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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Kate Canterbary
Second edition, 2017.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any forms, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author.
Trademarked names appear throughout this book. Rather than use a trademark symbol with every occurrence of a trademarked name, names are used in an editorial fashion, with no intention of infringement of the respective owner's trademark(s).
Editing provided by Julia Ganis of JuliaEdits. www.juliaedits.com
Cover design by Sarah Hansen of Okay Creations. www.okaycreations.com
Proofreading provided by Nicole Bailey of Proof Before You Publish. www.proofbeforeyoupublish.com
Created with Vellum
For the revolutionaries.
…and the entire cast of Grey's Anatomy.
I. Kilauea Lava Fields and King Tides
II. Confessions and Cozumel
III. Little Mermaid and Lightning
Also By Kate Canterbary
New from Kate Canterbary
I thought about letting the call go to voicemail, but I'd done that to him too many times already. Two missed calls was reasonable. Three was avoidance. Four was the silent treatment.
At least as it pertained to him.
I pushed my glasses up to rest on my head and rubbed my eyes as I answered. "Hey," I said.
"Hey," he replied. He sounded surprised that I answered, and that was fair. I hadn't been terribly communicative recently. "How are you, Skip?"
Oh, but I'd missed him. I loved the weight of his voice, the heavy tumble of his words with just enough of that Texas accent to call up memories of Dallas and Dynasty. I streamed the old reruns of both—the ones that originally aired before I was born—when I needed a taste of home, and of him. I was well aware that the land of the oil-rich and heavily shoulder-padded wasn't my home, but after nine years away from mainland America, I didn't discriminate over regional variations. When I craved New England, I hit up Jessica Fletcher and Murder, She Wrote.
Glancing around my laboratory and the knee-high pile of sea level readouts in need of analysis, I said, "Not to end this conversation before it starts, but…I'm kinda busy."
I glanced to the columns of data on my laptop screen. The details were irrelevant, and would only lead to more questions than answers. "Lab stuff."
He cleared his throat and paused, and I could almost see his head tilted to the side and his eyes staring into the distance as he thought. Probably dragging his thumb down his jaw, too.
"Shannon's having the baby tonight," he said. "Come home."
This was a request I'd long expected, and one I'd wrestled with since hearing that my sister was pregnant. Chewing my lower lip, I cut a glance at my notebook, and the detailed list of hand-drawn checkboxes with tasks beside them.
"Who's asking?" It was easier to default to defense mode than deal with the fact I hadn't spoken to my sister in nearly nine years, and coming home for the purpose of celebrating the arrival of her baby meant stopping the clock on our war of silence.
It also meant a tacit acknowledgement that this wasn't our war. No, it was all mine.
"Because I'm comfortable stating that I'm neither pivotal in the childbirth proceedings nor am I useful. I know all about things that explode, but not as it pertains to amniotic sacs, or vaginas," I continued. "Hell, me showing up would probably make the experience worse for her, and that would only add another crime to my tab. If anything, it will make this all about me and Shannon, and not Shannon and Will and Froggie. I don't want to force an awkward scene. Don't you think she has enough to worry about right now?"
"And I'm comfortable stating that vaginas do not explode during childbirth," he said.
"But if Patrick's asking," I continued, thinking of my checklist-loving older brother, "it's because he thinks he's going to reenact the Christmas Truce of 1914, and that is ludicrous—"
"I love when you force obscure bits of history to fit your arguments," he murmured. "Missed this so much."
"And this isn't the trenches of Saint-Yves," I said, ignoring his commentary. I missed him, and he missed me, and all of that was too big to get my arms around tonight. "If Matt's asking, please tell him that he's been formally relieved of his official role as Walsh Family Arbitrator."
"But he really likes it," he said. "Don't rob him of that joy."
"I know Sam isn't asking because he sent me an email two hours ago," I said, ticking off my siblings from oldest to youngest on my hand. "He and Tiel, they're having a boy, by the way."
He laughed. "Trust me, I've heard, and I believe he's buying the Green Monster at Fenway Park so he can have it painted with that news, too."
"It's not Riley. He texts me whenever he has something worth sharing," I said. "So, tell me. Who's asking?"
He sighed, and the noise started as a laugh but then twisted into a rough, snarling sound. The kind I loved. The kind I'd been aching for since walking away from him.
"Your husband," he said finally.
I looked down at the slim platinum band on my ring finger, the one I wasn't even sure why I was wearing.
"Your husband is asking because nine years is nine too many."
"I'm not having it, lovely. It's time for this to end, and it ends here."
Two years ago
I blamed it on the seven-year itch.
Or something like that.
That's what it was—seven angry, necessary, devastating, silent, healing, amazing, awful years.
Was it still considered home if you avoided it like plagues and pestilence?
I didn't know if Boston still qualified as my home—and by that logic, was anywhere my home?—but I was tucked into the only available seat on the midnight flight out of Rome and headed there now.
I'd waited until the last minute to make the call, book the flight, pack the bag. It was ridiculous, considering I never truly entertained the idea of missing Matt's wedding. I wouldn't miss any of my siblings' weddings, but Matt, he was a special one.
