Wicked Sexy Liar: Chapter 11

London

THE PLAN IS to meet Luke at Tourmaline Surf Park at two. Any other day this would sound like a suicide mission, but knowing it’s going to be packed gives me a small measure of comfort: maybe with a crowd of people around I won’t do anything stupid.

I’ve gone so far as to make a list of goals for the day:

  1. Don’t let Luke drown.
  2. Don’t ogle Luke in his board shorts.
  3. Don’t accidentally have sex with Luke.

I’m definitely going to focus on goals one and three.

The only way to get to Tourmaline is by a road that winds down from La Jolla Boulevard and empties into the parking lot. It’s almost always crowded and I’m about to give up and park on the street outside, when on my second pass I spot someone leaving. I put on my blinker to thwart off any would-be thieves, and pull in as soon as it’s open.

Even with the engine off, my old car still manages the occasional unsettling knock and ping from under the hood, and I sit, fiddling with my phone and looking around. Luke hasn’t texted that he’s here yet and I briefly wonder if it’s too late to call this whole thing off.

Cocky Luke I can handle, but sweet, earnest, tipsy Luke with puppy eyes asking to be friends? Apparently that’s my hard limit.

I can’t stall forever, and so I check the time before sending him a quick text.

There might not be any parking, so find a spot on the street, I type, before climbing out onto the hot pavement and making my way to the trunk.

My board barely fits in my small car and is wedged between the folded backseats so the hatchback needs an extra little shove to close all the way. It’s not an ideal situation and requires more maneuvering than I might like, but it works.

I’ve just managed to pull it free when I hear a familiar voice over my shoulder.

“Need some help?”

“I got it,” I say, leaning the board against the car and reaching for my bag before locking up. “But thanks.”

When I turn, I see he’s got his own board tucked under his arm and a towel rolled up next to it. He’s wearing a thin white T-shirt and blue board shorts that hang low—really low—on his hips. It takes my breath away how good he looks. Warning bells are already going off in my head—and possibly somewhere else. This was a bad idea.

I’m suddenly nervous we’ll see Not-Joe here, and he’ll mention to Oliver that he saw us. Then Oliver will tell Lola, and Lola will tell Harlow, and Harlow will get up in arms all over again about all the Girl Code breaking I’m doing by ogling Luke so thoroughly.

Just friends.

Friends is fine.

“You all set?” I ask, looking around. I can hear how tight my voice is. Hopefully he reads it as impatient rather than hard-core swooning.

He gives a small shake of his head and laughs when he admits, “Not even a little bit.”

“Nice board, though,” I tell him, and run my hand along the nose. “Not too long and a good width for your frame. I’m glad you went with a longboard. It’ll make it easier to pop up.”

“I like that you’re giving me credit, like I picked it out and not the guy at the shop.” He smiles tightly before looking past me, squinting into the sun.

“Just trying to boost your confidence.”

God, this is awkward. We’re both flailing around this attempt at friendship. I make a final check of everything I need and then nod toward the water. “Let’s do this.”

The parking lot is perched high above our destination. Tourmaline is surrounded by sea cliffs that tower over the beach, some as tall as seventy-five feet. There’s a pretty steep hill we have to navigate to reach the bottom, and I can hear Luke’s footsteps as he follows the path behind me. It’s only as we near the sand that I realize he’s quieter than usual, and didn’t even crack a joke when I mentioned the length of his board.

I try to puzzle this out as I look out over the crystal-blue sky, where the ocean stretches until it melts into the horizon. The surf crashes below us and I can taste the salt in the air. It’s like Xanax to my nerves. I suppose everyone has a quiet day. I actually kind of like seeing a different side of Luke.

When we get to the beach, I find a spot with enough room to set down my board. Luke leans his against a large rock and turns to me.

“What’s all that?” he asks, watching me dump out my small bag.

“Sunscreen, fin screws, fin key.” I hold up the bottle, offering.

“I put some on already, thanks, though.”

I nod, unsure how to handle Quiet Luke, shaking the bottle to stall before undressing. But I might as well just get this over with; I’ve never liked wearing wetsuits, even in the icy Pacific Ocean, and instead surf in a swimsuit. Today’s selection is pretty modest—a one-piece—but we’re going to be wet and practically naked together for the next few hours; there’s no point in letting the moment grow heavy now.

