“The Girl from Ipanema”
On the worst of days, my walk from home to work took ten whole minutes, and that was if I stopped for coffee. This morning, I used my ten-minute “commute” to make the phone call I’d been dreading since last night.
“Nikki. Hey, it’s Todd.”
“What are you wearing?”
Before answering my sister’s question, I slid on my sunglasses and waved to the guy opening the bike rental stand. “I’m your brother, Nik. That’s inappropriate.”
“Yuck—no,” she said. “I meant, I assume you’re on your way to work. What’s your outfit?”
“Oh.” I glanced down at myself, though I didn’t need to. This was the twenty-sixth day in a row I’d worn a different version of the same clothes, and at least the hundredth time I realized what a kick-ass job I had. “T-shirt and shorts.”
“I hate you.” My sister growled into the phone. “But I guess since you’re your own boss now, you can wear whatever you want. So, why are you calling me at this unholy hour?”
It was after nine o’clock, and the June Floridian sun had been up for three hours. But I gave Nikki a break, since she was in Manhattan; maybe sunlight hadn’t pierced the skyscrapers yet.
“Sophie’s engaged.” I said this, then waited.
In real life, my sister’s voice had a way of blasting through walls like gunfire. Over the phone, the volume was only slightly less deafening. In preparation for her reaction to my news, I held my cell a safe distance from my head, not needing any more shrapnel—not even the figurative kind.
“Well, well, engaged again,” she said. “That’s…interesting.”
Wait for it.
“And when I say interesting, I mean appalling!”
Yep, her reply was loud enough that a flock of seagulls scattered and veered the other way. “Damn, Nik. Tell me how you really feel.” I crossed the single-lane, sandy street and passed the row of silver food trucks on the other side of the boardwalk. “And before you ask how I feel about it, I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not, Todd. She was engaged to you first. It’s not normal for you to be so apathetic. Though, I mean, I guess that’s kind of how you have to be these days.”
I could practically hear her clicking through WebMD psychology tabs, the ones about the residual effects of being a sniper had on me—and there were plenty. No one enjoyed psychoanalyzing me more than my sister. Yeah, I was pretty young to have baggage, but that was what the Marines did. They programmed you to be exactly what they needed, but they never deprogrammed you.
“I prefer to be called stoic,” I said, rubbing my jaw.
“Don’t bury your feelings like some tough guy. Be honest, are you really okay?”
Oh, if we were being honest… No, I probably wasn’t 100 percent chill that my ex had just informed me she was engaged to another guy. Six months didn’t seem long enough to get over someone then completely commit to another completely different someone.
Or maybe it was. Hell if I knew.
“Trust me, Nikki,” I said, rounding the corner toward the cluster of beachside retailers. “I’m better than okay, I’m— What was that sound?” I switched hands, pressing my cell against my ear. “Chiacchierone, you better not be conference calling—”
“Hello?” A new voice broke in.
“Jess, it’s Nik, and we’re on with Todd. It’s an emergency.”
“What’s wrong?” my other sister asked, worry in her voice.
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said, pulling out the key to my store and unlocking the glass front door. “Nikki’s overreacting, as usual.”
“Nik? What happened to him?” Jessica asked, talking over me.
“Did you know Sophie got engaged to that MBA student?”
“Already?” Jess snorted. “That was fast.”
I let the door close behind me, relocked the floor latch, and weaved around standing racks toward the back office. There was no way in hell to stop the runaway talking train known as the Camford Sisters. I pictured them, so similar-looking that they were often mistaken for twins. They got every corpuscle of Italian blood from our mother, giving them dark hair and eyes. I got the hair, but inherited Dad’s green eyes and pro-sports height. The latter I appreciated whenever teams were divided for hoops.
“Todd,” Jessica said. “Are you okay?”
“Of course he’s not, Jess. His fiancée just got engaged.”
“On a scale of Marilyn Monroe to Kurt Cobain, how depressed are you? Todd?”
“Who, me?” I flipped on the lights with an elbow. “Didn’t think you needed me in a conversation about my life.”
“He’s in denial,” Nikki said.
“Classic denial,” Jess agreed. “It’s ’cause he’s good looking and thinks that makes it easy to bounce back.”
“Yeah, he’s like, ‘I was a hotshot Marine and all girls fall at my feet.’ Todd, you need to work on your humility.”
My cell was on speakerphone now, as I simultaneously turned on my laptop and pointed a remote to the iPod dock in the corner, activating my Rat Pack in Vegas playlist. How was that for hotshot? “I’ve never made any girl fall at my feet,” I said, sitting behind my desk. “That I know of.” But then I thought of a few who had.