Between the six of us, there were always factions. The oldests, the youngests, the boys, the girls, the good ones, the smart ones, the strange ones, the wild ones, the bad ones.
Or, as it often went down with our little tribe, the bad one.
That was me, but Matt didn't seem to mind. When my world condensed down to three little lines and there was nowhere for me to go, Matt put my pieces back together. He was the buffer between me and the rest of my family, and he helped me get away when I needed it the most.
So, yeah. I was going to his wedding even if I had to smile, nod, and panic-sweat my way through the entire fucking weekend.
It helped that my father had finally found his true calling. We could all breathe easier knowing he was now busy managing day-to-day operations in hell. Some would say it was wrong to disrespect the dead, but I'd say his inability to respect the living was the greater crime.
But it was easier to breathe with him gone. It was slow at first, no magical moonbeams of serenity here, and then it came down on me all at once. When I shook it off like a cloak I'd long since outgrown, I was left with a cold slap of reality.
I was completely fucking alone.
In my haste to run far and fast from Angus, I'd also shredded the threads that tied me and my siblings together. Little more than a trail of burnt bridges and breadcrumbs led the way to the only people I could call my own.
And in those seven angry, necessary, devastating, silent, healing, amazing, awful years, everything had changed. We'd grown up. We'd grown apart, or perhaps it was me who grew apart from them. They'd grown closer together; my siblings ran a third-generation sustainable preservation architecture firm in Boston. They worked together. They shared holidays, memories, milestones. They even ran the goddamn Boston Marathon every spring.
They were a unit, and I was the outlier.
This journey home was saddled with histories and high-water marks, and a quiet, bitter war with my sister. There was no minor disagreement keeping the ice cold between me and Shannon. Ours was a standoff, and while no one was fully on the side of right, many of the wrongs belonged to me.
The drumbeat of reconciliation had intensified since Angus's death, but it'd started long before that. Matt wanted to broker peace. Patrick was tired of my perennial position on his weekly to-do list. Sam was eager for anyone but him to be the source of our collective hand-wringing. Riley enjoyed reminding me that the only way to get the ball out of my court was to serve it back to Shannon.
No matter which way I cut it, my brothers were walking away from the watchtower. They weren't willing to abet this impasse any longer, and if I knew them at all, I knew they were jostling Shannon in the same way.
Getting out of Terminal E at Logan International was a shitshow. The andesite in my bag raised suspicions in Customs, even when I explained it was a volcanic rock straight from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. They stood down when I produced my badge from the last International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics conference, but they weren't thrilled when they came across my rock hammers and chisels.
Nothing shook the jet lag quite like the heavily armed attention of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.
The rest of my evening was similarly complicated.
While the car service that Matt had ordered was smart enough to send a driver uninterested in idle chatter, they failed to send adequate directions to the Cape Cod inn along with him. After driving in circles for forty-five minutes, Rocco and I stopped for frappés at one of those quaint ice cream stands that dotted New England roadsides every summer. We got directions, too.
I'd hoped to quietly arrive at the inn, sneak off to my room, and gird myself before diving into the deep end tomorrow morning. That would've worked if Patrick hadn't been pacing at the entrance while glancing at his watch, then checking his phone, and then scanning the parking lot. He'd claimed he was waiting for me, and I would've believed that if he hadn't continued on with that precise sequence of events. Always a secretive one, that Patrick.
He showed me to my suite and gave me a literal minute to change clothes before announcing we had "things to talk about with everyone else." A girl couldn't even wash the grime of air travel off her face before appearing in front of the family tribunal.
He led me outside to a sprawling patio area, and I had no idea I'd missed this side of the Atlantic until I felt the sea breeze on my skin. I didn't get much time to enjoy it, though. I was immediately slammed with six hundred percent more family than I knew how to swallow.
The upside to living the nomad's life—or downside, depending on your vantage point—was that I only consumed my family in bits and pieces. An email here, a video chat there, and then a month of silence and self-preservation. But that wasn't how this weekend was going to go.
Riley was a grown-ass man now, and a fucking enormous one at that. He hugged me tight enough to steal my breath and promised we'd get through this. I wasn't sure which "this" he had in mind, but I wasn't turning down the offer.
Sam belonged on the cover of GQ, and I told him as much. It took him all of three minutes to get me on board with a post-wedding camping trip to Vermont. He agreed to hike the Quechee Gorge—one of New England's oldest and oddest geological formations—and I was sold. Mesozoic mafic dikes and Vermont air were my soul food.
Matt was smitten. He was overflowing with so much love and happiness that I could've scooped some of it off him and smeared it all over myself. I didn't, of course. Love and happiness would've had me breaking out in hives.
His fiancée, Lauren, was the human equivalent of a birthday cake. She was sweet and cheerful, but more than that, she made people feel special. I wore the Really Fucking Jaded crown day in and day out, but five minutes with this lady and I was as smitten as Matt. Her family was the textbook definition of Good, Wholesome People complete with the bubbly mom, stern-but-supportive dad, and a set of Navy SEAL brothers. Her father even had a spanky nickname for himself. The Commodore. How those nice people wound up with us was a question for the cosmos.