I pull my T-shirt over my head and toss it to the sand before unbuttoning my shorts and stepping out of them.

“I like this place,” Luke says, hands on his hips as he looks around—pointedly not looking at me. “I’ve been here before but only for a campfire or something.”

“Never to surf?” I ask, smoothing sunblock over my arms and shoulders.

“Ha, no. I barely go in the water.”

I stop. “You’re kidding.”

He ruffles the back of his hair and looks a little sheepish. “Afraid not.”

“Wait, I mean . . . How could you have lived this close to the ocean for most of your life and not go in the water? You swim. You were on a national championship water polo team.”

“Yeah, that’s a pool. And nothing in there is trying to eat me.”

I cough out an incredulous laugh. “Luke, there’s something like—I don’t know—eight hundred thousand things that live in the ocean, and out of that only a microscopic percent of a fraction would want anything to do with you.”

He tilts his head and pins me with a serious look. “I’ve seen Jaws, Logan.”

“Do you play bridge?” I ask him.

Clearly confused, he says, “Sometimes, with Grams and some of her friends.”

“Statistically speaking, more people have died playing bridge in the last century than by shark attacks in the entire states of California, Oregon, and Washington combined.”

“You made that up.”

I might have made that up.

I toss my sunscreen to the sand and turn to face him. “I don’t understand. If you didn’t want to go in the water, then why on earth did you agree to come out here?”

“I already told you, I like you. And when you’re not handing me my balls, you’re a lot of fun.” The corner of his mouth tilts up into a smile before the other side joins it. “Even then.”

Honest Luke is really throwing me for a loop. “Do you want to do something else?” I say. “We could, I don’t know, see a movie?”

He’s thinking about it, looking out at the water with a considerable amount of apprehension in his eyes. “No. No, I think I want to do this,” he says, and then begins to nod, like it’s taking his body a moment to agree with his mouth.

“You’re sure,” I say, giving him the chance to back out. “I don’t want you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. I promise I’m not keeping score here.”

“No, I . . . I want to.” He reaches behind his neck and tugs his shirt up and over his head. I feel my lungs constrict at the sight of his bare chest in the bright sun, the definition of muscle cutting down his torso and bisected by sharp lines on his abdomen. I blink away.

“Yeah,” he says. “Let’s go.”

“Okay,” I say, voice steadier than I feel, and reach for Luke’s board. “Basics first.”

With a stick I find in a group of rocks, I trace the outline of his board in the sand and prop it back up again.

Luke watches me, confused. “Why don’t you just use the board itself?”

“Because boards are expensive and we don’t want to ruin it,” I say, and toss the stick back into the brush. “This is your board.” I grip his forearms and bring him over to stand in the shape I’ve drawn, and then point to the various parts. “This is the nose, the rails, the tail. This vertical line down the middle is called the stringer, and will keep you centered. Remember that,” I say. I point out the Velcro strap lying in the sand. “I’m assuming you already know this, but this is the board leash; never go in the water without this around your ankle, okay?”

“Got it.”

“We’ll go over paddling and everything when we’re actually in the water, but let’s start with the easy stuff.” I stand next to him, legs spread just wider than shoulder-width apart. “First, your stance. You need to make sure you’re in the center of the board, not too far forward or too far back. No, let me . . .” I say when he tries to mimic my stance, and bend, gripping his ankle, physically moving his feet into position. He’s so warm, bones strong and solid under my grip. “Don’t be too open; put the arch of whatever foot you lead with right there, on the stringer. The other behind it.”

“Like this?” he asks, demonstrating.

I straighten. “Perfect. Being in the center of the board means you’ll have more control. Always stay in the center.”

He nods and tests out the movement. “Okay, I can imagine what you mean.”

“Now, arms up—” I reach forward, trailing my hands down along his forearms until my fingers wrap around his wrists. I can feel the steady beat of his pulse under my fingertips, the heat of his skin. It reminds me of when he held my hands down, above my head, and my mouth suddenly feels dry. I’ve been trying to avoid looking at his torso and his arms ever since he took off his shirt—knowing I’ll only be able to remember what they looked like over me—but realize that’s only going to work for so long.

Luke’s silhouette is the definition of a swimmer’s body. His shoulders are broad, lats bulky like all strong swimmers, biceps clearly defined. His torso is long and lean and I count an eight-pack on his flat stomach. It’s a body designed for power and hours of cutting through the water with little resistance. It’s a body built for endurance.

