Excerpt: My Best Friend's Girl
Book 3: North Moon Bay Series
Laura pointed to the bottle of wine Dean held—a pinot noir of impressive vintage, its bottle furred with dust, its cork already removed. “Plundering my grandmother’s wine rack?”
“Will she mind?”
Laura shook her head. “She hasn’t even been here since she broke her hip two years ago. And she just kept the wine around for guests—never touched it herself.”
“Thoughtful of a teetotaler to keep something around for her friends to drink.”
“A teetotaler?” Laura chuckled. “You never saw her work her way through a pitcher of Beefeater martinis. She just didn’t like wine.”
Dean’s laughter startled her. It was so unexpected, given their grief over Will’s death just four months ago, and their uneasiness with each other. He looked suddenly younger, unencumbered, the carefree Dean Kettering of old.
“I thought we could maybe bring this down to the beach,” he said, holding up the wine bottle, “and take a walk.”
They used to take nighttime walks on the beach during their weekends here, she and Will and Will’s best friend, Dean; those walks were among her most pleasant memories of those years. After a moment’s hesitation, Laura said, “Sure. Sounds great. Let me get my sweatshirt.”
They strolled in a westerly direction down the moonlit beach, passing the bottle back and forth as they made small talk, mostly about sailing—their great shared passion. It was what Dean missed most, being in the Army, he told her—that freedom to get on a boat and just leave the world and all its responsibilities behind, to be one with the primal rhythms of the sea.
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you,” Laura said as they headed toward an outcropping of boulders—a familiar landmark that used to serve as the turn-back point for their walks. She perched on a flat-topped rock that was about waist high and tilted the wine bottle to her mouth, feeling the velvety-soft pinot warm her from the inside as it went down. “What’s a rebel like you doing in the military? I mean, it’s strange enough that you even went to college, but accepting that ROTC scholarship? You and ROTC… the pieces never really added up for me.”
Leaning a hip against the rock Laura sat on, Dean withdrew his pack of cigarettes, shook one out and lit it with a match. In the old days, she would have needled him about smoking. But this wasn’t the old days, and the thought of trading barbs with Dean Kettering here in the dark while they drank from the same bottle of wine felt, in a way, sacrilegious.
Dean’s cigarette glowed orange as he drew on it, gazing out over the water. Laura listened to waves shatter softly, one after the other, on the rocky beach. The salty breeze off the water penetrated right through her sweatshirt now that she wasn’t moving; she tugged the zipper up to her neck, but it didn’t help much.
“Forget I asked,” Laura said finally, handing the bottle to Dean, “It’s a personal question. It’s none of my business.”
“Friends are allowed to ask personal questions.” Dean took a long swallow from the bottle. “I don’t mind. I’m just not sure what to tell you. You’re thinking I joined the Army in spite of being kind of a fuckup.”
“I didn’t say—”
“When, really, that’s pretty much why I joined.”
Laura wanted to argue with him, to deny that she’d intended any slur to his character, but her tongue was stilled by the revelation that he seemed to think so poorly of himself. He’d always come off as self-assured, cocky even. Laura had never thought to hear him describe himself as a “fuckup”….
“You know.” He inhaled the last of his cigarette, crushed it on the rock and slipped the butt into his front jeans pocket. “It’s like when the delinquent son gets sent to military school in the hope that some structure and discipline will straighten him out. Only nobody sent me. I sent myself.”
“You thought you needed straightening out?” Laura couldn’t help but smile.
Gravely Dean said, “Don’t you?”
No easy answer leaped to mind. Laura couldn’t deny that Dean would be better off if he settled down some. His plan to inject a little military starch into his personality wasn’t really a bad one; in fact, it appeared to be working, to some extent “You survived ROTC,” she said. “And you made it through two years in the Army without going AWOL. If you were a bad seed, it would appear you’ve been cured.”
He shook his head. “It’s a constant struggle to keep playing by the Army’s rules. One of these days I’m afraid I’m going to deck a superior officer, or just walk off the base without looking back. I’m a court-martial waiting to happen.”
She rested a hand on his arm. They’d never talked like this—seriously, about things that mattered. “You’re a better person than you think, Dean.”
A funny little glimmer lit his eyes. “Will used to say that.”
She withdrew her hand and wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the biting breezes more than ever.
Dean swore softly under his breath. “Sorry.”
