© Kim Strattford, 2018
WHEN THE SEA SWALLOWS THE SUN
By Kim Strattford
Emma took a deep breath before exiting the taxi and grabbing her bag from the driver. He’d tried to engage her in conversation during the ride from the Tampa airport to this lovely hotel in Clearwater Beach, but she’d resisted his attempts to get her to open up.
He was a stranger. A nice enough one who seemed to be able to tell she wasn’t very happy, but he didn’t need to know that her heart wasn’t into this vacation. That Sam was supposed to be here with her. That this whole damn trip had been his idea.
Before he’d broken up with her. Then cashed in his ticket, no doubt. Refund penalty be damned.
She was too careful with her money to do that. By God she was going to sit on the beach and swim and eat good food, even if she was miserable every second.
She’d just about pulled her “I’ll show him” mojo around her like a suit of armor when she saw Rick Melton, one of Sam’s friends, one who’d never seemed a fan of hers, standing at the reception desk.
He turned, keycard in hand, right as she walked up. He didn’t seem terribly surprised to see her there. “Ms. Barnett.”
He smirked. “It’s Rick, but then you know that, Emma.” He leaned back against the reception desk. “Sam’s a stand-up guy, huh? Letting me have his ticket and all.”
Have? He gave the ticket away? “I thought for sure he’d sell it.”
“Yeah, well, me, too.” He laughed and not in the mean way she was used to. “Kind of stupid of him, don’t you think? Free trip down here. Room all paid.” The smirk she was used to him wearing came out.
Oh, shit. Room? Singular?
“Relax, Em. You look like you might faint. What I meant is that the room Sam booked for you two is paid for. I got my own. They had a last-minute cancellation.”
She let out breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Oh. Good.”
He laughed softly. “Would you have turned around and left if staying meant sharing a room with me?”
“Hmmm.” His expression was impossible to read. He reached for his rolling bag and held up his keycard. “See you around.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Or not.” He walked away, and Emma couldn’t help but notice that the woman who’d checked him in was watching him make his way to the elevators.
He’d probably schmoozed her. Not that he ever did that to Emma, since he seemed to think she was the worst possible woman for his friend.
Not that Emma cared that he hadn’t tried to be nice. Yeah, he was sort of—okay, really good looking, but once you factored in his personality, he wasn’t all that. His soulful brown eyes and sandy brown hair alone did not make him a catch. Or his cologne, which always seemed a little familiar but she couldn’t figure out who else she knew that might wear it. A bunch of guys probably wore it: Rick wasn’t special.
Not that the check-in gal seemed to realize that. Emma had to cough to get her attention.
As the woman went about checking her in, Emma said, “My room isn’t anywhere near Mister Melton’s, is it?”
“It’s not our policy to give out guest information.” The woman made protecting Rick’s privacy sound like a new national security priority.
“I’m not asking where he is, just trying to make sure he’s not anywhere near me.” Emma could tell the woman wasn’t going to budge without a reason. “Look, I was supposed to be here with my jerk of a boyfriend who dumped me for no apparent reason. That guy is one of his closest friends. It’s beyond awkward, you know?”
The woman exhaled slowly. “He’s not near you.”
The woman nodded and swiped Emma’s credit card, then said, “Took balls to come on your own. I’m not sure I would have.”
Emma laughed. “It’s twenty nine degrees in D.C. as we speak, and possibly snowing. Tell me you wouldn’t come when you have to face winter and a break-up. The beach seemed a better option.”
“True.” The woman smiled, and it was finally a real one, like she was warming up to Emma—and forgiving her for the questions about Rick the Dick. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” She took the keycard and rode the elevator up to the seventh floor. The room Sam had booked for them faced the water instead of the parking lot, and the view was glorious.
He’d had great taste, even if she hadn’t proven to be something he liked for the long haul.
She set to unpacking so she wouldn’t dwell on that, at least for the next few minutes.
A little while later, bag stowed in the closet, her clothes and toiletries put away or laid out so that the room felt like a temporary home rather than just a way station, Emma headed to the beach. She was white as a ghost—the peril of being a contracts specialist in a city where the workday ended usually well after dinner. But she looked good in her bikini—she’d been working out a lot with Sam and it showed.