And Lord, does it endure. He could take me all night and only come at sunrise.

I really didn’t need that reminder right now.

“You okay there, Logan?” he says, and I snap my attention back to where my fingers are still wrapped around his wrists.

“This is for balance,” I tell him, pushing on as if my every thought isn’t written on my blazing-hot face. “Point your leading arm wherever you want to go, rear arm at shoulder height and flexed with the elbow back.” I show him and he mimics the action.

“Good, just like that. Let your body move back and forth, wherever the board takes you. Hips loose, like you’re doing the hula hoop.”

He laughs. “Tell me I look amazing doing this, okay? And not as ridiculous as I’m guessing.”

“Very manly.” I make a few adjustments to his posture and stand back to see. “So with your arms, people think they need to keep them at their side, parallel with the rails, but that’s wrong. Keep them squared with your hips—” I step forward again, bracing a hand on either side of his ribs. Luke curls inward, away from my touch, and giggles.

“Sorry,” he says quietly. “Ticklish.”

“Uh, sorry,” I mumble, and have to mentally count down from ten before I can remember what I was doing. I’ve had sex with Luke, seen his naked body over and under me, from behind, and somehow this feels . . . more intimate than any of that.

My cheeks are hot as I reach for him again, and I bring my hands

down

down

down—how long is his torso?—to rest on his hips.

I never fully appreciated how low boys wear their trunks until this very moment, now that I can feel the bony ridges and hollows of Luke’s hip bones under my fingertips. There are so many shadows on his body, so many places where bone and muscle meet, and for a moment I’m back on his couch, watching these same parts of his body move and flex while he fucks me.

When I blink up, I find him watching, mouth open and hair falling gently forward across his forehead. His cheeks are flushed, too, visible even out in the sun, as if he’s thinking of exactly the same thing I am.

I clear my throat and blink away, hoping he doesn’t realize I’m not quite as unaffected as I’d like to be, and every one of his smiles is another chink in my armor.

“Stay low,” I say, voice rough as I try to get my thoughts back in order. “You want to adapt to the waves and the way the water moves under your feet. You’ll never be able to do that if you’re all tall and”—I wave in the direction of his body—“stiff.”

Luke chuckles and I roll my eyes. “Bend at your knees, not at your waist—this is the heaviest part of your body,” I tell him, and pat his chest. “You need it centered. Too far forward and you’re over the rail, see? You’ll lose your balance.” He bends forward as if to test the theory. Unfortunately this brings his face directly in line with my crotch.

He looks up at me from beneath his hair with a cheeky grin. “Like this?”

The top of his head is literally inches away from my lady parts, and I give him a gentle shove, effectively knocking him into the sand. “Just like that,” I say, and step over him. ­“Aren’t you glad that didn’t happen in the water?”

He jumps up, knocking sand off his shorts before getting back into position. “I might have deserved that,” he says.

I adjust his stance, hands sliding over his skin to angle him this way or that, to bring attention to the parts of his body he needs to tighten. There was clearly a flaw in my plan because I failed to anticipate there’d be this much touching in a surfing lesson.

“So a few more things before we get you in the water—”

“Do I have to go in the water?” he asks.

“You have to go in the water.”

He looks out over the ocean, worry etched in every feature. Turning back to me he says, “Tell me something you hate.”

“Like people who take too long in the shower and don’t separate their recycling, or—?”

“Something that scares you.”

There are a lot of things that scare me—Luke scares me if I’m being honest, the fact that he’s nice and funny and he makes my stomach do strange things. The idea of ever reliving what I went through with Justin . . . that definitely scares me.

“I don’t like roller coasters,” I say.

“Really?” he asks, and I nod. A tiny disbelieving smile pulls up the corner of his mouth. “Roller coasters are designed to give you the illusion of danger without any of the actual danger of death. But surfing”—he motions to the ­water—“out there you might as well be a tasty morsel in an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

“Doesn’t make the fear any less real, though, does it?”

“No, I guess not.” He looks at the water again before turning back to me. “Let’s make a deal. I do this and you go to Six Flags and ride Goliath with me.”

I actually snort. “Fuck that.”

He reaches for my forearm, thumb brushing over my wrist. “I’m trusting you, you trust me.”

