JOHN woke to another morning without Liz.
He blinked his eyes open and focused on the sheer curtain over the window, the soft, white folds drifting in the sea breeze. The vestiges of his dream clung to the edges of his mind, warmth and love and home. Liz smiled up at him, brown hair soft around her face, hazel eyes glowing, wrapped in his arms. Whole and happy and alive.
Today, he knew, would not be a good day.
“NO, TOM, it’s the third dataset we want.” John had been over this twice already, but for some reason it wasn’t sinking in. “The first two are old data. Running those is a waste of time.”
“But I already ran the second set.”
John sighed, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. Days like this had a way of making him feel a lot older than thirty-two. “Well, then, you’ll have to run it again on the third set.” Which you wouldn’t have to do if you’d listened to me the other times I told you that.
Silence greeted him, followed by something mumbled that he knew wasn’t anything he wanted to hear. “Okay, I’ll send it over later.”
“I’ll keep an—” The dial tone cut him off, and he punched the button on the phone to cut off the speaker. He leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose and willing himself not to throw anything. “It’s not that bad, it’s not that bad,” he muttered.
And it wasn’t. Tom was a good worker. He did a good job. He just needed a little extra handling sometimes. In particular, he had a tendency not to read every e-mail all the way through, so he’d missed one of John’s instructions for the data analysis he needed for his conference call that afternoon. It’ll get done, John told himself. Forget about it until after lunch.
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, which needed a cut, the thick waves of soft brown getting unruly again. Letting out a long breath, he sat up straighter and turned back to face his computer, diving back into code.
Soft music floated from the speakers of the television in the corner. John kept it set on the “light classical” digital music channel, except when the Braves had a day game or he was watching Beth and changed it over to a children’s channel for her benefit. Music with lyrics was too distracting when he was crunching numbers. When he was doing much of anything, actually. Part of it was that he had a tendency to sing along. Part of it was that too many songs reminded him of Liz, even now, five years later, when his life was back on track and he could feel his heart again.
A soft knock on his office door drew his attention. Meghan smiled at him, green eyes sparkling, as usual. “We’re making sandwiches for lunch,” she said. “Any special requests?”
John smiled. “No seafood,” he said, watching her eyes roll.
“As if,” she scoffed. Meghan, his aunt although only seven years his senior, owned a seafood restaurant on the beach, which meant that other than the occasional fish sticks for Beth’s benefit, they never ate seafood at home.
Meghan rested the front of her shoulder against the doorframe, wrapping her hands on either side of the molding. A shaft of long, vibrant red hair fell forward across her other shoulder, the texture thick and wavy like John’s. She ignored it. “Speaking of which, I have to go down to the restaurant this afternoon after all. Audra’s got a doctor’s appointment, and I couldn’t find anyone who could cover her shift.”
John frowned. “Is she okay?”
Meghan shrugged. “As okay as ever,” she said. “She had an episode with her blood sugar the other day, so they’re checking her insulin pump, making sure it’s working right. Probably nothing, but better safe than sorry.”
John couldn’t help thinking about his Beth with a pump in her body supplying her with the insulin she couldn’t produce, and he held back a shudder.
“Anyway,” Meghan continued, “will you be able to watch Beth? I won’t need to leave until around three.”
John nodded. “Yeah, I have a conference call at two, but it should be over by then. If it isn’t, I may start firing people, authority or no authority. So I think we can wrap it up in time.”
Meghan eyed him for a moment. “You okay?”
John sighed, tipping his head against the high back of his office chair. “I had a dream last night.”
Meghan’s eyes softened. “Good or bad?”
John lifted one shoulder an inch and let it drop, a semblance of a shrug. “What’s the difference anymore?” he asked. “But she was happy.”
Meghan’s smile was soft. “Then that’s good,” she said. “I know it’s hard when you wake up either way. But that’s definitely good.”