When it came to sex, it wasn’t completely tragic having battle scars and a complicated upbringing. A lot of girls were into that. Then again, a lot of girls craved drama, and I was never into those kinds of girls. In fact, nothing was a bigger turnoff. The least amount of potential drama, the better. Zero drama was the best.
“He should start dating again.”
“No way,” Nikki said. “It’s too soon.”
Too soon? I had been dating. Sort of, I guess. Though never anything more than one or two nights—dates, I mean. I was right at that sweet spot between eighteen and thirty when there was no reason to be alone if I didn’t want to be.
Anyway, now was the worst time to get wrapped up in a serious relationship; I had way more important things going on. I glanced at the clock on the wall. My appointment with the bank was this afternoon. It still seemed weird that I was old enough to have an “appointment with the bank.” But this wasn’t even my first one.
Hell, no wonder I wasn’t dating. It wasn’t where my head was at the moment, or for the past few months, or probably since the day Sophie threw her engagement ring at me and called me an unfeeling cyborg.
“What about that paralegal at your office?” Jessica was asking Nikki as my attention drifted back to the phone conversation. “Would they hit it off?”
“Don’t even think about trying to set me up,” I cut in. “This hawk has to stay free, and fly unfettered.”
“Um, Todd?” Jessica said. “Did you just call yourself a free-flying-unfettered hawk?” Both sisters broke out in cackles. “You’re lucky some girls think you’re hot.”
“Bite me,” I muttered, then rolled my eyes and laughed at my own lame-assness.
I opened Gmail. Another message from Rex, a buddy from the Marine Corps, sat in my inbox. I leaned on my fist and read the email, then typed a reply one-handed, listening to my sisters planning the next family reunion, slipping into Italian when they became overly animated. Right as I finished the email, I heard a gong! from the front of the store, alerting me of a customer’s entrance. Weird. Hadn’t I relocked the door?
“Guys, there’s a customer, gotta go.” I deactivated the speakerphone. “I’ll be right with you!” I called out. A female voice answered something back that I couldn’t make out. “Listen, Nik, Jess,” I continued, “I just thought I should be the one to tell you about Sophie—”
“Big ol’ hoe bag,” Nikki muttered. “Want us to tell anybody? You know, spread the news so there won’t be awkward questions later?”
I shrugged to myself as I scraped back my chair and stood. “I don’t care.”
“Already on it, Hawk,” Jessica announced, as I heard her tapping on a keyboard.
“Never call me that again. Ciao.” I hung up and set my phone on the counter as I passed through the doorway toward the sales floor, scanning for the customer.
She stood alone in the far corner. Tall, early twenties—a little younger than me—and running her fingers through her long blond hair. She faced my way but didn’t notice me.
But I had a perfect view of her.
I stopped in my tracks and leaned against the counter, watching her finger through a rack of T-shirts. Before she’d tucked her chin, I’d caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were huge, and a kind of smoky gray I’d never seen before.
“Bellissima,” I said under my breath, brain stuck in Italian.
Though not frowning, she wasn’t smiling, either. In fact, she looked kind of annoyed as her big eyes kept flicking toward the front door.
Being surrounded by bikini-clad bods all day, every day, I was used to double-taking at women. But damn, my gaze didn’t leave the gray-eyed girl long enough to take a second look. She was seriously hot, like cover-of-Sports-Illustrated hot.
She moved over to my newest display I’d set up just yesterday. Amid the beachwear, surfboards, and wetsuits, I’d laid out a small exhibit of high-end ceramic, brass, and blown glass nautical statues. She picked up the blue crystal figurine of a dolphin. With her eyes lowered, she turned it over in her hands, running a finger across the glass. I was about to ask if she had any questions, but when I tried, my mouth was dry and my brain wiped blank.
Well, damn. I knew how to talk to girls. I’d rocked my fraternity’s keggers, I was a Marine-sniper-turned-brand-new-business-owner, and the size of my ego could rival that guy from Maroon 5, for hell’s sake. Of course I knew how to talk to girls. I stared at the back of her head, wondering what made me tongue-tied in front of a woman for the first time in my damn life.
Say something to her. Say something slick. No, something smart. No, something funny. Even my mind couldn’t make up its mind.
“Six hundred dollars?” she said. Her voice sounded completely appalled. “For what?”
“That’s an original,” I answered with a typical salesman-like reaction.