I could be wrong, but it feels like he’s talking about a lot more than roller coasters. I look into his brown eyes and there’s nothing but absolute sincerity there.

He bends at the knee to meet my gaze. “Okay?”

I reluctantly nod. “But I don’t want to hear about it when I freak out and end up riding the stupid thing in your lap.”

Luke grins. “It’s cute that you think I would complain about that.” He holds out a hand to shake and I take it, ignoring how much bigger it is than mine, and that I know exactly what it feels like on my body.

“Okay, okay,” I say, pulling away from his grip and shaking my fingers where I hope he can’t see. “Deal made. Now, let’s get back to surfing so I can see you punk out and I never have to step foot inside that godforsaken amusement park.”

“You’re really hot when you get all worked up,” he says, and I punch him in the shoulder.

I have him lie facedown on his board and we go over the basics of paddling out. One look at his broad, tan back, and I realize I’ve made another mistake.

“You can spot a beginner because they paddle out with their legs open and that drags in the water,” I tell him, and tap his ankle with my foot. “Legs together.” I point out a group of guys running out into the water, and I show him how to read the waves, how to tell which direction they’ll break. “See that guy right there?” I say. “That’s how you want to pop up. Do what he’s doing.”

Luke mimics his position and lies on his board again. “Pretend there’s a beach ball under your chin. Yeah, just like that,” I say, and move around to the other side and lie down in the sand next to him. “So you’ll see the wave . . .” I start, becoming distracted by the way his gaze flickers over my body, down along my curves and back up again, not even remotely subtly.

When he makes the full circuit and meets my eyes, he breaks out in a huge smile. “I was just checking your position,” he says.

“Sure you were.”

“What? I like to be thorough. This is the only part I’ll be good at, okay? Once we get in that water all bets are off; let me keep my manhood for just a little longer.”

I grin up at him, finally pulling my bottom lip between my teeth so I don’t let it slip how fucking adorablehotsweet he’s being.

“So I’ll feel the wave . . .” he says, and waits for me to continue.

Nodding and getting my shit together, I say, “You’ll feel the push, take two extra paddles to make sure you’re actually in it, hands here, under your chest. With your head up you’ll roll your body and pop up, knee under your chest, feet under you and into your stance, ready to hula-hoop.”

He doesn’t look overly confident but he tries it a few times.

“Good! And if you did everything correctly, you should be able to do it in reverse, too,” I say, and show him, kneeling down, pushing my legs back behind me until I’m lying on my stomach again. “And just do it until you feel comfortable.”

“Comfortable?” He looks less than convinced. “I don’t think that’ll ever happen,” he says, bringing his knees to his chest and popping up.

“Yes it will, look how good you’re doing already.”

“Yeah, on the beach.”

“All in good time,” I tell him, rubbing my hand over his warm shoulder. He looks down at my hand, I stare at my hand, and we fall into a heavy silence before I pull it away completely. “You ready to hit the water?”

Luke shakes his head, eyes playful. “Nope.”

I tilt my head and wait.

“Okay, yeah. I’ve got roller coasters to get you on, and I’ve lived a good life already anyway,” he says, and we head down to shore.

The water is cold and it takes us a few deep breaths to work up the nerve to dive in together, but eventually we do, surfacing with shouts and laughter. We swim out, stopping where the waves lap just at our waist. Luke has his leash strap hooked around his ankle, and hasn’t stopped looking in the frothy water, as if a shark might materialize at any moment and take him down.

“Can you get up on your board?” I ask, and he nods, gingerly climbing up, eyes darting at every little ripple next to him. He’s terrified, and a part of my chest squeezes with fondness that he trusts me enough to even do this.

“The waves are that way,” I tell him, and he looks up from the water. “You can look at my boobs if you need the distraction.”

“Don’t think I won’t hold you to that,” he says.

We work on getting him balanced on his stomach on the board. He slides around a little, complaining good-naturedly, and we talk more about spotting a wave. I quiz him on which direction they’ll break. I teach him how to duck-dive and punch through the smaller waves on his way out, and though he never actually looks any less tense, he listens and does everything I ask.

“As the wave comes, you want to push the nose of the board down, sinking it. Arms straight, hands on the rails, deep breath before the wave breaks over you—”

“Why do I need to take a deep breath?” he asks, eyes wide and panicked.