Matt's friend, Nick—the marathon buddy I'd been hearing about for ages—was tall, dark, and charming. Dr. Acevedo was southern—Texan, according to Matt's mentions of him—but he said my name with a flood of Spanish that had the r rolling for days. That my brother had systemically failed to inform me his Latin friend was hotter than the Kilauea lava field was troubling.
And my sister…She was still holding it all together with one hand and carrying the weight of the world in the other. As if I was Medusa, capable of turning anyone who met my monstrous gaze into stone, Shannon eluded me. She was careful to sit on the opposite end of the patio when Patrick gathered us together, and she never once glanced my way.
There was something complicated about sisters, and complicated didn't scratch the surface with me and Shannon. I wasn't ready to wade into that complication either. Not at all.
"Chill out," Riley murmured as he wedged in beside me on the wicker loveseat. "If this shit gets too heavy, just ask Patrick about his apprentice and I guarantee everyone will forget all about you and Shannon."
"You're wrong," I said under my breath. A waiter appeared, eager to take my drink order. I waved him off. "He wants to have this out. Right here, right now. It's like he won't sign off on Matt getting married until I lift the curse. He's got his 'let's get to the bottom of this' speech all ready. Just look at him."
Patrick was pacing, a small cardboard box tucked under his arm.
"Nope," Riley said. "That's not even on his top ten list right now."
"I don't know," I said, pinching my inner thigh. The pain pulled the stress of this moment out of focus, and it helped. Even if only for a minute.
"I do," Riley said. "Matt instituted a strict no-fly zone for the weekend, and those two"—he tipped his head back toward the bar with a pointed glance at Lauren's brothers, Will and Wes—"are responsible for enforcing it at all costs. The one with the beard is on Shannon duty, and the other one's on you. I believe they've been authorized to hog-tie you both if you so much as cough in the wrong direction."
"Oh, fantastic," I muttered. I'd be offended by the babysitting detail if it weren't so damned appropriate. My years were few but my shameful moments of extraordinary carelessness were many.
"Shush," Riley admonished, jerking his chin toward Patrick. "Optimus wants to talk now."
This time, Riley was right. Instead of calling an end to the feud, Patrick opted to tell us about a haunted house. This wasn't any old home, heavy with lingering souls. It was a place that sucked the innocence from my skin and stripped the optimism from my marrow. It was dark corners, steep staircases, hidden passageways, and all of those things reverberated with breath-stealing terror.
But for once, this old home wasn't handing down a beating.
In his work to prepare our childhood home for sale, Patrick and his apprentice Andy discovered a vault built between the walls. All the things we thought Angus had destroyed—my mother's clothes and journals, family photos and handmade baby blankets—were lovingly preserved. For nearly twenty-five years, we'd believed Angus's grief and resentment drove him to obliterate every trace of my mother, but now it seemed the old sap had built a shrine instead.
That was Angus's style: absolutely fucking demented, with a side of melancholy.
So here I was, for once surrounded by remnants of my mother. Her jewelry, her scrapbooks, her scarves. Her. She was here, and she was real. My siblings knew her, in their own ways, and the memories I had of her were borrowed from them. For years, those ill-fitting hand-me-downs were my best and only options.
But then Sam passed me a small cherrywood jewelry box, and I found myself staring at a necklace that I'd seen only in partially formed recollections that seemed more imagination than reality. The small silver pendant warmed between my fingers, and I stared directly at Shannon, willing her to meet my gaze.
It was Paris all over again.
Everything had memories, everything was charged with knowledge of that which had come before and before and before, but I didn't know that deep in my bones until I was poking around a Parisian drugstore two years ago. I was there for a conference but I also needed tampons, and when I walked through the doors, I was hit with a scent that unearthed a lifetime of memories. It was rosewater, delicate and fresh and overwhelming in an unexplainably-emotional-in-a-Parisian-drugstore kind of way.
In that moment, I understood something but I couldn't explain it. I bought a few bottles and spritzed it on daily, racking my brain for why it fucking mattered, but it took an entire year to realize it was my mother. Rosewater was the only thing that I remembered about her but with that one memory unlocked, I had something, and that was a fuck-ton more than the nothing I'd been operating with since she died. That something brought back the feel of her arms holding me tight, her voice in my ear, and her necklace—the one with the tiny compass pendant—between my fingers.
I'd cried—really cried—for the first time in years. We lost her when I was a toddler, but it took two decades for me to meet her, and then mourn her.
Now, with her necklace in my hands and rosewater in my lungs, and my sister's refusal to look at me and tell me that I was allowed to feel this much relief and loss at once, I was crumbling. It was overpowering—all of this was overpowering, everything—and I was desperate for some of the distance I'd clung to since leaving home all those years ago.
And I was taking this necklace with me.
Two things were immediately apparent about Miss Erin Walsh.
First, she'd seen some shit. She shrouded herself in too much rough assertiveness to be a simple-hearted scientist. She'd lived through a time or two, and it showed.
And second, her eyes made me forget everything I'd ever known.
Green green green.
Green like sea witches and summer. Green like the holiest of pagan rituals. Green like the inside of a secret.
