I turned and stepped out of his reach, trying to get the weight of that hand off my shoulder before I did something really stupid. “You got a Coke or something with caffeine? I think I just need a little fresh air.” With barely a touch of my hand, the balcony doors slid open with a soft whoosh, and the moist sea air blew into the opening. I stepped outside and sucked in what a yoga instructor years ago had called a “cleansing breath.” I exhaled loudly through my mouth. Rather than revived, I felt even more dizzy. I was hyperventilating.
Rusty joined me at the balcony rail and handed me an icy soda can. I drank so much, so fast, my chest hurt. Out on the horizon a small pinpoint of light appeared and then disappeared, then came back and grew steady—a small vessel crossing the current, heading for Port Everglades. There was no other traffic in sight, which was unusual for this stretch of the coast. I wondered then, how many boats were out there running dark—running drugs or human cargo?
“This is really a nice place you’ve got here, Rusty. View’s sure spectacular.”
“Yeah, I like it, but I don’t get to use it enough. I keep my boat at the dock out back on the Waterway, and most times I just go out fishing, come back, and never even make it upstairs.”
“I hope you’re going to be ready for three rowdy kids in the morning.”
“Bringing them here solved the problem for tonight, but this is not a long-term solution, you know.”
“Why’d you do it? Invite us over like this?”
He tried to laugh, but it came out a single “Ha,” without humor. “Good question.” He leaned his arms on the balcony railing and stared out to sea. He seemed to be struggling to find the words to say something. I was afraid of what that might be.
I drained off the last of the soda. “Well,” I said, and turned to head for the door.
He reached for my shoulder and slid his big hand around the back of my neck and under my ponytail. He pulled me to him, saying, “It took inviting the entire crew over just to get you here.”
“Now that’s funny, because they’re going to stay and I’m not.” I must not have sounded very convincing at that point because he kissed me. Again. And again, I didn’t protest. In fact, my body became a regular cheerleader for the idea. All kinds of little nerve endings were shaking their pom-poms.
But then I pulled away. “Rusty, it’s late and we both need to get some sleep.”
He tried little kisses then, down the side of my neck, around my ears, and that came very close to making me forget everything.
When I got to the door and had my hand on the doorknob and was almost out of there, he called my name softly. “Seychelle.”
“Yeah,” I said, but I didn’t even turn around.
“Are you sure you won’t stay?”
I couldn’t answer him. My voice would have given too much away.
When I got back to the Larsens’ place and saw Abaco crawl out all sleepy from under her bougainvillea bush, I sat down on the bench outside the cottage door and gave her a good body rub. She groaned in contentment. I patted the bench next to me, and she hopped up and sat there panting. I looped an arm around her and buried my face in the soft fur around her neck. I pulled back quickly.
“You need a bath.” I looked down at my clothes, the dark smudges from the chicken blood still apparent on my shirt. “Me too, I guess.” I scratched her silky ears. “Girl, do you think we’ll ever understand men?” She just smiled her doggy smile.
I started to tiptoe past Pit snoring on the couch, but then I stopped and stood there for a while in the dark, watching his chest rise and fall with each breath. In the face of the man I could still see the features of the boy I had grown up with. The hair at his temples reflected what little light there was in the room. He was going prematurely gray. We were all growing older—Maddy was already quite gray. We had tried to gather as a family at least once a year as long as Red had still been alive, but now we were forging our own lives and seeing less and less of one another. I tried to memorize every small detail of Pit’s features because I knew he was already itching to leave.
I crawled into my bed after a quick rinse in the shower. I was too tired to sleep and still tossing and turning as the sky began to go gray. Rusty’s words, the sound of his voice, the feel of his touch. I kept going over and over every minute of the night, from the restaurant to Jeannie’s to his gorgeous condo. And I kept trying to avoid the question that my mind couldn’t let go. How does a Border Patrol officer afford a half-million-dollar condo on the Intracoastal Waterway?
I’d slept about an hour when I woke to the noise of an exceptionally loud outboard motor headed downriver, and I knew I wasn’t going to get back to sleep. It was not yet six o’clock, but I threw back the sheet and swung my legs to the floor.
My head felt like it was stuffed with dirty gym socks. I knew because I could taste them. After a bathroom trip, and pulling on shorts and a T-shirt, I grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge and locked up the cottage, my brother still snoring contentedly. I noticed the dining table and floor were covered with charts, and my plotter and dividers were on the bar next to several empty beer bottles. Pit had been hard at work.
The Larsens have a shed full of water toys, and they don’t mind if I use them from time to time. And alternating running, paddling, and swimming did help keep the exercise regimen from getting too boring. I pulled the red, sit-on kayak down to the dock, gritting my teeth as the plastic slid across the gravel. Holding on to the bowline, I tossed it into the river. Getting onto the thing from the dock ladder without capsizing was a feat, but once settled, I paddled upriver, pulling against a river current made weak by the rising tide.
The hour of morning after the sky first starts to turn gray but before the sun’s top curve peeks above the trees and homes of my neighborhood is the part of the day I cherish most. I hadn’t seen much of it recently. Along the banks of the New River, the early morning is when the animals relinquish the world to the humans. The raccoons scurry across backyards and hightail it up trees to their daytime sleeping roosts. The herons stand regal and still on the seawalls, their bills pointed down at the slow-moving water, their dark, sharp eyes their only moving parts.
After I’d passed through the heart of downtown, where the cars were already moving over the drawbridges and aproned men were out sweeping between the waterfront tables, I heard a sharp exhale as I approached the fork where the river split in two directions. I slowed my paddling and watched the surface ahead. Circles again on the surface. Finally, I saw the nostrils blow off my port bow. Our late-season manatee was making her way downriver, and now that the sun was nearly up, the water around her reflected the pink clouds, making it look like she was swimming in a bubble-gum-colored river.
The morning air was still and heavy with humidity. No more than ten minutes after I’d slowed to watch the manatee, the sunlight’s reflection on the river ripples seared laserlike into my eyes. Soon, the sweat was dripping off the tip of my nose, and I was starting to wake up.
I paddled up the north fork of the New River where it meandered undeveloped through some of the poorest neighborhoods of Fort Lauderdale. The riverbanks were thick with trees and grasses, but I knew that less than one hundred feet beyond those wooded banks ran some mean, tough streets. At least it was quiet up there, and there was only the occasional friendly fisherman waving to me from the riverbanks.
The railroad bridge was down, and I was paddling in slow circles, waiting for the freight train to pass, when I sensed a boat approaching me closer than I would like from astern. I turned around and saw Perry Greene’s white blond hair as he leaned over the side of his Little Bitt with his arm outstretched, reaching for my ponytail.