She pushed off the doorframe. “I left Bethy in front of Blue’s Clues, so let me go make sure she hasn’t wandered off on a clue hunt again without telling anyone. We’ll bring you lunch in a bit.”
She walked away, and John blew out a breath and pushed his fingers under his glasses to rub his eyes. “Good dream,” he murmured, picturing the smile on Liz’s face. “Good.”
The reassurances weren’t doing much to help the deep ache in his heart.
JOHN jumped when Beth darted into the room, startling him out of his contemplation of the dataset Tom had finally sent. “Daddy!” she cried, running around his desk and taking a leap toward his lap. John caught her with practiced ease, laughing.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he said as she threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tight. “What’s got you so excited?”
She leaned back and smiled, and John’s heart tripped in his chest. It was her mother’s smile, dimples and all, and every time he saw it, he fell in love with both of them all over again. “Aunt Meghan said you’re gonna take me to the park this afternoon!”
John raised an eyebrow and turned his head to where Meghan stood in the doorway, her expression exasperated.
“I said that maybe he’d be able to take you, Bethy,” she said, stepping over to set down plates of sandwiches and carrot sticks. “Just because the weather’s so nice. Your daddy has to work, you know.”
Meghan turned away, to bring back drinks, John knew, and he shifted his attention to Beth. She’d arranged herself on his lap facing the desk, their usual position when they shared a lunch like this. “I’ll try to take you, baby,” he said, kissing the side of her head. “We’ll see how this meeting goes. Okay?”
Beth nodded, still smiling. “Let’s eat, Daddy!” she said. “I’m hungry!”
John laughed and reached for her plate first, handing her a triangle-shaped half of what he knew would be a peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwich. A month ago it had been grilled cheese every day; a month from now, who knew?
Beth wrapped her small hands around the sandwich and took a bite right out of the center, tilting her head back against John’s chest as she chewed. John reached for his own sandwich, which looked like ham and swiss. Meghan came back in carrying a tall glass of tea and a smaller plastic one with a lid, which would be filled with milk. “Here you go, kiddos,” she said as she set them down within John’s reach but not Beth’s. “Enjoy your lunch! I’ll be back to snag Miss Piggy in a bit.”
Beth grinned and lifted one arm, wrapping it over the top of her head so her hand lay along the center of her face. She grabbed the tip of her nose with the tip of one finger, pulling it back flat so it resembled a snout, and gave a most unladylike snort.
John sighed as Meghan snickered. “I am so very sorry you ever taught her that,” he said.
“Along with everything else like that I’ve ever taught her,” Meghan agreed. “Sorry, Johnny. A kid’s gotta do what a kid’s gotta do.”
She wiggled her fingers at them and disappeared again, and John took another bite of his sandwich. Beth reached toward her milk, a quarter of a sandwich still left in her hand, and John moved the cup closer and helped her wrap her hand around it. She used a regular plastic cup when they ate at the table, but after one near-catastrophe during an office lunch, she got a lid when she sat at John’s desk even though she hated the “baby” cup.
“Daddy,” Beth said once she’d had some milk, “do you think Jeremy will be at the park today?”
Beth had come barreling in a few days earlier after a trip to the park with Meghan, exclaiming about the cool new boy she’d met that day. John had struggled to understand what she was saying, but he caught that the boy was named Jeremy and he was “awesome,” which seemed to be Beth’s favorite word of the moment.
“I don’t know, Bethy,” John said. “I guess he might be.” Right then he made a decision. “We’ll go find out together, how about that?”
Beth wriggled and grinned up at him. “We can go?”
“We can go,” he replied. “Work can live without me for an hour or two.”
“That’s awesome!” Beth raised both hands above her head in a classic victory pose, sandwich still clutched in one hand, and John laughed.
“All right, honey,” he said. “First we have to eat our lunch, okay? And then later we’ll go to the park.”
“Okay!” Beth went right back to eating, and John could only shake his head. Even at thirty-two, sometimes he felt as old as Methuselah next to Beth’s five-year-old energy. She was amazing and beautiful and the best part of his life, but boy, could she ever be exhausting.