Her head jerked up and she spun around, her steely eyes locking on me like the scope of a rifle. The startled gasp still hanging off her lips brought life to her face. Her blond hair was a little wild and tangled from the baseball cap that was now in her hand. Girls in baseball caps. Talk about sexy.
If I’d thought she was good-looking from a distance, holy living hell if she wasn’t gorgeous up close. As I found myself looking at her full lips, my mouth salivated then dried up like a raindrop in the desert.
“Stupendo,” I muttered under my breath, the witty side of my brain still blank. “That’s a Hans Schoster. Just arrived from Denmark.” That’s it, playa, wow her with your knowledge of imported blown glass. “They’re the first in his collection to be sold outside his home country.” I pointed at the tag that was covered in Danish. “He calls it Dyreliv.”
Shut the hell up, Camford. Why are you obsessing over this? Change the subject. Tell her she’s got amazing eyes or a…a Mona Lisa smile…whatever the hell that is.
No dude, no. This isn’t a bar.
“Interesting. I’ve never heard of him.” She kept her tongue on the back of her front teeth after speaking, like she was purposefully drawing my attention to her mouth. Which, ya know, totally worked.
“Yeah, so obviously, six hundred is a steal,” I said. “But if you like dolphins, I can show you something in a different price range.”
And now I’d insulted her. This was quickly shooting down the crapper.
“I like this one, but thanks.” She did a quiet laugh/wheeze thing under her breath, glanced at me, then lowered her eyes. And…was she blushing?
It was cute, the way her tan cheeks turned all rosy and a little splotchy. She wore jean cutoffs, short enough to give me an awesome view of her long, toned legs.
“Want me to hold it at the register while you look around?”
“Nope, I’m good.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to steal it, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Her chin stuck out, giving her face a brand new expression. Tenacious. Damn, I did love sass, or more specifically, taming sass.
She returned her gaze to the front window and bit her lip, and I was sure she was about to bolt. But no, she moved away from the exit and toward the hat wall, put down the baseball cap, tapped her chin, then pulled a fishing cap off the top hook.
I straightened a rack of logoed T-shirts but couldn’t keep my eyes off her for long. It made me want to smile, the way she went from hat to hat…this one too small, this one too big, like a sexy kind of Goldilocks. That reminded me of a shipment I hadn’t put on display yet. I moved behind the counter and pulled out the box of straw hats. One had ugly orange daisies, another an overly floppy brim, and one had blue and yellow flowers around the edge.
A logical excuse was that I didn’t have an extra mannequin, so I grabbed the hat, ran a hand through my hair, straightened my posture, and marched directly to the gray-eyed girl.
“Try this one,” I said, causing her to whirl around.
Note to self: Do not sneak up on her. My training as a sniper made the tendency natural, though I did wonder why she spooked so easily. But it only lasted for a moment, because she was doing that cute blushing thing again. Her changing of expressions was like watching a sunrise after a hurricane.
“I think it might go with your eyes,” I added. Like I knew one damn thing about what kind of hat looked good on someone.
She cocked her head, that sexy sass again. “Is that some kind of line?”
“Um, no.” I waved the straw hat between us. “See if I’m right. I’m curious.”
One of her eyebrows arched, making the suspicion in her expression seem forced. Adding to this, she swept her gaze up and down, and not very subtly. The girl I’d been checking out for the last five minutes had just checked me out. So maybe this wasn’t a lost cause.
She took the hat to a mirror on the wall, put it on, and examined herself from different angles. “I like it, but it doesn’t look right,” she said.
“I think you’ve got it sideways.” Like any helpful store owner trying to bag a sale, I reached out and made the necessary adjustment. She smelled pretty amazing. Like honey or vanilla…something that made me want to nuzzle my nose to the side of her neck, under her hair. I took a full step back and crossed my arms. “Now what do you think?”
“Yeah, better.” She wasn’t a huge talker, but when she lifted her eyes to me, then smiled, I felt the effects of both in my lower abdominals.
As her smile held, it dawned on me that there was something familiar about her, like we’d met once or knew each other from…before. But no, I would’ve remembered this sun-kissed babe in cutoffs and a tight yellow tank top. “Do you live around here?” I asked, going for casual nonchalance.
“Nope. Just visiting.”
Okay, but from where?
“You’ve been here before, though.” This made more sense than knowing each other in college or New York, since Seaside was a tourist trap. It was like I could see her face, but not the way she looked right now.
She nodded. “Yes, but I’ve never been in this store, you sexy beast, you.”