Right there, with Erin's name rolling off my tongue and her hand still shaking mine, I accepted that I'd be violating several articles of the Ex-Girlfriends and Sisters Code for Guys this weekend. I'd ask forgiveness from Matt—and Patrick, Sam, and Riley, too—at some point in the future because fuck asking permission. Even if she was their little sister, Erin was a grown woman, and she'd be the only Walsh granting permission here.
Meeting Erin tonight brought on the oddest sense of déjà vu, all hot and prickly on the back of my neck. Within a single breath, she looked everything like Shannon but nothing at all. Same autumn red hair. Same pale skin spattered with freckles. Same petite build. Same emerald eyes that could cut down grown men with little more than a glance. They were like identical twins, who—despite being genetically fucking identical—were so different in personality and nature that it appeared to alter their features.
I'd seen photos of her, plenty of them. Matt showed off her expeditions like the proud stand-in papa he was, but those images only told me that she was a pint-sized ginger with no concern about getting up close and personal with literal pits of fire.
Never once did those images flatten me with eyes that said I know things you can't begin to comprehend.
It wasn't as simple as attraction, not even close. Attraction boiled down to looking and liking, and I knew all about that. Looking and liking had been my preferred mode of operation for years, and it had never once grabbed me by the gut and said Don't let that woman go. Lust wasn't the culprit either. It was something else, something that resided past the bounds of language and fully in the land of intuition.
That left me staring at her while she examined long-lost family heirlooms with sad eyes that worked hard at blinking back tears. She watched Shannon's every move, but Shannon wasn't returning the favor. I wasn't ignorant of the issues, though. Anytime the Walsh boys congregated around an ample supply of liquor, the topic of Shannon and Erin's holy war was bound to come up. Something really fucking foul had gone down between them, and it was far from resolved.
Yeah, Erin had lived through a time.
Before I could ask her to get a drink with me, she was gone. Dragged back into the rattle and hum of Matt and Lauren's wedding weekend. She was passed around like the family Bible, everyone borrowing the chapter and verse that suited them best.
So I waited. This wasn't my ballgame. Not even my league. But I needed to see her. It was wild and illogical, and in the right light it was manic. I just didn't care.
It didn't help that my head was a fucking mess. This woman—this week—had a throb of confusion vibrating in my every breath and sent me on a long, aimless walk around the inn. I lacked both destination and plan, and knew only that if I kept moving, I'd find what I needed.
And what—who—I needed came bustling out of the inn's front door, a gray cardigan that looked too soft and threadbare to be anything more than symbolically warm over her Moby-Dick t-shirt.
She was wearing different jeans now too, the traditional cut, not the stretchy, close-fitting kind from earlier in the evening. They looked good on her, as if she'd worn them long enough for the fabric to know her as well as she knew it. In place of her flip-flops were scuffed and scarred boots.
Nothing about her said new. Of course not. Her soul was centuries older than her skin.
"Hey. Nick?" She pushed her cat's-eye glasses up her nose—those were too fucking cute for life—and said, "Were you leaving? Can you get me out of here?"
"Sure thing, darlin'," I said. She remembered my name. I was taking that as a sign. "Where're we running to?"
"Just…anywhere," she said, looking into the wooded darkness behind me. "Away from here."
I brought my hand to her shoulder, and steered her toward my SUV. "Easy enough," I said. "What do you need?"
This was cool. It was friendly. I wasn't creeping on her personal space because I had an unbelievable need to touch her. Completely cool and friendly, and I wasn't thinking about stroking her hair. Not at all.
"Thanks for this," she said. "I could use a beer. Maybe some fresh air, too."
No sense mentioning our stone's-throw proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, or the availability of beer here either. The lady wanted to leave and thus I was fulfilling her orders.
Her eyebrow ring glinted in the moonlight as she settled into the passenger seat. It was a tiny piercing, just past the midline of her left brow. I leaned back in my seat, gripping the steering wheel harder than necessary to remind myself that climbing on top of her and exploring the feel of that ring against my tongue wasn't the polite way to start a conversation.
She drummed her fingers on the armrest, and I stared, completely caught in her spell. If this was the same curiosity that sent Odysseus sailing straight into the Sirens, then someone needed to tie me to the motherfucking mast because I was going in.
"I was thinking about getting a little farther away than the parking lot," she said. "What do you say?"
"Right, of course." I cleared my throat and turned over the ignition. "Are we drowning our sorrows tonight?"
She scraped her fingers through her hair, and that sent a gentle floral scent wafting toward me. "No. Just because alcohol is a solution doesn't mean it's the solution," she said.
I barked out a surprised laugh. "Was that a chemistry joke?"
"Atoms, man. They're in everything," she said, and my ribs were now aching from the force of my laughter. "But seriously, that's the extent of my small talk skill. I only know how to talk about the way lava is proof of reincarnation or that the amount of control wielded by tides is mind-boggling. That's it. That's me—no niceties, lots of oddly philosophical science. If you want to get drunk and debate the Pats' spread offense, I'm no good for you. I'm no good for anyone, but specifically in this context, I'm no good for you."
My first thought was of tasting that insouciant smile of hers, yes. But my second thought was of hearing the rest of that lava story. Maybe that was the most appropriate summary of my craving for Miss Walsh. Her beauty was the slap in the face, but her mind was the sucker punch.