JOHN put the conference call out of his mind as soon as it ended. Things had gone fine. They’d even finished up a few minutes early. One of the things he loved about Adam, his boss and friend, was that he hated long meetings, and that had paid off today. John had other things on his mind, like taking his daughter to the park.
She held his hand and half skipped down the sidewalk. John let her, just taking the time to soak up the sun and the salt air. Since he’d moved almost four years earlier back to Tybee Island, off the Georgia coast at Savannah, he’d gotten so accustomed to the warmth and sea breezes that he missed them when he went farther inland, even just into Savannah to visit his mother. The rambling old Victorian they lived in, which Meghan had bought not long after she opened her restaurant, sat only a quarter of a mile from the beach, so they spent plenty of time on the sand.
Today, though, they walked to the small play park two blocks in the opposite direction from the water. They came here often too, and Beth loved the swings and the big climbing set in the center that wasn’t in the same universe as the monkey bars John had grown up with.
As soon as the playground came into sight, Beth tugged at his hand. “Come on, Daddy,” she urged. “I wanna see if Jeremy’s here!”
John laughed a little as Beth tugged him along. Once they were inside the park boundaries, John pulled them to a stop and squatted down to Beth’s level.
“Remember, stay in the playground unless you’re coming to where I am,” he said, holding her gaze, knowing he was looking into eyes exactly like his own. “No going anywhere with anyone else, not even another kid, okay?”
John wondered if Meghan had taught Beth to roll her eyes too. “I know, Daddy,” she said. “See ya!”
She ran for the swing sets, and John watched her for a minute or two, hands on his hips. He shook his head, smiling again, and crossed to one of the benches near the playground, where he sat and stretched his legs out in front of him, left arm across the back of the bench, face tilted up into the sun.
He didn’t know how long he’d been there, but it couldn’t have been long, because he’d only checked on Beth twice when a low laugh drew his attention. He looked up into a handsome face creased by a wide smile, white teeth shining in the sun.
“This seat taken?” the other man said, and John blinked in surprise for a moment before nodding toward the empty expanse of bench.
“Help yourself,” he said, lifting his arm off the back and waving it toward the seat. He watched as the man settled in at the far end, taking up a similar position to John’s but with his arms crossed over his chest. He had dark hair, cut shorter than John’s but straight instead of wavy, and he exuded a charm that made John like him without hesitation.
“Which one’s yours?” the man asked.
John looked over toward the playground and sought out Beth, who by then had moved to scrambling up the climbing set, a grinning boy about her age with her. Her honey-brown hair, pulled up into two ponytails, shone in the bright sunlight. “That’s her on the climbing set,” he said.
“Oh, with Jeremy?” The man grinned. “That must be Beth, then. Jeremy was crazy excited that he might get to see her again.”
John chuckled. “Ah, young love.” He turned in his seat enough to hold out a hand. “John McConnell,” he said.
The other man glanced at him for a second before reaching out to shake. “Bryan Simmons.”
Bryan quirked an eyebrow over deep brown eyes, and John smiled as they sat back. He returned his attention to the kids. “Looks like my daughter and your son really hit it off.”
Bryan laughed, drawing John’s attention back to him. “Oh, not my son. Nephew.” He grinned. “My sister and her husband own the Sea Breeze.” He named a bed-and-breakfast that was housed in an older house much like the one John lived in. “I’m helping them renovate the place, and I keep an eye on the munchkin for them sometimes.”
John nodded. “I’m glad someone’s doing that,” he said. “I mean, I know the place wasn’t exactly ramshackle before, but it was starting to look a little rough around the edges.”
“Yeah,” Bryan agreed. “Our cousins owned it. Our mom’s cousins, actually. But they were ready to retire, and Davis—that’s my brother-in-law—got a pretty hefty inheritance from his grandmother. So he and Karen bought the place, and they’re fixing it up.”