“Because you’re going to be underwater.”

“Under?”

“You’ll be fine,” I tell him.

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“Luke.”

He has goose bumps up and down his skin and I’m a pervert for even noticing this right now, but I can’t look away from his chest, at the drops of water that cling to it and the way his nipples are pert and hard. I want to flick them with my tongue. God, he has great nipples.

“Will you hold my hand on Goliath?” he asks, and I have to blink back to what he’s saying.

“What?”

“I think you heard me, Logan.” He ducks his head, adding, “My eyes are up here, by the way.”

I snap my attention to his face, biting back an embarrassed laugh. “Fine. Yes, I’ll hold your hand on Goliath.”

“Okay, good. I can do this,” he says, and takes one last look into the water. “Show me this duck bill thing.”

“Duck-dive.”

“Whatever. All I care about is surviving. I’m listening.”

I shake my head and reach for the nose of his board. “So your board is under, you take a deep breath, and the wave goes over. You’ll pop right back up and be ready to keep paddling. It takes some time to get but it won’t take long to feel when you get it right. And you don’t have to go deep. Just enough to get under the wave. Deeper isn’t always better.”

He snorts. “If that’s true then you wouldn’t have—”

I slide my hand over his mouth to get him to stop talking, and we both look up at the same time, our attention snagged by something to our right.

A huge set comes up, and we watch another surfer paddling out. “See how he’s going right through those?” I point to the smaller swells. “When you paddle out you want full steam because that wave is stronger than you and if you’re not working to move through it it’ll knock you on your ass. Watch how he pops, look at his stance . . .”

As we watch the other surfer, Luke eventually lets out a “Man, he’s good,” clearly impressed.

“You could be that good,” I tell him. “You’re definitely strong enough and a great swimmer. It’s all technique and practice. You’ll have the small waves down in no time.”

“And the big waves?”

“I don’t think you’re ready for a big wave yet, Blue Crush.”

“Very funny.”

“Okay, I’ll do it and then it’s your turn. Deal?” I ask.

He nods and I paddle out, watching the wave. Three more strokes and I tilt my board under, letting it roll over me. I pop back up and do it a few more times before I catch the edge of a larger one.

It’s short, and I barely have enough time to pop up and ride before the wave falls apart under me. When I break the surface again, I climb back up on my board and paddle over to him.

“See?” I say, squeezing the water from my hair. “You can totally do that.”

“Your confidence in me is impressive,” he says, looking out over the water.

“I know you can do this, Luke. Come on, up you go.”

He looks terrified but lies down and starts paddling out. He looks back at me a few times but keeps moving forward. I stay as close as I can, watching as the smaller waves rush over him, one of them knocking him off his board. Protectiveness surges tight in my chest. He pops back up—looking a bit shaken—but doesn’t let it stop him and tries over and over again.

A wave forms off in the distance and I see him size it up before paddling toward it. Butterflies form in my stomach as I watch him, already cheering him on. “Keep going . . . Nose down, hips forward, deep breath! Yes!” I shout, even though there’s no way he can hear it.

He disappears momentarily under the water. Then, head turning frantically side to side, he breaks the surface again.

When he spots me, he breaks into a huge smile. “Holy shit. I think I did it!”

“You totally did it!” I say, laughing at how excited he is. “Think you can try it again?”

He nods and climbs back on his board, pushing his hair back from his face before looking out at the water.

Watching Luke as he paddles forward, warm from the sun and wet, twitching with exertion . . . I’m sure I’ll never forget this sight. He spots a wave in the distance and aims his board forward. I hold my breath as he dives through the smaller waves and breaks the surface again, before finally popping up to his feet on the last one. He doesn’t stay up for long before he’s knocked off and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but he did it, and I feel wildly, fiercely proud. I try not to stare as he comes back over to me, because I know my adoration would show all over my face.

“I TOLD YOU,” I tell him for the tenth time as we paddle back to the shore something like an hour later.

Luke is exhausted but he hasn’t stopped smiling. “Now I know why you’re in such amazing shape,” he says, looking appreciatively at my body. “That kicked my ass.”

“But you still did it,” I say.

We reach the shore and Luke collapses in the sand, chest heaving. “I did.” He closes his eyes and stays there, trying to catch his breath. “My dad’s going to flip when he hears about this. He tried to get me out there with him when I was little, but I’d never go. My sister will never believe it.”