"And you know what?" she continued. "Alcohol always tells me I can dance. I cannot, and I shouldn't listen to alcohol. We're not friends anymore."
I glanced over at her. I was melting for her, just fucking melting, and she didn't even know it. "Are you sure you're a Walsh?"
"It's been debated," she murmured. "Head toward Provincetown. We'll find something on the way, but no chains and no tourist traps."
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
"I'm not old enough to be a ma'am," she replied, laughing. "Don't do that to me."
"What would you rather be?" I asked as I rolled to a stop near the main road. I bit my tongue—literally bit my tongue—to keep from offering a name more intimate. But baby, sweetie, honey, those wouldn't do. Not even cariño or corazón would work.
Mine. That was good.That would work.
"Call me Ishmael," she said, following my gaze to Moby-Dick scrawled across her chest. She was the kind of girl who wore a t-shirt well, and she didn't seem to mind me noticing. "Funny story, Moby-Dick. It's all about chasing down the thing that haunts you, but in that chase, losing everything else."
"Yeah, now that you mention it, I do see the humor," I said, failing to rip my eyes from her shirt. Yes, all right, it wasn't the shirt that had my attention. It was the woman wearing the shirt, and everything I could infer from the way she wore it. "Death at sea has always been hilarious."
"Well, no," she said, shaking a hand at me. "It's revered as this tale of good versus evil, man versus nature, blah, blah, blah. But it's really just a swan song for the good old days of Nantucket whaling. A sermon to the sea, and all of its machinations. Most people blame the rise of petroleum, the depleted stock of whales, and the seizure of northern ships by the Confederate Navy during the Civil War for the decline of the American whaling industry, specifically the decline here on the Cape, but it was actually the development of more efficient Norwegian ships. Instead of catching up to the Norwegians and furthering the decline of the entire species, American interests turned to railroads, mining, conquering the west."
I blinked at Erin while she studied the dark road before us. "Do you do that often?" I asked, scratching my chin. "Make odd observations about one thing and then drop a maritime history lesson like you had that information on the tip of your tongue?"
She shrugged. "Sometimes."
"Right, yeah. It was kind of amazing," I said, "and a little intimidating."
"I told you," she said. "I don't do small talk." Erin looked away, out her window, but then cut an up-and-down glance back at me. It was quick, but the smile that followed was more than enough to telegraph her interest. Okay. So it wasn't just me. "Take Route 6."
We rode along the far eastern arm of Cape Cod in amicable silence, and found a harborside tavern that screamed local-but-not-tourist. Not that I cared, but Erin knew what she wanted. As far as I was concerned, we could sit on a curb all night, so long as she kept talking and let me bury my face in her hair to find that scent again.
Once seated at the bar, I stole every opportunity to gaze at her. She didn't put much on display, but that didn't matter. When the Lord gave to Erin, he gave with two hands. She was small. Narrow, even. But that t-shirt showed off the curve of her waist in a manner that made my fingers itch. And her tits were a crime. They were that soup ladle shape that was too rare to be real, but there wasn't an ounce of artifice on this woman.
What you see is what you get.
Except it wasn't, not by a mile. I leaned back in my seat and draped my arm over the edge of hers. My fingers were drawn to her shoulder. No, that was bullshit. Complete bullshit. I was drawn to all of her, and touching her shoulder was an entry-level way of saying I dig you, darlin'.
She glanced at my fingers and then back to me, her eyebrow arching. I didn't respond to her unspoken question, instead staring at her pink lips. She'd be sweet there. Sweet but tart, too.
"What are you running away from tonight, lovely?"
She shook her head. "Nothing new," she said.
Her fingers tangled in the thin chains circling her neck, and she toyed with the small stone that sat in her jugular notch. "What is that?" I asked, pointing to the gem. "Onyx?"
"Carbonado. Black diamond. It's the toughest natural diamond form in existence. I found this one in Brazil."
"I've never heard of those," I said, my gaze drawn to her neck. I wanted to taste her there. I wanted her in nothing but that necklace. I wanted to wrap my fingers around that necklace and feel her pulse thrumming against my skin while I moved in her.
Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit. I could not think about her naked. Not here. Not yet. And it wasn't about the touch-and-go nature of public erections. No, it was that I wanted to do this right.
"It's not quite clear how they came to exist," she continued, her voice taking on new authority. Her words were clear and efficient, and even her gestures rang with professional fascination that bordered on obsession. "They possess no mantle minerals, and that's fucking weird, but what's more strange is the lack of high-pressure minerals, like hexagonal carbon polymorph."
"No hexagonal carbon polymorph?" I asked. I had no idea what we were talking about. I mean, sure, I knew my share of chemistry, but this was beyond my share. "That's crazy."
"I know, right?" she said. "Fun fact—their isotopic values are low, which isn't how diamonds are supposed to behave. Some researchers have suggested that radiation was involved in their formation, given the presence of luminescence halos, but that calls into question a spontaneous fission of uranium and thorium."
"Right," I murmured, nodding in thanks as the bartender placed two beer bottles in front of us. "The luminescence halos. Of course."
