Authors: Shelby Gates
I stayed on the beach for the better part of the day. I flagged down one of the kids in charge of chair rentals—he couldn't have been older than twelve—and he grabbed one from a wooden shed, along with a big blue umbrella. I didn't want the umbrella but if he'd heard me, he acted like he hadn't, staking it in the sand and parking my chair next to it. He walked back to his station and I shifted the chair so that it was fully in the sun. I wanted to sit and bake myself to a deep, dark tan but fifteen minutes of being out of the water and on the beach made me quickly change my mind.
I hopped in and out of the water, keeping my eyes out for jellyfish and other creatures that might want to take a bite out of me. New England beaches were famous for great white sightings and, even though I knew the Gulf was different, it didn't mean there weren't animals lurking in the deeper waters.
I also kept a look out for the guy I'd met earlier but, like the school of jellyfish, he'd disappeared. The beach was full, mostly families with young kids and retired couples, so I was pretty sure I'd be able to spot a hot, single guy parked on the beach. But he was nowhere to be found. I tried not to feel too disappointed. It was my first day, I reminded myself. And I was enjoying my time on the beach. The solitude. The discovery. The time for self-reflection.
But I also knew that Paige would be calling tomorrow, asking for an update.
I dug my feet into the sand and closed my eyes and sighed. I wanted to sit on the beach forever. Stare out at the horizon and let the sun soak into my skin and breathe in the moist, salty air. I didn't want to go in search of anything. I wanted opportunities to find me.
“You're still here.”
My eyes flew open and I saw green. Green board shorts attached to hips that were attached to abs that I had seen before.
I smiled and shielded my eyes. “Hey.”
The guy I'd talked to earlier smiled back at me. “Been out here all day?”
He looked at me with unabashed admiration. “Wow. Impressive.”
“You're not as delicate as you look,” he said, grinning.
His hair was no longer wet and it was more brown than black, with streaks of blond threaded through. Like caramel drizzled on a piece of chocolate. I licked my lips.
“I look delicate?”
“Yeah,” he said, letting his eyes rove over the length of me. But it wasn't salacious. “Definitely delicate.”
“I'm not,” I told him.
“Clearly.” His smile grew wider. “You've spent all afternoon in this heat and you're still smiling. And you're not even sunburned.”
I nodded toward the umbrella. “I owe it all to that.”
I thought about my conversation with him earlier and how I'd felt when he'd walked away. And I made a decision.
“You said you live around here, right?”
I pressed my lips together, then smiled and tilted my head so I was looking at him again. I swallowed the apprehension that was blossoming inside of me. “Any chance you could give a stranger a dinner recommendation? I haven't had a chance to check anything out. Been too busy staying un-sunburned.”
He laughed and the sound was deep and throaty and made my toes curl. “I might have a place or two I could recommend.”
He nodded. “On a couple conditions.”
My heart thrummed in nervous anticipation. “Oh?”
“One, you tell me your name.”
I smiled. “Jessica. But you can call me Jess.”
“Fair enough.” He leaned down and extended his hand and I shook. A jolt passed through me at his touch. “I'm Adam.”
“Nice to meet you, Adam.”
“The pleasure is all mine.” His smile widened and my heart tripped even more. “Second condition.”
“You let me give you more than a recommendation.”
I raised my eyebrows and hoped the jack-hammering my heart was doing wasn't actually visible.
“You let me take you out to dinner.” He still had my hand in his and he squeezed gently. “My treat, of course.”
I didn't think my heart could beat any faster but I managed to keep my cool. “I think I can agree to those conditions.”
He let go of my hand and straightened. “Excellent,” he said. “How about I pick you up at seven? Right in front of the hotel office.”
I stared into his green-gold eyes and smiled. “It's a date.”
I stared at my reflection, trying not to be too critical.
I was supposed to meet Adam in fifteen minutes and I was having serious doubts about my choice of outfit. About my hairstyle. And about every single thing I was doing.
I cast one more harried glance in the mirror and picked up my phone.
Mimi answered on the third ring. She didn't bother with hello. “Is everything okay?”
I sank down on to the bed in my hotel room. “No.”
Jacob was wailing in the background. “Oh, Jess. What happened?”
“I have a date.”
There was a moment of silence. “Um. Okay...”
I stood up and began to pace the floor between the bed and the sliding door. “And I don't know what to wear. I don't know what to do. I am freaking out.”
“Okay. Just slow down.”
“I can't.” My voice was filled with exasperation. “I'm supposed to be meeting him in fifteen minutes. And...I don't know if I can do this.”
“Jess.” Mimi's voice was firm. “It's a date. That's it. You don't have to sleep with him.”
“No,” I said bitterly. “I just have to fuck him.”
“You do not!”
I was glad I'd called her instead of Paige. Because I knew the conversation would have gone much differently. I didn't need my other best friend's take-charge, no-nonsense attitude. I needed Mimi. Sweet, rational Mimi, who would talk me down from a cliff if need be.