In fact, they worked out more than they talked. Probably a warning sign she should have paid attention to.
She picked one of the rental cabanas—there were plenty since prime sun time was over—and paid the cabana boy, who showed her how to adjust the fabric bubble to provide different amounts of shade for her recliner. She’d already slathered waterproof sunscreen on, so she pulled off her cover-up, grabbed her reader, and got comfortable for some serious me time.
Until she heard steps coming toward her, sand swishing as whoever it was kicked rather than walked their way toward her chair. Maybe it was a waiter, coming to comp her the first drink. That would be sweet.
“Oh, cool. There’s one left.” Rick plopped down in the recliner in the cabana next to her.
She looked pointedly up and down the row of cabanas—plenty were free—and then fixed him with her best “This contract is not up to par” glare. “Seriously? Pick a different one.”
“Why?” He pulled off his t-shirt, showing tanned skin and a moderately buff body. He clearly didn’t spend hours in the gym the way Sam did. And his tan was the kind that was darker in spots, not uniform the way Sam’s was from tanning beds or spray tans, depending on her ex’s current degree of concern about skin cancer. Rick obviously had gotten his tan by being outside in the sun actually doing something.
She couldn’t think of a good reason he should move, other than the real one, so she decided to be honest. “You’ve never liked me.”
“That’s not true. I never liked you with my friend.”
She wasn’t expecting him to be honest in return and had no snotty reply ready for him.
He grinned, and it was a cute grin, not the snarky one she was used to. “Surprised you, didn’t I?”
“Yep.” She lay back in her recliner, suddenly wishing she’d pulled the sun bubble up so she wouldn’t have to see him.
“I’ve never been here before. Have you?”
“Sam talks about it all the time.”
Rick laughed, as if he was enjoying non-communicative Emma rather than being put off by her. “Does your room face the beach?”
“Mine, too. So, did you love Sam?”
Damn it all. How was this his business? Was he going to report back to Sam on what she said about him? “No comment.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that he was applying sunscreen.
He seemed to know she was watching. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do my back, would you?”
“There are many girls scattered along this cabana aisle who would no doubt love to do that for you. Me, not so much.” She pretended to be reading the novel on her reader.
“Yeah, they did the whole ‘stare me up’ routine. Get’s old, don’t you think?”
“Wouldn’t know. They didn’t stare at me.”
He laughed again and tossed his sunscreen at her; it flopped onto her belly. “I meant the cabana boy. He was seriously giving you the eye. Come on, do you really want my sunburn on your conscience?”
With a dramatically long sigh, she put down her reader and got up, spurting some of the sunscreen on his back and doing her best to make the application of it not at all pleasant. “You can handle your arms and legs. You should have done them in the bathroom before you came down.”
“Who says I didn’t?” He turned over and grinned at her—a really cute grin, damn it all.
She rolled her eyes and reclaimed her lounger, debating whether to put the bubble up but not wanting to lose the sun just yet. “Shut up and let me enjoy my vacation.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He crossed his arms under his head—Sam would never do that since it would mess up the uniformity of his tan—and seemed to fall asleep. But then he mumbled, “Wake me up in half an hour, ’kay?” as if they were old friends.
She didn’t answer.
“Please?” His voice was a lot more seductive than she remembered it being.
“You’re a peach.” A moment later, his breathing changed to the deeper rhythm of sleep.
“That’s me,” she muttered. “Peach girl.” She looked over at him, enjoying the view for a few moments longer than was really necessary, then forced her attention back to the reader.
She checked the time so she could wake him up in thirty minutes, then hated she was doing that for him. Why couldn’t he just bring his cell phone down and set the alarm like a normal human?
Then again, she’d also left her cell in her room. She didn’t want to field contract questions while she was enjoying the sand and the splash of water from the boat channel and—was that a dolphin? Or a shark? She sat up, realized it was a dolphin, and relaxed.
That had to be good luck, right? Seeing a dolphin first thing?
She decided to believe it was, even if having her ex’s friend snoozing in the cabana next to hers seemed like the opposite of that.
