Thursday, June 18, 2015
Release Date: June 6, 2015
When she felt a shadow pass over her, Lauren instinctively tensed as if sensing someone was near.
But before she opened her eyes, she remembered where was. Relax. You’re at the beach. It’s just a cloud blocking the sun.
“Are you okay?”
Realizing her first instinct had been correct, Lauren jerked her head up and squinted.
The owner of the voice stood directly beside the rising sun, making it difficult to see.
After blinking a moment at the brightness, she recognized the jogger who had retrieved her hat.
“Sorry,” he said. “Just checking to make sure you’re okay.”
Lauren stared into his mesmerizing eyes as she tried to calm her pounding heart. She couldn’t believe she had let her guard down like that. There was no excuse for being careless, even on a quiet beach.
“I’m… just thinking. You know… about … stuff.” She groaned inwardly at her inability to make a sensible statement or even put a cohesive sentence together.
The man, apparently on his way back from his jog, sprawled out on the sand beside her, still breathing heavily. “Oh, well, it gives me a reason to take a breather anyway.”
A little startled by his boldness, Lauren glanced over at him and decided he was probably in his mid-30s—slightly older than she.
“You find something worth keeping this morning?”
Lauren cocked her head, unsure of his meaning as she dug her sunglasses out of her sweatshirt pocket so she could stop squinting.
“In the water.” He nodded toward the shoreline. “Before you lost your hat.”
“Oh, yeah.” She patted the pocket. “A nice shell. Got it right here.”
She didn’t elaborate. Her mind was racing. So much for her situational awareness skills—being cognizant of one’s surroundings at all times. Not only had she let down her guard in a big way, but she was sitting beside someone who apparently had not.
He’d been aware of what she was doing on the beach before she even knew he existed.
A flicker of apprehension coursed through her, but the reason was more complex, or at least more confusing, than this stranger’s attentiveness to his surroundings—and her lack of it. Lauren could not understand why her heart throbbed with so much force she could feel it in her throat, a circumstance she found both ridiculous and frightening—and therefore bewildering. Conversing with complete strangers as part of her job, even heads of state and military officers, had never been a problem. Yet making small talk with an incredibly attractive man on a social level was suddenly beyond her control.
The jogger didn’t seem to notice—or care—about her discomfort. “You come here a lot?” He tilted his head and stared at her, waiting for a response.
Lauren shrugged to show outward calm, but the trickle of trepidation creeping up her spine began turning into a wave of anxiety. Is this guy trying to make polite conversation or pick me up? She was so unaccustomed to being in a civilized society, she didn’t know if she should be thrilled or scared to death.
“Sometimes,” is all she said.
The man smiled and held out his hand, ignoring her intentionally vague statement.
“My friends call me Rad.”
Lauren stared at the hand, then into his gray eyes—now more blue—and finally extended her hand.
Trying not to appear startled at the strength of his grip, Lauren studied him a moment once he’d released her hand. His smile appeared playful, yet she had the feeling he didn’t really use it that often.
He seemed like a very serious guy, trying to act casual. Her usually—suspicious nature began to ramp up as she continued to analyze him. This just didn’t make sense. Why would such a good-looking guy be paying attention to her?
For a moment they both sat silently, engrossed in watching a sailboat float across the water toward the orange fan of color created by the sun. Once the craft had glided over the glassy-hued reflection and returned to the dark mass of water beside it, Rad picked up the conversation again.
“Now that we’re no longer strangers, maybe you can tell me how long you’re staying.”
He leaned back on his elbows and crossed his legs as if chatting with an old friend.
Lauren’s heart thumped again. “I leave tomorrow morning. Just came for some quick R&R.”
He sat back up and put his arms over his knees, sighing heavily. “Yeah, me too, actually.”
Lauren felt a sense of relief, swiftly followed by a wave of disappointment. The dueling sentiments surprised her, but she didn’t have time to question them.
“Since time is so short, maybe we can get together later this morning… you know, for coffee or something.” He did not say the words tentatively as if testing the idea, but rather seemed to imply that such an arrangement was the only possible remedy to their predicament.
Flattered by the invitation, but still leery of his intent, Lauren almost laughed out loud. Good looking as he was, she had no intention of having a one-night-stand with the man—or ever seeing him again for that matter. She had responsibilities—big ones—and a job that pretty much prevented her from even considering the idea.
Tomorrow she would be on a plane to the other side of the world, with no plans for returning to the United States in the near future. What would be the point of getting involved with someone?
Lauren tried to act casual when she finally answered, but his cool stare when she lifted her gaze unnerved her. “N-n-o,” she stuttered. “Sorry. I have plans.” She tilted her head down to look at him over the top of her sun glasses and felt like he had read every thought with his searching eyes.
“You’re not a very trusting person, are you?”
“Should I be?”
He stood and brushed off his sweatpants. “I guess not. You’ll probably live longer that way.”
He bent down and shook her hand again. “Nice to meet you, Lauren. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Lauren nodded and watched him jog away. She put her head back down into her knees and chastised herself. What are you afraid of, Lauren? Maybe he was just trying to be nice. Not everyone is the enemy for heaven’s sake.
When she raised her head, she almost expected him to be standing beside her again and was disappointed when he was not. She lay back and stared at the sky, forcing herself to think of something else. But try as she might to delete the last hour from her mind, her thoughts kept drifting back to him.
He was a tall man. She liked that. Physically imposing, strong, masculine. She liked that too—almost as much as the way he grinned from one side of his mouth and the way his eyes seemed to sparkle. In fact, if she had a list of things she wanted in a man, she could pretty much look at that guy named Rad and check them off.
Lauren sat back up, put her chin on her knees, and stared out at the water. But she didn’t have a “man list.” She didn’t have time for things like that. Not with where she was going and what she would be doing.
She laughed to herself. What did it matter, anyway? He was gone now. She turned her head and scanned the empty beach. Yep. Definitely gone. And once the beach got crowded, there was no way she’d run into him again. In another hour or two every vacant foot of the beach would be filled with umbrellas, chairs, blankets, and people.
Lauren stood and dusted the sand off her pants, her mind preoccupied with a single regret. If things were different, she would have acted differently. She wished she could have told him that.
About the Author:
Jessica James is an award-winning author of military fiction and non-fiction ranging from the Revolutionary War to modern day. She is the only two-time winner of the John Esten Cooke Award for Southern Fiction, and was featured in the book 50 Authors You Should Be Reading, published in 2010.
Her novels have been used in schools to teach visualization techniques and are available in more than one hundred libraries including Harvard and the U.S. Naval Academy. James resides in Gettysburg, Pa., where she works part-time as a stagehand to combat the sedentary life of an author.