“Want me to call her? I can text if that’s easier—”

“No. You’re not getting her number, ever,” he says, tilting his head to look at me. “The two of you together are dangerous.”

“I like your sister.”

“And she loves you,” he tells me, still catching his breath. “The idea of you two hanging out on a regular basis scares the hell out of me.”

He squeezes his eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose, and I wonder if he’s recovered yet from a recent roll that got salt water up his nose.

“You okay?” I ask him, reaching out to brush some sand from his back.

He stills before turning his head to look at me. “Yeah. Just stings a little still.”

“I hate it, too. It’s why I could never imagine snorting anything on purpose.”

He laughs. “God, I tried coke exactly one time, in some blur of parties sophomore year. I knew immediately I would want more, so I never—” He does a double take, noticing my shocked expression. “What?”

“Nothing,” I say. “But that’s gross.”

Luke laughs. “Why did you bring up snorting things if you were going to be all weird about it?”

I shrug. I realize it’s odd in some ways that I’m a bartender and so uptight about harder drugs, but I am. I’ve seen too many people turn into complete messes when they play around with cocaine. “It just seems like really bad judgment for an athlete.”

Luke barks out an amused laugh, saying, “You think?”

This makes me laugh, too. “Sorry, yeah, just had a knee-jerk reaction to it.” I have such a hard time imagining healthy, together Luke doing something so stupid.

“I mean, let’s be real,” he says, nudging my shoulder with his. “I’m not really known for impulse control.”

I giggle as I pick up a rock and start drawing in the sand.

“Try not to agree with me so gleefully.” He leans in, voice playful but hiding something tighter beneath when he adds, “Are you slut-shaming me, Logan?”

The words burst out before I’ve realized I’ve actually had the thought: “Isn’t it ever lonely?”

And goddamnit. What have I said? I’ve opened up this door, and I absolutely, one hundred percent do not want to step through.

My frank question seems to surprise him: “Totally. I’m sick of it, actually.”

“So why don’t you . . . ?”

“Commit?” he asks.

Shrugging, I say, “Yeah.”

“Because the first girl I’ve really wanted since I was nineteen thinks I’m an impulsive man-slut.”

I go still. Blood riots in my ears, hammers through my veins. “I’m serious.”

“Me, too,” he says, blinking away and staring at the sand. “I like you. But I also like you. I would commit to you.”

Silence engulfs us, and slowly I relax enough to notice the crashing of the waves, the cry of gulls all around us.

Luke nudges me again. “I made it awkward.”

“Totally awkward,” I tease, nudging him back. I knew he was attracted to me, but I didn’t realize it was a thing.

A committing-to-London thing.

A crush, feelings, something more than just good sex.

My thoughts are tumbling from the storm cloud inside me, pouring down. I like Luke, too. I’m attracted to Luke. I have fun with Luke.

I just don’t trust Luke.

And even if I did, I can’t have him.

We watch a surfer catch a pretty amazing wave, and turn to smile at each other in unison.

“I have to admit,” he says, shaking his head a little, “it is pretty cool being out in the water. Learning the rhythm of the waves.”

He bends his knees, propping his elbows on top of them, and we’re both silent, watching more of them crash against the shore.

“Thanks for bringing me out here,” he says. “I know you didn’t really want to, and I appreciate it.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want—” I start to say, but he holds up a hand, cutting me off.

“And it’s fine, you know?” He picks up a shell near his leg and brushes the sand off with his thumb. “You know I would never refer to you that way, right?”

I tilt my head, confused. “What?”

He swallows. “At Bliss that night. I know you heard what Daniel said.”

“Oh,” I say, finally understanding. “I did hear, yeah.”

“Is that why you stopped wanting to see me?” He says this in a way that tells me he already knows the answer.

“It’s one of the reasons.”

“Daniel’s an asshole—”

“He’s not the problem. I mean, he is but . . .” I pull in a breath, trying to organize my thoughts. “The single-serving thing was gross. Guys are disgusting sometimes, but the concept, I get. You and I had a casual thing, a couple of nights that were fun and—”

He turns toward me. “They were fun.”