A half hour later, she put the reader down, got up and nudged him with her knee not terribly gently, then once he lifted his head, walked away, down to the water.
It was colder than she’d expected, but it felt good after a half hour of sun worshipping, even this late in the afternoon. She waded in—shuffling her feet because she’d read that stingrays liked to bask in the shallows along this boat channel—until she was up to her thighs and then shallow-dove into the water.
The cold hit her first, then the extraordinary sense of freedom she always felt in the water. It had been a long time since she’d swum in the open water this way. Pools never replicated the sensation.
“I would have figured you for a wade in slowly kind of girl.”
She turned, saw that Rick was standing at the water’s edge.
“I’ll leave that to you.”
He laughed and ran into the surf, then dove. He surfaced next to her.
“There are stingrays. You should shuffle, not run.” She half expected him to splash her, but he just paddled, keeping a respectable, but not unfriendly, distance between them.
“Would you care if I got speared by a stingray spine?”
“Wow. Cold.” He kicked onto his back and floated easily, seeming very at peace. “Sam would have been up at the pool. He hates salt water.”
“And cold water. Big wuss.”
“Shouldn’t you be defending him? Being his friend and all?”
He turned his head, met her eyes. “I’m in his social circle. He’s a friend of a friend. But he and I aren’t really that close.”
She frowned. “He always speaks highly of you.”
“Yeah, well, guess that regard’s not terribly mutual. And he likes me because I get him good deals on things like hotel rooms. I’m hooked in.” He sighed. “I mean a lot of hotel rooms, Emma. The guy’s pretty much a man-slut. I thought, after you lasted more than a few months with him, that maybe he was really changing. Maybe you’d be the one who got him to finally settle the hell down.”
“Wow, way to make me feel special. I was with a sleazebag. Just what a girl wants to hear.” She tried to kick away and was surprised when he grabbed her arm, keeping her where she was. “You said you weren’t a fan of him and me. Did you badmouth me to him?”
“No. He doesn’t need my help making poor decisions.” He let her go, but not before his grip changed from a firm one to something softer, his hand slipping down her arm in an almost sensual way. “I knew you were too good for him from the start.”
She laughed and made it the most bitter one in her arsenal. “Right. And that’s why you were always so friendly.”
“You really don’t remember, do you?”
“Three years ago? Layla Collins’ Halloween party? We all met up in costume at Samovar’s? Moved on to several other bars?”
“You were there?” She could barely remember that party. It was the night she learned that Long Island Iced Teas were not something you should chug down like Grandma Jean’s sweet tea. “It’s sort of a blur.”
“So you don’t remember dancing with me? Laughing with me? Kissing me? I asked you for your number, but you said you were going to be sick—great line if you want to make a guy feel special—and ran for the ladies room. I never saw you again that night.”
“My friend Amber took me home. We went right from the ladies room to her car. Didn’t come back in the bar.” She closed her eyes. “That was you?”
“And you thought I knew that and was acting like I didn’t know you?”
“You had a mask on that night, and I’d had too much to drink, so if you told me your name, I forgot it. I was living a little on the edge back then. It was an eye opener, being that sick—I won’t gross you out with the details.” She swam a little closer. “For what it’s worth, I was really pissed off that I couldn’t remember who I kissed. You were a good kisser.”
“I still am.” His smile was tighter than before.
“You didn’t think to ask who I was?”
“I asked Amber. She didn’t know.”
“Why didn’t you ask Layla? She invited me.”
“I did ask her. But my powers of recall were a bit compromised when I described you. And it’s not like you went over the top on your costume other than the damn mask. You and half the guys at the party were in jeans and a black t-shirt and a black mask: the little-to-no-effort gang.”
He seemed to concede her point with a nod. “Whereas you were very memorable. That gypsy outfit was amazing. You wore the same thing to Sam’s Halloween party this year. And the same perfume.”
“It’s my go-to Halloween outfit.” She realized that was when he’d started to act disapproving around her. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“Like what? I’m the random guy you might have hooked up with if you hadn’t been so drunk.” He sighed and shook his head. “I figured you didn’t care. And I guess I thought Sam was the type of guy you wanted. Heavy on looks, light on substance.”
“I didn’t know he was that guy at first.”