She held up her index finger, pressing pause on the black diamond mystery while she sipped her beer. "Oh, sorry," she said, tapping her bottle to mine. "Here's to…surviving this weekend."
Here's to evading your big brothers. What they don't know won't hurt them. Right?
"To surviving the weekend," I said. I took a sip, but then returned the bottle to the bar top. Reaching over, I pulled her chair closer to mine. Fuck cool and friendly.
"Right, right," she said. She was looking down, inspecting the way I had us pressed together, and then back up at me. "What's this about?"
"You." I pressed my thumb right there, to the tender hollow where the stone sat. It was just a moment, a fleeting touch. A second longer and my hand would've moved up her neck and into her hair, and then we'd never hear the end of this wonky explanation because my mouth would be fused to hers. "You were telling me about this," I said, my eyes locked on her lips.
She eyed me for a wary beat, then pushed her glasses up her nose and leaned into me. Leaned the fuck into me. Her shoulder was on my chest and her head was tucked under my chin, and this, this was what I needed after the week from hell.
Patting my knee twice as if I was a well-behaved golden retriever, Erin blew out a soft breath. She relaxed in pieces, her shoulders sagging first, and it moved down her body. Back, hips, legs. I imagined her toes uncurling inside her boots. From this angle, I could see her lashes brushing against her cheeks, and I didn't even think about it when I pressed my lips to her temple. It was natural, for both of us. This was what she needed, too.
"So, carbonado," she said, patting my knee again. God, she was fucking cute. "The theory that keeps me up at night is this one—that it was formed deep inside an early generation giant star, one that exploded forever ago into a supernova. Which makes this"—she tapped the stone—"an artifact of forever ago. Of a time before words and thoughts and anything at all."
"That's…incredible," I whispered into her hair. Her voice did things to me. Really good things. And the nerdy science talk? Oh, shut the fuck up. I was done when I saw her, and I was well done now.
Her tongue darted out and ran along her top lip as her shoulder jerked. "Whenever the world is too much for me, I remember that this rock might have been thrown out of interstellar space when time began. Before the world was anything, this ball of carbon was flung into earth's atmosphere in one of the cosmos's greatest tantrums. I've had a lot of bad days, but never one as bad as this rock."
She really did know things I couldn't begin to comprehend. I hadn't expected it to involve black diamonds or supernovas but the means didn't matter. It was the method that had me entranced. And I wanted—no, needed—to know her.
"Is the world too much today?" I asked.
A quick nod. "A little bit, yeah."
She offered nothing more, and that was okay. The world was kicking my ass right now, too.
I tapped the tiny stone winking at me from her nose. "And what's this?"
"Diamond," she said. "The kimberlite variety. Nothing interstellar here."
"Boring," I murmured, and that earned me a hearty laugh. "Hawaii. Italy. Grad school. Volcanoes. Tell me everything. When do you finish?"
In other words, when can I keep you forever?
She wiggled her fingers as if she was counting on them. "Three…no, four months ago. I've been working on some random stuff since then. You know, testing stray theories and cleaning up messy data sets. I'm heading to Iceland soon," she added, and those wiggly fingers came to a rest on my thigh. My cock nearly strangled itself twitching toward her touch. "I'll be splitting my time between Iceland and England. Iceland for the field research. England for a new doctoral program. There's some innovative work being done at Oxford around environmental changes, climate, sea levels. Mostly planetary physics stuff. I don't know what I'm going to find, but it will be interesting."
"Does Matt know that?" I asked, already knowing the answer. He didn't. He was a sharer, and he would've shared that. Since meeting him five years ago in a Boston Marathon qualifying run, I'd been an unwitting recipient of his Erin updates. He probably hadn't anticipated that I'd call upon that information while his sister was edging her way into my lap.
She squinted at the liquor bottles shelved behind the bar. "I don't know. Maybe. I might've mentioned it." She held out her palms in surrender, and that came with the unfortunate consequence of separating her touch from my thigh. "Also, I might've forgotten."
I grabbed her hand and put it back. "You're on loan to an Icelandic research station from Oxford?"
"You say that like it's a big deal. Trust me, it's really not a big deal. It's how my little corner of the world works. Aren't you on loan from Harvard to some specialized pediatric neurosurgery program and have surgical privileges at every hospital in Boston?" she replied. "At least, that's what Matt told me."
Oh, I loved knowing that she had my info. It was better than having hers. "How old are you?" I asked. Demanded, really. I knew only that she was the youngest of the Walshes, and had filed that into the general category of under thirty.
"Twenty-six," she said. "How old are you?"
"Thirty-four," I said.
She shrugged, sloughing away this thing where she was twenty-fucking-six and working on her second doctorate and too magnificent for me to do anything but stare.
She started humming along with the song—"Stubborn Love" by The Lumineers—and her right hand was moving with the beat, rolling like the crest and crash of waves. Her hands were small. Dainty, even. If she ever grew tired of mining the planet for answers, those hands were perfect for heart surgery.
She smiled as she mouthed the words. Something about bringing me to my knees, and come the fuck on, lovely. I was already there.
"You're making it hard to think," I said.
"What?" she asked, glancing up at me with her beer frozen halfway to her mouth.