Okay, she didn’t say that, exactly. But would it be all Bruno Mars-douchey of me to say “that’s what her eyes said”?
I tilted my head, gauging her from a different angle. “I recognize you.”
“Yeah, um, yesterday.” She tugged at the ends of her hair. “I’m pretty sure I saw you at the Barnes and Noble in Pensacola. Were you there?”
“I was,” I said, taken aback. “Looking for ideas for a dive trip I’m planning with some buddies.” I stroked my chin in thought. “And I do remember seeing…you.”
There’d been the flash of a face behind the tall bookshelves. She’d been in dark shades and a hat, maybe the same Dodgers cap she had today. I’d certainly noticed her, but when I’d cruised down that aisle a minute later, she was gone.
“So, you’re stalking me.” I cocked a brow, trying not to smile.
Her eyes flew wide. “No! No, I swear, I…” She paused and let out an exhale, noticing when I finally did smile. “Oh. Yeah, no stalking, just a coincidence.”
“Yep. That’s it.”
As she smoothed her hair back, I got another flash of her face in some other setting, definitely not a bookstore. Damn, it was driving me crazy. “No, no,” I said out of frustration, though the answer was getting closer, circling my head like a CH-53E chopper. “I know I know you from somewhere else.”
“Don’t stress, it happens all the time. I’ve just got one of those faces.” She shrugged and made a move toward the front door.
The last thing I wanted was for her to leave. This girl could stalk me anytime. The next thing I didn’t want was to run into her in town and for this conversation to be her last impression of me. I really did have game. Usually. Before she could do either, I grabbed the blue dolphin from where she’d set it on a pile of T-shirts.
“Aren’t you forgetting this?” I held the dolphin figurine between my thumb and finger. At least now she wasn’t leaving. But dammit all, seeing her face again only made my terrible, sand-blasted memory more frustrated. “You sure we haven’t met? I could swear—”
“Yes, I’m positive. Can’t I just buy the thing without the twenty questions?”
She was even cuter when she was on the verge of being pissed off.
“You got it,” I said, back to playing responsible business owner. I moved behind the counter and to the antiquated cash register. The thing was a million years old and when I’d bought the store, I’d had every intention of converting the technology to a single iPad and credit card scanner. But after a while, its old-fashioned “cha-ching” grew on me.
I punched a couple of buttons, grinning at the familiar sound of a sale. I’d busted my ass over the past six months to keep my tiny store afloat. When I was in high school, it was cool having the safety net of parents with money. But now, I had no intention of making another withdrawal from my trust fund. Every sale I made was another step further from the undirected, nomadic kid I didn’t want to be anymore, but also toward the successful business owner I did want to be.
“That’s six plus tax,” I said. “Paying with paper or plastic?”
“Oh, shitballs—my wallet,” she blurted, patting down the front of her shorts. Even her cursing was sexy. “I left home in such a hurry, I must’ve forgotten…” She slid a hand into her front pocket, pulling out a five-dollar bill that looked like it had been through a war. “Do you have a layaway plan?” she asked, biting her lip.
This new expression on her face…her eyes steady and wide, almost pleading, made me want to laugh. Then, I kind of wanted to hug her, then mess up her hair and do some other stuff. Who was this girl? Yeah, she was kind of neurotic, but good hell, she was adorable.
Or trouble. I couldn’t tell which.
“I have the money for it. I just need to come back later.” She pointed at the wall across the way. “I’ll take the hat, too.”
Oh, yeah? Now this chick was up to something. “Thought you didn’t like it,” I said, not hiding the skepticism in my voice.
With animation, she whirled around and practically bounced toward the hat wall. I followed with rekindled interest—also enjoying my view of her from behind—as she picked up the straw hat from earlier and slid it on her head. She spun around to me, turned up the side brim, then shot me a smile so sexy, so warm and sunny, it felt like a one-two punch to my solar plexus.
“Regardez-moi,” she purred in a French accent.
Another string of images raced across my mind like whizzing bullets. Those eyes—the wrong shade but definitely hers—and that smile. But in my mind she was under a flood of lights in a fancy dress.
No, wait, it was a photograph. Or a magazine cover. No. She was on my TV screen, my computer, and…iTunes.
With each incoming shock wave of realization, my jaw unhinged another inch.
Standing in the middle of my rinky-dink surf shop, one arm’s length away from me, wearing cutoffs and sandals, and with wild-ass, sexy tangled hair…was Abigail Kelly, the most famous singer on the planet.