“How dumb are you?” He took a deep breath. “Sorry, my issues.”
“So you were jealous? That was why you were such an ass?”
“Yep.” He started to swim away and this time she grabbed his arm, held him in place.
Working out had its uses.
“Rick, I was coming off a bad break-up when I met Sam. He made me feel...special. For a while.” She let him go. “I’m sorry I didn’t remember you. I don’t drink like that anymore. And you’re one of the reasons. I had a feeling I messed up a potentially good thing.”
He nodded tightly.
“I’m surprised, though. If you were angry at me, why come down here?”
“I’m an idiot, that’s why.” He reached out and touched her cheek, just a fleeting glance of his fingers on her skin. “I was worried about you. I saw an opening. I wanted to see how you look in a bathing suit or if your hair will bleach out in the sun. Take your pick of answers.”
“I think I like them all.” She smiled as seductively as she knew how, then dove under the water, swimming away.
He didn’t follow her. But when she came up for air, he was watching her, a big smile on his face. “You free for dinner?”
She pretended to have to think about it. “Why, yes, I am.”
“Cool.” She laughed, then her attention was caught by another dolphin. “Look,” she said as she pointed to it.
He turned and seemed as interested in the dolphin as she was. When it disappeared out to sea, he glanced at her.
“I like it here,” she said softly enough that he might not hear.
But sound traveled well over water. He nodded and said, “I do, too.”
She met Rick in the lobby. After an afternoon lazing in the sun and swimming, she was feeling pleasantly blissed out. Her hair was wild from the salt water and full of waves she could never replicate with any of the special beach sprays they sold at salons. She’d gotten some color but not so much she’d be in pain, and was wearing a cute black and white sundress. She looked good and she felt good.
Was she that shallow that another guy could make her forget about Sam this easily, or had what she’d had with Sam been shallow enough to forget this easily?
Given how much she and Rick had talked once they got out of the water after their first swim—probably more than she and Sam had ever talked, at least in terms of the breadth and depth of the conversation, if not the amount of actual words—she was starting to wonder what she’d seen in Sam. Other than a nice place to recover from a bad relationship.
Nice but maybe safe, too. Nothing that would really hurt her? Johnny, the guy she’d been with before, had put her heart through a shredder. She thought they’d been on the verge of engagement when she caught him in a club with another woman. Friends had come out of hiding to tell her about more women they’d seen him with—it was as if they couldn’t wait to pile on. Or maybe they hadn’t wanted to rain on her bliss parade. Whichever, they could have saved her a lot of heartache if they’d told her sooner rather than later.
But they hadn’t and she’d been afraid of getting hurt again when she’d met Sam. Who was all flash and sweet smiles and pretty good in bed and not a lot more than that. She hadn’t wanted more than that.
She’d cried when he broke up with her but not for very long. It had almost been...pro forma. Or maybe in relief?
She wouldn’t have come to Florida if it had been Johnny who had made the reservations. She’d barely left her apartment after she’d found out he was cheating on her. She’d been so sure he was “the one.” She wondered now if those other women had thought the same thing.
“You look great,” Rick said as he walked over to her from the elevator.
“And you took longer than I did to get down here.”
“It’s possible I changed clothes a few times. And I had a call from my mom.”
She knew her eyebrows went way, way up.
He gave her a mock stern look. “She didn’t know I’m on vacation. This was kind of...spur of the moment.”
“You don’t live with her, do you?”
“No, I don’t live with her—I’m thirty four years old. Why would she call me if I lived with her?”
“Well, you might be very tied to those apron strings. But I see you appear to be string free, so I’ll let it go.” She liked his age. She was thirty. Four years older was just enough to be cool older guy but not so much older that they wouldn’t share generational references. “Well, you look good. In case you need validation to make all those changes of clothes worth it.” She grinned at him, enjoying the ability to tease him after thinking he was a jerk for so long.
“Thanks, validation is always appreciated. There’s a seafood restaurant down the street. Supposed to be good.”
“I’m game.” She followed him out and they walked in companionable silence. She finally said, “Just don’t let me order a Long Island Iced Tea.”
“You know there’s usually no actual iced tea in those, right?”
