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“To impress you, of course.” I flashed a wink at her. “Did it work?”
“It’s just me, Boyce.” She dropped her gaze and smoothed her hand along her thigh. “You don’t have to do anything to impress me.”
My fingers tightened on the gearshift. “Because you already think I’m awesome, or because you never will?”
Her eyes flashed back to mine, startled. “You saved my life.” Her voice was soft but steady. She returned her gaze to her lap and then forward, and the setting sun made her dark eyes glow. “I’ve been impressed with you since I was five years old.”
I glanced at her profile and then stared out the windshield—as if I couldn’t drive this road blindfolded. I wrestled to swallow the lump that rose in my throat, ashamed of the way I hankered after those words. The way I needed them and hadn’t even known it until she’d said them.
When we got to the marina, she jumped out and helped remove the tie-downs and push the boat into the water, and I tried to return to the easy teasing she was used to. “At home with launching a boat, Pearl?”
She climbed into the boat, turned it on and reversed it off the trailer.
“Lord, girl—do you fish too? I might have to fall in love with you.” Well, hell—where the fuck had that come from? I should just bite my damned tongue off.
She hitched the boat to the dock cleat before she looked at me. “Be careful how you throw that proposition around, Boyce Wynn. A girl might take you seriously.”
I parked the car and trailer in the near-empty lot, grabbed the dad-in-a-box and cooler from the trunk, and jogged back over to the boat, waiting for her response to cut off my air, to give rise to the Mayday warnings my head sounded whenever I felt cornered or suffocated or obliged. But there were no orders to retreat, and the only distress signal in my head told me to make that girl fall so hard for me that she’d never wanna get back up.
When I hopped aboard, she was sitting in the passenger seat of my Gambler, texting. I didn’t ask who and she didn’t volunteer it. When she looked up, tucking the phone into the front pocket of her shorts, she stared and I threw her a questioning look.
“Your hair, with the sun behind it like that,” she said. “It looks like it’s on fire. Like those medieval paintings of saints and angels, with the rings of light around their heads?”
Damn if I wasn’t on fire right now, conjuring up the last time we were on that sandbar. The first time I claimed those plump lips. “I’m neither of those things, Pearl.”
“So you say.”
“So everybody says.”
She crossed her arms. “Well, everybody is wrong.”
I couldn’t help laughing at that. Angels and saints don’t fantasize about doing a girl like Pearl over a kitchen table, or most of the other ways I’d imagined taking her. “There’s my stubborn girl—so dead set on being right. So which am I? Angel or saint?”
She blinked and blushed dark pink, rising like dawn from chest to throat to cheeks. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen Pearl blush. I hadn’t even said anything that suggestive in view of the teasing, flirting nonsense she’d tolerated for years.
“I suppose you’d be my guardian angel, wouldn’t you?”
Her answer slammed into me. I hadn’t expected her to choose either.
Once we picked a spot to beach the boat, she grabbed the cooler while I pulled the box and a small shovel from the hatch. I went back for the blanket and stack of firewood I’d stored there last night. The sun was almost gone—just a sliver of it loitering on the horizon like it meant to cause trouble, lighting the sky a violent red-orange. It lit the very edges of Pearl’s dark hair as well—bits torn free of her ponytail during the trip over. On her, it was less halo and more like she’d dipped the ends of her hair in red dye.
We both stared at the box. I’d never known a moment of softness from my father. He hadn’t earned the right to my grief, not even a slice of what I’d felt when I lost Brent. Why, then, did the knowledge that he was right there, in that box, dead but not buried, make something in my chest ache like it might crack?
“Boyce.” Pearl’s voice was soft. Her touch was soft as she pressed the shovel into my hand. “Let’s choose a spot and get this over with. And then we’ll make a fire and have a beer. C’mon.” She picked up the box and waited until I stamped toward the marsh grass and started digging.
• • • • • • • • • •
“You sure that wasn’t illegal?” I asked, tossing the last log on the fire.
“Maybe. Probably we should’ve procured some sort of permit. Good thing my silence can be bought with a couple bottles of Shiner and a perfectly dug fire pit, huh?” She grinned and I laughed, which felt really good.
June wasn’t a month that required a fire for warmth—not by a long shot. The heat of the day and the never-ending humidity felt like sitting under a lukewarm wet towel, even if the south wind off the gulf was cool. But Pearl had always liked campfires on the beach. Sometimes, back in high school, I’d catch her staring into the flames like she’d been hypnotized. So I used the shovel to dig a pit, and now we were parked on a blanket between the open cooler and the blaze.
She lay back and looked straight up. “God, I’ve missed this sky, all crammed full of stars. I could be here all night, tracing constellations.” Stretching a finger to connect the pinpricked dots overhead, she said, “There’s Ursa Minor—the Little Dipper.”
I had a splintered memory of my mom, holding me on her lap, using my finger to outline skeleton patterns in the sky—Ursa Major and the sea serpent and Leo, my birth constellation.
“Most stars fade out in big cities because of light pollution—all the headlights and streetlights and landscaping lights. So much artificial prettiness at the expense of real beauty,” she said. “Nothing makes me feel how small and insignificant I am, how fleeting life is, like the sky and the ocean. And here they are, in one place.”
“You want to feel insignificant?”
“I want to feel what’s true. And the truth is our lives are short and so often they seem to mean nothing. Even lives that seem important, like scientists who discover cures to horrible diseases or humanitarians… If we step back and view human beings—all of us—as part of the history of the universe, do we matter?” She paused, sighing. “Do you think when we’re dead, we’re dead, or that we become something else? It seems so pointless otherwise.”