a week for months before they get serious. We’ve had three weeks straight of close contact,” he explained. “So, you’re saying we haven’t known each other long, but we’ve had more contact than most people who’ve known each other for months.” “Exactly.” Daryl smiled and took my hand. “I know this—us—has happened fast. I’m not usually impulsive, but I think you’ll agree there’s something special going on here. It’s not every day you meet someone who makes you feel like a missing piece of your life has been returned.” I squeezed his hand and nodded, unable to speak for the intense feelings clogging my throat. “Besides,” Daryl continued, “I’ve got everything all worked out. We’ll both have to make a move, but we can be together.” I sat back stunned, a chill shivering over me. He’d worked everything out without consulting me? He wanted me to move away from the security of my job? It was Justin all over again, only Daryl wasn’t even proposing marriage—not that I was ready to go there. I couldn’t let myself get trapped into following someone else’s dictates again. I’d never truly be happy like that, no matter how much I loved Daryl. We’d never said the words, but the feelings were there. Or at least I’d thought they were. If you really loved someone, you didn’t try to control that person, did you? I pulled my hand back, my heart already shattering. “That’s not possible. I know because I’ve tried to think of a way we could have a future too. You can’t just make decisions about my life without consulting me. I won’t let you.” “What are you talking about? Don’t you want us to be together?” Daryl looked at me like I’d suddenly grown two heads. “Yes, but we’re just kidding ourselves if we think it could be more. We both have ties to family and community. I’m successful at my job because I know the neighborhoods and school systems of the counties I work in. This summer was wonderful, but we probably let it get out of hand.” “Now who’s making decisions for the both of us?” Daryl raised his brows. “You said you’d been trying to think of a way for us to be together. Well, that’s all I was doing. Maybe I came on a bit strong, but I’m not Justin, Deena. The subject is open to discussion if you’ll hear me out.” I could see I’d hurt Daryl deeply, and it made me sad. “I need a partnership, Daryl.” “I thought we had one. From the moment I offered to help you move in and you refused my help, I knew you were a strong, capable woman. That’s why I had to get to know you better.” “Really?” Searching Daryl’s face, I found sincerity and hope reflected there. Maybe, just maybe, I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. He nodded. “You’re sure it wasn’t the drooping ponytail or the enticing smell of Ian’s accident?” I asked, trying to lighten the heavy turn the conversation had taken. Daryl rewarded me with a wry smile. “To be honest, the independence hooked me, but your feet reeled me in. They reflected your soft, feminine side. The combination was irresistible.” “I never knew how powerful a good pedicure could be.” With an intense look on his face, Daryl said nothing. The waiter delivered the check. Had my flippant remark angered him? Moments later, receipt in hand, Daryl stood and held out his hand. “Let’s blow this joint. I want you all to myself tonight.” Back at our cottages, I expected we’d go to Daryl’s place, as planned. Instead, we left the car and walked toward the lighthouse in silence. Daryl took my hand and we continued along the water’s edge toward the park. A slight breeze ruffled the hem of my calf-length skirt. Finally, I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. “I wasn’t trying to make light of our. . .” What? Affair? That didn’t sound right, but I didn’t want to make assumptions either. “Um, what’s happened between us.” Oh, geez. I was making an even worse mess. Daryl halted, leaned against a picnic table, and drew me into his arms. The warm night air was perfumed with salt water and a touch of damp earth. “It wasn’t you. I just didn’t want to be in a restaurant for this. I wanted to be here, where we really began.” I tilted my face up to try and gauge his mood. What did he mean “for this”? I was afraid to ask. With the moonlight peeking through the massive limbs above us, I could see he was serious, contemplative. “This is where we started getting to know each other, remember? Walking to the restaurant that first night?” I nodded. The emotion in his gaze had my pulse skipping along, as Emma had been three weeks ago. “I love you, Deena.” “Oh, Daryl!” I leaned in, tears welling from a surge of emotion, and I touched my forehead to his. “I don’t want to lose you and Ian. Can’t we find a way to be together, to make us a family?” Oh, wow. His inclusion of Ian had really gotten me. My little boy had given Daryl his heart faster than I had. I remembered an old saying—that kids and animals are instinctively accurate judges of character. “Deena?” Daryl’s voice sounded a little desperate. I cleared my tear-clogged throat. “Can we discuss the possibilities together? Make decisions based on all our needs?” “Sure. I thought I was formulating plans based on all our needs. I didn’t mean to make it sound like a done deal. My ideas are open to discussion.” If Daryl was willing to give me another chance after my outburst, he deserved the same. “So tell me about this plan.” Arm in arm, we walked back to his place. Daryl outlined his ideas. To my surprise, they involved he and Emma moving to the Atlantaarea. My move would simply be out of my parents’ home. “What about your career?” I asked. “I can write anywhere. Your expertise is more area-specific and crucial to advancement.” “It doesn’t seem fair. What about Emma?” Daryl shrugged. “Kids are resilient. It’s better to uproot her now than after she’s established long-time school friends. She’ll adjust, especially if she gets you for a new mom.” My breath caught as Daryl turned to me at the gate to his tiny yard. “You’re already my friend and the woman I love. I want to be your lover, but only if the feelings are there. Only if—” I silenced him with my fingertips, realizing I’d left him hanging back there in the park. “Oh, Daryl, the feelings are most definitely there. I love you. Emma, too.” I had more to say but was suddenly too busy being very thoroughly kissed. Hours passed before we spoke words again. Suffice it to say we made it inside, and they were among the most enjoyable hours of my life. And once we did manage to resurrect the conversation, we agreed on most of the details. Daryl gave me free rein in finding us a place to live, citing only that he needed a relatively quiet office space, and he trusted that I’d choose an area with a good school district. He cut his vacation short and returned to New York to pack. As I write this, Daryl and I have been married for six wonderful months. Our son and daughter are chattering excitedly about their plans for summer vacation. We’re packing again, heading toSt.SimonsIslandand a small white cottage on the Atlantic shore—a trip we both agreed should become an annual treat.
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