She punched him lightly on the arm. “Where were you that night when I was ordering? Things might have gone very differently.”
He seemed about to say something when his attention was caught by something, and he said, “Look at the sunset.”
She turned and saw that between the hotels the sun was perfectly framed as it set...right into the sea. “Wow.”
They didn’t have to talk about not moving on till it finished, just stood there watching the sky blaze a vivid orange and pink and gold, and she wasn’t sure if he moved first or if she did, but somehow her hand was in his, and it felt good—it felt safe.
“It’s so beautiful,” she whispered, afraid to say it louder, to jar him into realizing he’d taken her hand. “No wonder the ancients thought the sun was a chariot.”
“I know.” He smiled and squeezed her hand. “Show’s over.” He didn’t let go of her hand, though, as he got them moving again toward the restaurant.
There was a short wait for a table, so they took the little pager thing that would light up when their table was ready and went to the bar. He ordered some Belgian beer she’d never heard of, and she made fun of him for being a beer snob. He just smiled and enjoyed his drink. She stuck with a chardonnay. She didn’t want to have too much to drink tonight, didn’t want to make any decisions based on being a little looped.
Not that she drank too much anymore, but still, if there was ever a time to embrace moderation, now was it. Ever a reason, she thought he was it.
And God, could she fall any faster? But it wasn’t fast, was it? If she’d been interested in him three years ago and just hadn’t been able to find him.
Why hadn’t she tried harder? Probably because she’d met Johnny not long after that. Fallen hard and fast and didn’t look back.
She should have. Oh well. Woulda, coulda, shoulda never accomplished anything.
She looked up at him. “What? Oh, did you say something?”
“Was it important? I’ll listen now.” She tried for a sheepish, yet engaging smile.
He laughed. “It probably wasn’t important.” His look turned serious. “I should tell you something. Sam didn’t give me the ticket. I sort of...bought it off him.”
“Oh.” She studied him, cocking her head as if he was some rare species. “You realize that makes you extra stalkery, right?”
He nodded. “Is it a turnoff?”
“In general, yes. But, in this case... We’ve had fun today—or I have anyway.”
“I have, too.”
“Whew. Wouldn’t want to be alone on the ‘this was a good day’ track.” She took a sip of her wine. “I like you. I didn’t before. But I really did, the first time we met. Would you believe I actually can make sense if I try? That sentence was not a good example of my conversational skills.”
His smile was very wide as he laughed. “I understood you. When I’m not acting like a prime jackass, you like me. So the first time we met was good—until you retreated to barf.”
She laughed, almost snorted, and he grinned as if delighted he amused her.
“And you like me now, right?” He took a sip of his beer, and his eyes crinkled up in the most engaging way as he waited for her to answer.
“Whew. Good thing because I like you. I’ve just known it longer.”
The pager went off before they could continue, and they took their drinks and went to the hostess stand. She led them to a very nice table by the window, and they settled in for a study of the rather extensive menu.
“Tell me you like garlic,” he said. “And mussels. But mostly garlic.”
“Who doesn’t like garlic?”
He seemed relieved. “I dated a woman who hated it. Made meals problematic.”
“I’m sorry but that’s a break-up offense in my book. Cheating, not eating garlic, hating animals.”
“I think I’m good on those.” He went back to studying the menu.
“Tell me you like clam strips.”
“I like clam strips.” He smiled in a way that meant he could just be saying that.
“I know they’re deep fried, but I love them.”
“I’m fine with clam strips. I guess we have the tricky appetizer selection phase out of the way?”
“I guess so. Whew. I was afraid blood might be drawn.”
“We rock.” He smirked slightly, but not in the old way, in the way that used to make her mad. This was a cute smirk that said he wasn’t laughing at her any more than he was laughing at himself. And that the laugh wasn’t mean spirited.
Holy shit, was she analyzing his expressions after only a few hours with him? This wasn’t good.
He laughed and said, “Who writes up these descriptions. Check out the halibut.”
She looked down the list for it, found it and read, “Succulent fresh-caught halibut pairs with lemon, pepper, and capers in an elaborate dance of zest and pop.” She shook her head. “I think that’s illegal in some states. The dance of zest and pop.”