John nodded again, watching as Beth and Jeremy laughed and chased each other around the climbing set. Jeremy’s short, curly hair was a riotous mess, reminding John of what his own hair did when he let it grow out. “Been on the island long?”
“Six months.” Something in Bryan’s voice made John look over at him, but he couldn’t quite read the look in Bryan’s eyes. “I was in Atlanta before that, but I had to…. I left. Needed to get away for a while.”
Something in John’s chest twisted. He recognized the tone of Bryan’s voice now. He’d heard it from himself often in the past five years. “Bad memories?”
Bryan hesitated, but John had the feeling he needed to get something out. Finally Bryan gave a short nod. “Bad breakup,” he said. “I mean, not like yelling and throwing things bad. More like having to break up for reasons neither of you can control. Having to choose between him and me.”
It took a second for John to register the “him.” He blinked. “You’re gay?”
He winced immediately, knowing how the question sounded. Harsh. Accusatory. But he was only surprised, not put off. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Bryan’s face had already twisted into a scowl.
“Yeah, I’m gay,” Bryan challenged, glaring at John. “You got a problem with that?” He shook his head, starting to turn away. “Jesus, can’t even go to the fucking park without running into some homophobe—”
“Hey!” John interrupted him with an upheld hand, and Bryan’s face turned back toward him. “Not how I meant it, Mr. Jump-to-Conclusions. Not a homophobe, just surprised. I mean, not that many people are so casual about it in this neck of the woods. Trust me, I’m not bothered at all.” He hesitated before taking the plunge. “Hell, the last person I dated before I met my wife was a guy. Okay?”
Bryan studied him for a moment before blushing and dropping his head. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I do tend to jump to conclusions sometimes. And a lot of guys seem to think I’m going to, I don’t know, try to convert them or something.”
John nodded. “Apology accepted.” He shrugged as he relaxed against the bench. “I can understand it, really. A lot of people don’t react well, especially in the South. But I’m not one of them.” He shot Bryan a look out of the corner of his eye. “And even if I hadn’t dated guys, I know that just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re going to try to hit on every guy you meet.”
Before he could say anything else, Beth and Jeremy came running up toward them. “Daddy!” Beth exclaimed. She never seemed to do anything at a normal volume. “Jeremy said his mom is baking cookies and wants me to come have some!”
John frowned. “Bethy, honey, you know you’re not supposed to invite yourself over to somebody’s house.”
“I didn’t, Daddy!” Beth was insistent. “Jeremy invited me!”
John threw Bryan a sheepish look just as Jeremy intervened. “Can she come, Uncle Bryan? Pleasepleaseplease?” He bounced up and down, and John had to laugh. He’d thought it impossible for another child to have more energy than his own, but Jeremy might just prove him wrong.
“We’ll see, okay?” Bryan’s voice was soft but firm. “We can’t go back right now. I told your mom we’d give her an hour. But we’ll see after that, okay?”
Jeremy nodded so hard John thought his head would bobble right off. “Okay!” He turned back to Beth. “Race you!”
They took off toward the climbing set side by side, and Bryan gave John an apologetic look. “Sorry again,” he said. “We’re trying to teach him to ask his parents or me before inviting someone else to do something, but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. He’s a little impulsive.”
John waved a hand. “Not a problem,” he said. “I’m in no rush to get back, if the kids want cookies.”
Bryan leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and rubbing his hands together between his knees. “So where do you and your wife live? One of these great old houses?”
John’s heart clenched at the question, but he pushed through it. “Beth and I live with my Aunt Meghan,” he said. “She owns that seafood restaurant on the beach.”
Bryan glanced over at John. “Let’s Be Shellfish?” His voice was suffused with laughter. “One of the best restaurant names in history, I swear.”
John almost grinned. “Yeah, it’s certainly memorable,” he said. “Anyway, when…. We moved down about four years ago. After….”
Damn. This is still so hard.
“After my wife died.”