Marshall hadn’t seen his fantasy girl for two days. He’d looked. He’d hoped. He’d somehow thought they’d kindled a friendship. Then he reminded himself there was a Shay, and he just felt stupid. He was a tourist, one of thousands that came to the Gulf Coast every year. She probably saved some dumbass every week. Looked at him with those ocean eyes and made him hope then broke his heart.
Friends for a few days, that’s all he wanted. Yeah, right. She was more than likely avoiding him on purpose. Maybe she and Shay were having a good laugh behind his back.
Mired in self-disgust, Marshall made his way back up the beach from a party that had ended up being a total dud. All the right ingredients had been there. Girls. Music. Booze. A bonfire—the stuff vacations were made of. But sadly, the girl hadn't been there, which seemed to make all the other stuff irrelevant. He’d finally given up on having a good time and wandered out of the crowd as Madonna had been squalling on and on about how it felt to be a virgin.
As far as Marshall could tell, being a virgin sucked, and most of the guys he knew were doing their damn level best to shed that particular label. And his music taste ran more in the vein of Rush, and Yes, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Free Bird—now that was a song he could get into losing his virginity to.
Marshall snorted and shook his head. She has a boyfriend dude.
The single positive of the night had been a conversation he’d had with a guy from Kentucky—Patrick. Patrick graduated high school this year too and planned on coming back to the coast next summer and finding a job lifeguarding or bussing tables. His family owned a beach house, and he’d offered Marshall a place to live, reasonably priced if he wanted it. Lifeguarding might be out, but waiting tables was an option. Hell, he’d pass out beach towels to tourists if it meant he could spend his summer on the coast.
The forcefully issued protest pulled Marshall from his thoughts of the future and back to the here and now. A grunt. A hiss of pain. A soft whimper. The unmistakeable sound of a fist pounding into flesh. A soft strangled voice—an angel’s voice that twisted his gut. Marshall recognized that voice. His heart dropped into his stomach and he started running toward the sound of a dude’s laughter floating out of the darkness. Damn sand slowed him down. Movement flashed on the other side of one of the wooden containers where the beach service stored their chairs and umbrellas.
Marshall took in the scene, a wild anger burning in his gut. Lara was pinned to the ground. One dude held her arms over her head, his hands fisted around her wrists. Another dude was on top of her, one thigh wedged between her legs. A knife flashed in his hand. Her shirt was pushed up and bunched under her chin, and the strap of the bathing suit top she wore underneath was ripped, exposing sun-kissed skin in the moonlight. Her ocean eyes sparked with fury, slender arms straining, her hips bucking to get free.
“You think you’re too good for us?” The knife lowered and sliced across her cheek. “We’ll see if Shay thinks you’re pretty now.”
“No,” Marshall yelled though no one seemed to notice.
The guy with the knife hit her, a backhanded smack across her mouth. Her head whipped sideways, and Marshall was close enough now he could see the flash of her green eyes. She looked scared under the swelling of the lids. Blood poured from her nose and over her lips. What kind of sick bastard would do that to a girl?
“Get the hell off her,” he growled as he made to plow into the guy with the knife. Marshall was so intent on getting to her, he didn’t notice the third guy until he felt his arm being practically pulled out of its socket and twisted behind his back, thwarting Marshall’s rescue.
“Slow down, dude,” a voice said in Marshall’s ear. Whoever had gotten the jump on him reeked of weed and beer. He’d been sidelined by Dopey.
“Get off her,” Marshall issued the command while struggling against the hold Dopey had on him.
“You better move on jackass,” Knife Guy said, wiping the blood from his cheek where it looked like Lara had scratched him.
“Can’t do that,” Marshall said, fighting a grimace as Dopey twisted his arm tighter. He ignored the pain that shot up his arm and into his shoulder.
Three against one, not good odds for him. But at least Knife Guy wasn’t touching her anymore. He’d pushed to his feet, eyeing Marshall with a maniacal gleam in his eye. Without Knife guys weight on her, Lara had made quick work of breaking the other guys hold and scrambled to her feet. Marshall wished she’d take advantage of the interruption and run.
“This isn’t any of your business,” Knife Guy said.