I slumped back on to the bed. “I don't know what I'm doing.”
you doing?” she asked.
Jacob had stopped crying and I wondered if she was nursing him or if she'd moved to a different part of the house.
“You know what I'm doing! I'm sleeping my way across the country!”
“No,” she said quietly. “I meant tonight. For your date.”
“Oh.” I blinked. “Going to dinner. With a guy named Adam.”
“Okay,” she said. “So dinner. You know how to do that. You eat and talk. That's it.”
I fell backward on the bed. “You don't understand.”
I closed my eyes. “I haven't been on a date in...in forever. You realize that, right? Brian and I didn't date. We just...were.”
It was true. We'd just sort of ended up together. There'd been no courting, no romancing. It was like we had automatically become a couple. There was no chase, no wondering whether he was interested, no late night phone calls or longing looks, or fantasies of what might be. Because we just...were.
“So you didn't date,” Mimi said. I heard a small whimper and smiled. She was nursing him. “It's not rocket science, Jess. Just be yourself.”
“What if myself isn't good enough? Or interesting enough?”
“Did you ask him out to dinner? Were you the one doing the asking?”
“No,” I admitted.
“So clearly, he found you interesting enough to ask out. Right?”
“So go with it. Go and have fun. And if you have a good time...well, you can figure out how far you want to take it. But you're over-thinking this. Just go and have fun.”
“Easier said than done,” I told her.
“Just try. That's all you have to do. That's all anyone expects you to do.”
“No,” I argued. “Paige expects much more.”
“I won't tell Paige you called,” Mimi said, chuckling. “Just go. Be yourself. Have fun. The rest will follow. I promise.”
I let out a long, deep sigh. “I'm wearing a dress. That black and white one.”
“With the spaghetti straps?”
I nodded, then remembered she couldn't see me and said, “Yes.”
“You look beautiful, Jess. I know you do.”
I stood up and walked back to the bathroom, the phone still pressed to my ear. I stared into the mirror again. I wasn't beautiful—Mimi was biased—but I looked alright. Passably pretty.
And it would have to do. I glanced at the microwave and saw the time. It was 6:55. I had five minutes.
“I need to go,” I said reluctantly.
I didn't want to. I wanted to strip out of the dress and crawl into bed and turn on a movie and chat with my best friend all night.
But I knew that wasn't an option.
“Go,” Mimi urged. “And have fun.”
Adam smiled when he saw me. “You look nice with clothes on.” I blushed and he chuckled. “I've always wanted to say that to someone.”
“You have more clothes on, too,” I said. He looked good, that fine line between dressy and casual that was usually hard to find for guys. A thin green stripe in his polo shirt shirt mirrored the color of his eyes and his khaki shorts accentuated his tanned skin.
He glanced down at himself. “Yeah, I guess I do. So Jessica-but-call-me-Jess, you ready for me to show you the town?”
“As long as it involves food, yes.”
“Do you like seafood?” he asked.
“Fish, yes. Shrimp, no.”
He pulled his keys out of his pocket and motioned to a red pick-up truck sitting in the parking lot. “Done. There's a place about a half mile up the road. We can walk, if you'd be more comfortable.”
There was nothing comfortable about walking around in the late day humidity but I knew what he was referring to: if I didn't want to get in the car with a stranger. I stole a quick glance at him. His gaze was open and friendly and I couldn't imagine him doing anything to me. But then I thought of Ted Bundy and how his victims had probably thought the same thing.
I silently berated myself. I was going to end up with a grand total of zero dates if I kept second-guessing myself. My intuition was telling me this guy was okay. I needed to trust it. Trust myself.
“Let's drive,” I said. “I'm delicate, remember?”
He walked to the passenger side of the truck and opened the door for me. “I have a feeling you're the exact opposite of delicate.”
I climbed into the cab of the truck and he shut the door behind me. A minute later, he was settled into the driver's seat and the engine roared to life. The radio was tuned to a country station and he turned the volume down, blasting the AC instead.
He had a clean truck. There were no food wrappers on the floor, no empty drinks in the cup holders. The windows were smudge-free and the cab smelled like...nothing. No lingering smell of old fast food, no stale cigarette odor or week-old cologne.
“I cleaned it,” he told me.
He cast a sideways look at me and smiled. “My truck. It was a wreck.”
“You didn't have to do that.” I felt oddly flattered.
“Oh, it was as much for me as it was for you,” he said. He pulled out of the hotel parking lot and hooked a right on to the main boulevard. “I let stuff build up. I can usually go a few weeks before I just go berserk and do a major clean up.”
“It does now. You should have seen it before.”
“Do you commute a lot? For your job?” I asked.
“Nope. So can't use that as an excuse.”