"Nothing," I murmured, and my fingers continued drawing circles along her arm.
"No," she said, her eyes dropping to my mouth. "Say that again. There can be no secrets among runaways."
I cleared my throat because if her eyes were on my mouth, her mind was there, too. "Your chromosomes have coupled quite remarkably. It's all I can think about right now."
I tipped my beer back for a long swallow and ran my hand from her shoulder to her elbow. It was dangerous touching her like this. Dangerous because it made me hungry for more. Really dangerous because she was edging closer and givingmore.
"You have Doctor McDreamy hair," she said, dragging her nails over my scalp. I didn't think it was possible to orgasm from head scratching alone, but we were close to testing the theorem. "Speaking of McDreamy, I need you to tell me that Grey's Anatomy is a completely authentic depiction of hospital life."
"Can't comment," I said, shrugging. I couldn't think about the hospital right now. "Haven't seen it."
Erin sipped her beer and narrowed her eyes, not at all believing my response. "Do you have intensely deep relationships with your colleagues? Have you slept with the majority of them? Do you hear or deliver at least one self-righteous soliloquy per day? Do people show up in the emergency room impaled on unicorns?"
"Not quite," I said.
"That's disappointing," she murmured.
I tugged her closer, breathing in her scent while my lips brushed her ear. "Tell me how to fix it, lovely. I don't want you disappointed."
She waved away my words and looked around the bar. It was late, and the remaining patrons were focused on the flat screen television broadcasting the Red Sox game against the Orioles. It wasn't looking good for the home team.
"I slept on the red-eye from Rome, but I should've stayed up. Now I'm stuck on GMT. I'm…I'll be a mess tomorrow."
I was about to tell her that I knew several ways to tire her right out, but she shoved her sleeves to her elbows and reached for her beer. As I followed the movement, her wrist caught my attention. Most people probably noticed the compass tattoo, but it was what the fine lines of the tattoo hid that sent a bolt of adrenaline through my system.
Reaching out, I drew my thumb over the scars.
Three cuts, straight across, deep enough to be deadly.
"Were you trying to die?" I asked.
She stared at her beer bottle for a heavy moment.
Tell me it's not what I think. Tell me it was an accident. Tell me you're okay.
"I thought so," she said eventually, and my chest lurched at her admission. I didn't want that kind of despair for her. "At the time."
My arms went around her. It wasn't a choice. I had to hold her close. "But now?" I asked into her hair.
She shook her head. "No, not at all. But I think about life and death a lot, at least as it pertains"—she tapped her necklace—"to everything that's happened before me, and everything that will happen after. There's time and time and time, so much that I can barely wrap my head around it. Maybe that's the trick, right? You get these years, these completely inadequate years, and that's all the time you're granted to understand the secrets and the mysteries and the miracles. And it's crazy, you know, because there's so much time but there really isn't."
I dragged my hand up and down her spine, but the comfort probably served me more than her. Her words, they took me apart. In my mind, I saw Erin separating out my constituent parts, looking them over as she explained what they were, where they came from, why they mattered.
And just that quick, a drowsy bar on the Outer Cape was the wrong place for this. For us. For all the emotions that were rising up like a rogue wave. I slipped some bills under my beer bottle and waved to the bartender. "Come on, lovely," I said, my lips pressed to the crown of her head.
Her hand in mine, we walked along the sea wall as low tide lapped against the fishing boats moored in the harbor there. We stopped at the far end, and Erin turned her eyes to the sky. She glanced from constellation to planet to constellation, ticking them off as if she was taking attendance. I moved in behind her, wrapping my arms around her torso and pressing my lips to her neck because she was right. About there never being enough time, about all of it.
"I lost a patient yesterday," I said. "I used to be able to count the patients I'd lost on one hand. Now I can't."
Her head dropped back against my chest as she squeezed my wrist. "What happened?"
I shook my head with a sigh. "Came in with a concussion eight months ago. Seven years old. Fucking peewee football. MRI showed a brain stem tumor, and I went in, and I'd gotten it all. I knew I'd gotten it all. But it came back, and…I opened him up again. Thought I could get it. Thought I had it," I said. "He didn't survive the surgery."
Erin didn't offer any hollow words about me doing everything possible or how I shouldn't blame myself. Silence was better than bullshit, and she knew that.
"It's the worst thing in the world, Erin," I said. "Telling parents that I couldn't save their child, it makes me want to crawl out of my fucking skin and scream at the universe. I know the names of those six kids and their birthdays, and what they wanted to do after their surgeries, and I know exactly why they died and how I failed them. It makes me think I shouldn't hold a scalpel again, and right now, I really don't think I should."
She thought about that for a moment, her chin tipped up to the sky. "Okay," she said slowly. "Tell me about them."
I didn't understand how she knew exactly what I needed, but it was that. Right fucking that, stark and awful.
Just fuckin' take me, woman. Have me, flaws and failures and all.