“Yeah, I’ll be skipping that dish. I can have zest or pop, but not both.” He put his menu down, choice apparently made.
He didn’t ask her what she was having, and she didn’t ask him what he was going to order. They had their appetizers picked out, and it was clear they were going to share or why else ask if the other person liked it? It was nice to be on the same wavelength.
The server came. Rick ordered the appetizers and the salmon and then looked to her. She ordered the swordfish, and he nodded as if that didn’t surprise him.
Once the server was gone, she asked, “What? You expected me to order that?”
“I had it narrowed down to that, the salmon, or the scallops. You don’t strike me as a tilapia type.”
“Is there a tilapia type? It has no taste. It exists simply to be flavored with sauce or a seasoning of some sort. Blah.”
“What about trout?” She had an issue with the bones. Salmon and some of the others were okay because it was easy to find the bones before you ate. But some fish was just too much work.
“Meh. I can take it or leave it.” He held up his glass, and she clinked her wine glass against it. “To starting over.”
“I’ll drink to that.” She sipped her wine slowly, her eyes not leaving his. “How about to taking things slowly?”
“Do you think I’ll try to rush it?”
“I may be worried I will.”
“To taking things slowly, then.” He held his glass out again, and she gently clinked it. “And to Sam. For being the idiot who let you go. I feel very kindly disposed toward him at the moment.”
She nodded. “Me, too. Not how I started out this little vacation.”
The arrival of their appetizers saved them from any more toasts—she had a feeling they could have found plenty of things to be happy over. The mussels were great—loaded with garlic—and the clam strips reminded her of being a kid on the waterfront in Seattle. They shared without having to talk about it, moving things out of the way so they could put the food in the middle where they could both easily reach, talking about all sorts of things just the way they had when they’d been on the beach, until their entrees arrived and they settled in to more serious eating.
She gave a little moan of happiness as she took her first bite of swordfish. “This is yummy. Good call.”
He smiled. “I asked at the front desk.”
“The gal who checked us in? She’s totally hot for you, by the way.”
“Really? Crap. Do you think she’s still there?” He laughed at her expression of pretend outrage. “Fine, I’ll stay here.”
“Good.” She saw him eying her swordfish. “This isn’t dancing with pepper, but it’s really good. You want a bite?”
He nodded, and she pushed her plate toward him. “Go for it.”
As he helped himself to some of hers, he pointed to his salmon. “You want some?”
“Do you have to ask?”
It was very good salmon, but she liked her dish better. She thought he did, too. “So here’s a question for you. Do you try new places or stick with what you know?”
“Do you mean am I going to want to come back here?”
“Usually I like to go different places during the trip, but I’d come back here the next time I visit Clearwater Beach.” He frowned. “Was that really a question about relationships? Should I say I want to eat here every day?”
She shook her head. “No, it was about the food not fidelity. You can be a food slut.”
“They call us foodies now. Much more high brow.”
“Speaking of high brow, tomorrow I plan to go to Universal and let loose my inner geek child. Orlando’s about a two-hour drive.”
“Oh, I left out the part where I asked you if you wanted to go, didn’t I?”
“You did. Not very smooth.”
He eyed her swordfish again.
“Really? You think I’ll give you more of this?”
He nodded. “It’s really good. We could split...?”
“Fine.” She watched him cut his salmon in two parts, then did the same for hers and made a sad face and a little kissing noises at her departing swordfish as they completed the exchange. “You owe me.”
“Mmmm hmmm.” He seemed very happy.
“Do you ride on everything at an amusement park? Silly things as well as scary?”
“Whatever you want to ride on we can ride on. I just like the escapism aspect. It’s all so fake, but that’s okay somehow—it’s actually a big part of the fun.”
“I get that. Sure, I’m in.”
“Perfect.” He held out his hand, and she took it and squeezed. Then he let go and pretended to be making a grab for the rest of her swordfish.
“Don’t even think about it, Mister. I’ve got your number now.”
He smiled. “When I like something, I want more of it.”
“Are we still talking about food?”
He shook his head.
She felt a sense of lightness inside that rivaled the beautiful sunset they’d seen. “I didn’t think so.”