I give him a play-exasperated eye roll. “My reaction to that comment wasn’t because I didn’t have fun. I’m not angry that he said it about me, or that you have one-night stands or even that you agreed with Daniel. I mean, it embarrassed me, yeah, but I got over it.” He winces apologetically, and I lower my voice so he doesn’t feel berated. “I’m annoyed that guys talk about women like they’re snacks. Like they’re disposable or easily replaceable when something more appealing comes along. So yeah, things between us stopped after that, because I don’t even want casual sex with someone who has such prehistoric views on women. But I hadn’t expected it to turn into more anyway.”

Pink colors the apples of Luke’s cheeks and he looks down, nodding. “Well, you’re not replaceable,” he says. “I just want to make sure you know that.”

Butterflies invade my chest, and I swallow, struggling to push them down. “I appreciate that, friend,” I say.

The word elicits a wry, perhaps wistful smile from Luke, but after a second he says, “What were the other reasons?”

I blink, having lost the beginning thread of the conversation.

“The other reasons why you didn’t want to see me—­romantically,” he clarifies.

“I mean, that’s the main one,” I say, drawing a spiral in the sand with my fingertip. “I’m not sure I want anything right now. I’m sort of distrustful in general, and you’re not exactly easy to trust . . .”

He’s quiet beside me, picking up another shell and turning it over in his hand, looking at it. Waiting for me to continue.

“Harlow freaked out a little when she found out that we . . .” I trail off.

“I could tell.” He drops the shell and brushes the sand off his hands. “She’ll get over it.”

Looking at him, I ask, “Why does everyone say that?”

“Because it’s true.” Luke shrugs. “It’s just Harlow. She burns like paper, not wood. The fire will be out before you know it.”

His casual confidence is exponentially more reassuring than a roomful of nervous Lolas, Olivers, Finns, and Ansels. “You sound pretty confident.”

He smiles over at me, but it’s actually a little sad. “I was with Mia, but Harlow and I were really close. Lola, too,” he adds, “but my friendship with Harlow was different. Tighter. Lola was a little more reserved emotionally. Harlow”—he laughs—“Harlow not so much. I was more brother than friend to her. I wonder whether part of her feeling prickly about this is because it makes her realize we aren’t all that close anymore, and haven’t been for a while. It’s certainly the way I felt when I found out they’d all gotten married and I had no idea.”

I’m not entirely sure what to say in response to this, so I just nod, listening.

Luke squints as he looks out across the water. “Anyway, I assume she worries Mia is fragile about anything related to that time. And she probably is, but I bet not as fragile as Harlow suspects. Harlow is a Mama Bear.”

“It doesn’t bother you?” I ask him. He turns and looks at me. “That Mia knows we slept together?”

His eyes narrow in a way that tells me he thinks I’m being a little silly. “No . . . ?”

“Okay. Good.”

He turns and slowly grins at me. “I’m hoping that our deal still stands.”

I search my memory before realizing what he means. “You held up your end of the bargain,” I say. “I wasn’t lying, you did great.”

“Thanks,” he says, smiling proudly. “And despite everything I said just now, I really do mean it about the ‘just friends’ thing. I wanted to be up front about where I stood.”

“Thanks for telling me.” The sun has shifted lower in the sky and I don’t need a watch to tell me it’s time to go. “I should go, though.” I stand and brush the sand from my legs.

“Work?”

“Yeah.”

He bends to lift his board. “My sister is seriously going to lose her shit when she finds out I went in the ocean.”

“I had fun.” I drag my board up the beach and begin to towel off. “You did so much better than I expected.”

“I’m taking that as a compliment,” he says, and pulls his T-shirt on. I almost whimper as all those muscles disappear beneath the cotton.

“Sorry, I just meant most first-timers aren’t great.”

He smirks, letting this opportunity roll. “I’ll text you and we can figure out Six Flags.”

My shoulders slump and I groan. “There has to be a loophole in there somewhere.”

He shakes his head, grinning. “I’m going to be a lawyer; you think I’d have made that deal if there was some way out? No way. But we can go this summer. Let you work up your nerve a little.”

I watch as he bends and straightens his flip-flops to step into them. He’s so sweet.

He’s so genuinely good.

“Are you even going to still be here this summer?” I ask. And with that realization, my heart pistons into my throat.

“Oh, right.” He shrugs, giving me his sweet, eye-­crinkling smile. “I guess we’ll see.”

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