We sat on the sea wall for hours while the tide crept in and the world slept around us, and we talked about everything. Everything. It started with the patients I'd lost, the cases that made me question my beliefs in modern medicine, the cases that restored it. Then it was my unlikely path into pediatric neurosurgery despite being squarely in the family practice camp at the start of med school, and Erin's equally unlikely path into geochemistry and volcanology. There was my contempt for managed care, and her frustrations with science and progress and politics, and a shared musing of whether anything we did mattered at all. We agreed it all mattered. It had to, because we couldn't do what we did without a thick streak of hope behind us.
She grew up in suburban Boston, me on a working horse ranch outside Dallas. Her siblings ran an architecture business, my sisters were beauty pageant veterans. There was her brother Sam's issues with anxiety, and my sister Maya's repeated bouts with postpartum depression. Her mother was from rural Ireland, mine was from old oil money and had the audacity to marry a ranch hand. My father loved horses and hated high society, and there were two straight years when he'd slept in the musty apartment above the stables because their marriage wasn't an easy one. It still wasn't easy. Erin's mother died too early and her father died too late, and nothing in between those events had been good for her. There was a high school teacher—one she thought she could handle, one who should've known better—who made things even worse, and her father's perversion and depravity, and a night when she didn't think she wanted to see morning.
"I'm happy you didn't succeed," I said. The quiet, hollow parts of night were behind us, and dawn was only a few hours away. "Let me say that again because I want you to believe it. I'm fucking thrilled that you're alive."
My palm was flat on the small of her back, under her sweater but over the t-shirt because it was the only way to keep this decent. We'd touched each other all night, but it wasn't suggestive, down-to-fuck flirting. This was affection like a Mazzy Star song, or The Smiths.
"You say that because you like my tits, and you'd have nothing to admire if I was dead," she said. That should not have been okay, but it was the kind of lightness one could only understand after some time alone in the dark.
"Of course I like your tits," I said, angling my head to speak directly to her chest. "I might've said that I lost my religion in med school but I'm ready to pray to the God who created those beauties. Lord, please take me back. I've seen the error of my ways, and I want to worship before your gifts. Specifically, these two."
"You're ridiculous," she said. "I didn't succeed, and that's good. I still do irresponsible things though."
"Yeah, I know all about that. I've seen the pictures of you next to lava flows," I countered. "Would you get in my lap, woman? Get over here, and tell me how irresponsible you want to be tonight."
"This night is almost over," Erin said as she rose up on her knees. She brought her hand to the back of my neck, and she tugged me down, closer. She was tentative at first, her lips brushing over mine and her fingers inching under my collar, but then she unleashed herself on me.
It was just like she'd said: she flew past the niceties and went straight for the rough stuff.
Wild, wild kisses. Hands all over, everywhere. Teeth and tongue in all the right places. Needy murmurs and hungry sighs.
In this kiss, she was confiding in me, speaking without the complication of words, and I was listening. I was answering.
My hands were locked on her waist, even if that was an exercise in willpower. I knew that if I took even an inch more, we'd need a level of privacy we didn't have handy at the moment.
"I dare you to steal a boat with me," she said against my jaw.
"Only if I can call you Skipper while we do it," I said.
She pressed her lips to my neck, and lightning struck far off on the horizon. I could smell it in the air, and I felt the jolt right in my nerves, as if the universe was saying You've found her. Now keep her.
"What's the expat life like?" Nick asked over the roar of the boat's engine.
That accent was working me over. Each drawled syllable was like an ax blow to a tree trunk. A few more good whacks, and we'd be yelling timber.
"Europe is great, and yes, I still vote and pay taxes," I said. It was my stock answer. I fielded this question with great frequency, but I wasn't trotting it out to give him the brush-off. God, no.
The reality was that he looked delicious with the ocean air rushing over him and the dark expanse of water at his back, and it was too damned distracting for me to form words. That, and I'd dropped my life story at his feet like the big bucket of shambles it was, and instead of sneering at it all, he offered up his own shambles.
We were headed north, toward Truro, and the best part was that I didn't even have to steal this boat. We'd found a lobsterman heading out on the water, and he'd looked us over with about as much suspicion as we deserved before accepting us as deckhands before the break of dawn.
Nick turned back toward me, his hands shoved into his pockets. "What's it really like? What do you love? What do you miss about the States?"
"That's hard to describe," I said. "I love discovering new places. It's one hundred percent true what they say about travel enriching your life. It's like…if you explore the world long enough, you'll stop trying to understand it, and then, suddenly, you will. It'll sneak up on you."
He nodded at that, bobbing his head as if I was preaching a sermon he'd already heard. "I have a buddy from med school who just left for a year-long rural medicine residency in New Zealand. He, and his wife and kids, are going to be rotating through villages and small towns, and that sounds fucking amazing," he said. "I'd love to do that some day. I've been thinking about applying to Doctors Without Borders."
I edged into Nick's space, my shoulder bumping his chest as if to say why aren't you touching me right now? And wasn't that a shocker? Of all the things I'd expected from this weekend, cozying up to a random guy wasn't one of them.
But I knew that Nick wasn't a random guy, and maybe that was because I'd steamrolled right past the pleasantries, told him most of my sad stories, and convinced him he wanted an adventure. But I didn't want to spend any time examining my attraction to him. For me, this was unusual, but it felt right and I wasn't about to kill that by putting it under a microscope.