He pulled into a parking lot attached to a small shack of a restaurant. Sun-bleached wood shake shingles covered the top of the ramshackle building and the attached patio listed a little, as if the deck flooring had settled haphazardly on the sand below it. The sign, a square neon board tacked on the outside wall, should have read Fish Grotto but the “G” wasn't lit up. Fish Rotto didn't sound particularly appetizing but all the tables on the patio, large circular ones covered by bright red umbrellas, were occupied and a line of people snaked out the front door. Not tourists; these looked like locals. No sunburned noses, no pasty pale legs hidden under beach cover-ups. The people in line looked like they lived in Perdido and they looked like they were more than willing to wait to eat at this restaurant.
Adam parked the truck and hopped out to open my door. It was a gesture I wasn't used to; Brian never did things like open doors or help seat me at a dinner table. We approached the front door and instead of parking ourselves at the back of the line, he put his hand on the small of my back and guided me to the front door, murmuring, “Excuse us,” as we made our way through the crowd.
“Do we have a reservation?” I asked.
He flashed me a grin. “Sort of.”
He stopped at the hostess table and waited for the blonde stationed behind the podium to look up. She eventually did and her gaze bounced from Adam to me and then back to him. She looked about my age, maybe a few years younger, with a blue gem embedded in her nose. It matched the color of her eyes.
“Let me guess,” she drawled, an amused smile on her lips. “You need a table?”
Adam nodded. “Yep.”
She blew at her bangs as she studied the grid of tables marked out on her podium. “Why do you always pick the busiest nights?”
“Every night is busy here,” Adam said.
The girl nodded distractedly. She picked up the grease pencil from the podium and chewed the end as she stared at the map. “Alright,” she said finally. “There's a two-top by the kitchen. It's gonna be noisy but that's the best I can do. Unless you want to wait another twenty minutes or so.”
Adam turned to me. “That sound okay with you?”
I nodded. I was hungry. I didn't know if I'd be able to eat with the way my stomach was twisting itself into knots, but I was going to try. The smell of fried fish and seasonings was very appealing.
The girl slid out from behind the podium, grabbed two dog-eared paper menus and led us through the restaurant. It was just as busy inside, every seat occupied. I glanced at the tables as we wound our way toward the kitchen. There were baskets of fried fish and chips, bowls of buttery shrimp and plates of seasoned crawfish and my stomach growled in anticipation.
Adam pulled out my chair, then took the seat across from me and looked at our hostess. “Thanks, Gretchen.”
Two minutes later, a bus boy dropped off tumblers of water and a basket brimming with miniature corn muffins. Adam picked one up and popped it in his mouth.
“Bottomless basket,” he said, nodding at the muffins. “Eat up.”
I picked one up and took a bite. They were moist and buttery and had pieces of corn embedded in them. “These are good.”
“Everything here is good.”
“That was nice of your friend to get us a table.”
I was curious about the woman named Gretchen. She didn't act like a jealous ex-girlfriend but she also didn't seem terribly surprised that Adam showed up, asking for a table with a woman she'd never seen before.
“I send people this way all the time,” he said. “People looking for good seafood. One of the perks is getting first dibs on tables when I come.”
A waiter stopped at our table for our drink order and we both ordered beer.
“Where do you send people from?” I asked after he left.
“What do you do?”
The waiter returned with two large pilsner glasses and set them down in front of us. Adam took a long drink. “I work at one of the hotels. Concierge.”
“Not The Beach House Inn?”
He chuckled. “No. A bigger resort.” He didn't elaborate and swallowed another mouthful of beer. “The number one thing people want are restaurant recommendations.”
“And this is one of the good ones?”
“Not one of the good ones. The best.”
He smiled and I noticed how it reached his eyes. They were like cat's eyes, all green and yellow and brown. They were warm and mesmerizing and I reached for my own beer and looked down at the golden liquid, trying to get a grip on the desire igniting in my body. It felt foreign, unfamiliar and I didn't know what to do with it.
We ordered a few minutes later, fish and chips for both of us.
“So, Jessica,” Adam said, leaning back in his chair. “What brings you to Alabama?”
“I already told you. I'm visiting.”
“Sure,” he said. “So this is just a getaway? By yourself?”
I took another sip of my beer. It was a local brew and it was light and crisp and went down easily. Too easy. I'd already drained half of the glass.
“I'm traveling for a while,” I told him. “Seeing the country.”
“Yeah?” He raised an eyebrow. “And little ole Alabama made your list of things to see?”
I thought about what I should say, how much I should tell him. I wasn't going to go into the whole fifty guys in fifty states thing, but I could tell him about my plans to travel the entire country. A state per week. That would be safe...and wouldn't make me sound like a total skank.
“I like the beach,” I said. “I've never been here before. And it seemed like a good place to start. The beginning of the alphabet.”
“This is your first stop?”
He smiled again, a smile that was sweet and sexy and loaded with lust, and my toes curled.
“Well,” he drawled. “I'm glad you're here. And I'm glad I get to be the one to show you some of the best Alabama has to offer.”