“For what?” She hugged herself, shivering. “For mentioning Will? He meant a lot to both of us. Why shouldn’t we talk about him?”
“Because you’re still too raw.”
“No, I’m not.”
“That painting you’re working on says you are.”
“You read too much into things. I’m fine.”
He stroked her face, his fingers hot and rough against her cheek. “You’re shivering.”
“I’m just cold.” She slid off the rock and stood facing him. “Maybe we should go back.”
Dean whipped off his denim jacket and draped it over her shoulders. It had absorbed his body heat and was imbued, just faintly, with a scent that made her think of warm skin and hot breath and the weight of another body against hers.
He chafed her arms with both hands, drew her close and rubbed her back through the jacket. Warmth seeped through her, quickening her heart, just a little, enough to make her slightly breathless.
Dean cradled her head against his shoulder, his woolen sweater scratchy-soft against her cheek, his chest rising and falling in rapid counterpoint to the steady cadence of the waves.
His hands stilled. He stopped rubbing her, just gathered her to him and held her.
She returned the embrace, her arms encircling him instinctively, needfully.
He threaded his fingers through her hair, nuzzled her with his jaw. She felt his breath against her temple and a soft hot tickle that could only be one thing—a kiss.
A chaste kiss. Friendly. Brotherly, even. Still…
A little unsteadily she said, “We should really go back, Dean. It’s late, and…”
“And you’re cold.” He sighed. “Yeah, I know.” His arms tightened around her momentarily, and then he released her and turned around. She grabbed the wine bottle.
They walked back to the house in silence.
♦ ♦ ♦
Laura lay awake until after midnight, listening to Dean walking around on century-old floors, first in his room across the hall, then downstairs.
When she heard the back door open and close, she got up and parted the curtains over the rear window. By the light of the full moon, she saw Dean walking away from her across the backyard. At the dropoff to the beach, he paused. Presently a tiny orange dot materialized, and she knew he had lit a cigarette. He descended the stairs, and she lost sight of him.
It was close to one when she heard him reenter the house. His footsteps creaked through the kitchen and up the stairs to his room. Sounds traveled in this old house at night. Lying motionless, she heard the soft scrape of a drawer opening, the grind of rusty hinges on the door of the closet in his room, a clatter of coat hangers.
His footsteps paused in the hallway outside her room, and then she heard them groaning down the old stairs. She shoved the quilt down and got out of bed, threw her robe over her flannel nightgown and opened her bedroom door.
Dean, halfway down the stairs, turned to look at her, his eyes scaldingly blue in the semidarkness, the only light being what came from his room. He had on his denim jacket and jeans. In one hand he held his duffel bag; in the other, his uniform on a hanger, thrown over a shoulder.
Even in the near darkness, she could see the remorse in his eyes, along with a hint of that remoteness she’d come to know—and hate—so well over the years.
Steadying herself with a hand on the doorknob, she said, “You weren’t going to say goodbye?”
He looked away, then met her eyes again. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“And of course, you don’t believe in notes, so I would have just awakened in the morning and found you gone.”
His jaw clenched. “Laura…”
“You say you want to change, you want to straighten out, and then you up and bolt in the middle of the night with no—”
“I can’t stay here, Laura.”
His eyes closed briefly. When they opened, they held a look of grim resolve that made her shiver.
He stalked up the stairs two at a time, his gaze locked on her.
She backed up into her room until she felt the foot of her bed against her legs.
He dropped his duffel and uniform on the landing, crossed to her in three long strides, wrapped his hands around her head and kissed her.
On the mouth this time, and hard. Too hard. It hurt. It shocked her, made her heart hammer wildly, every nerve in her body tighten with alarm…
She clutched at his jacket, not knowing whether to push him away or pull him close, horrified, thrilled, overwhelmed.
His hands gripped her skull like a vise as his mouth plundered hers, took it savagely, hungrily.
He released her and backed away, his chest pumping, his eyes mirroring the fierce panic rioting through her.
“Okay?” he rasped. “Now do you see why I have to go?”
“No, Dean,” she found herself saying as he wheeled around and walked away. “You don’t.”
She thought he hadn’t heard her, half hoped he hadn’t heard her. But in the doorway he stilled, his hands fisted at his sides, and she knew he had.
A weighty moment passed, Laura knowing she should take it back, but too desperate, too filled with need, to say anything.
Dean turned and came to her.