“It is now.” Marshall impressed himself with the way his voice sounded so calm and authoritative, as though he wasn’t a bit concerned he was outnumbered and probably about to get his ass kicked.
“Shay won’t let you get away with this. Just let us walk away,” Lara said, edging closer to him. Marshall wanted to tell her to forget about him and get the hell out of here.
“Shay’s not here is he?” Knife Guy flicked his chin at me. “You think this moron is going to stop me. You wandered a little too far off your reservation one too many times. It makes me think you’re asking for it. Makes me think you want it.” Knife guy lunged at her.
Amazing what a moron like Marshall could do with the proper motivation. His head reared back and smacked into Dopey’s nose with a satisfying crunch. Well aware he had only seconds if that, Marshall leaped for Knife Guy. Grabbing Knife Guys hand at the wrist, Marshall barreled into him shoulder first and tackled him to the ground. The knife flew through the air and landed in the sand a few yards away. He probably should have had a better strategy but his only thought had been to keep this guy from touching Lara again. Though he got in a few well-placed punches, Knife Guy out weighed him by a good forty pounds. He landed a solid punch to Marshall’s chin and for a few seconds Marshall saw stars. Like the sky was full of them. By the time his head cleared, Knife Guy had hauled Marshall to his feet by the scruff of his neck. Dude had some fingernails.
“Run,” Marshall grunted at Lara as he took a knee in the stomach. The uppercut to his jaw laid him out flat on his back. The other two guys converged on him and Marshall made a desperate attempt to regain his feet. A kick to his stomach put a stop to that, but Marshall was good. They seemed to have forgotten about Lara. Sand stung his eyes as he searched for her, and he knew a moment of relief when he saw her running for the water. Before he could question the oddity of it, Knife Guy hauled him back off the ground and held him up while Dopey used his stomach as a punching bag. Time stopped and the flow of air with it. Knife Guy released him and Marshall stumbled, proud he was still on his feet until Knife Guy hit him again and everything seemed to fade in out of some big dark hole. Marshall hit the sand, head throbbing.
“You should have moved on.” Knife Guy’s voice drummed between Marshall’s ears.
Somewhere in the haze that was now his brain, Marshall thought the real trouble was about to begin, but Lara was gone. That’s all that mattered. A foot slammed into Marshall’s stomach again. Pain shot through his middle and he thought for a few seconds he might vomit. Another foot connected with his ribs with crushing force. Marshall rolled over and curled into a ball, covering his head with his arms.
Her voice. He was hearing her voice now. His angel sang in his head. No doubt he was on the verge of passing out and everything was so dark he thought he had. No one was hitting him anymore. Or maybe he was just too out of it to feel anything. Weird because he could hear it, the pounding of fists—the grunts. But he would swear he wasn’t the one making those noises.
Oh God, those hands. He knew the feel of those hands, that strong yet gentle grip. Lara rolled him over, easing him onto his back. He tried hard not to moan but he did anyway. Why was she still here?
“Marshall,” his angel said as she cradled his head gently on her lap. “Look at me.”
He tried. He wanted nothing more than to see her face. He’d planned on making some joke about how his face now looked worse than hers, but when he was finally able to focus, he saw that her face was as fresh and beautiful as the first day he’d seen her, not a scratch on it. No black eyes, her button nose cute and tidy in the center of her face. He would have sworn it had been broken. Her lip was perfectly bow shaped.
“I’m all right,” he said, forcing himself to sit up and then he had to close his eyes and breathe past the nausea that rolled in his stomach. He spit out a mouthful of blood and wiped his chin with the back of his hand. His knuckles throbbed.
Dopey lay flat on his back, still as a rock. Shay was in the process of beating the shit out of Knife Guy. Marshall couldn’t locate the third guy and didn’t really care where he was. Where the hell had Shay come from? Not that Marshall was complaining. If Marshall thought he could, he’d stand up and cheer him on.
“Shay, you have to stop,” Lara said, rising to her feet.
Marshall was torn between agreeing with Lara and hoping Shay killed the guy.
“Shay,” she said a little more desperately and walked over to where he towered over Knife Guy, who didn’t look so big anymore. She took Shay by the arm and spun him a round to face her. His chest heaved, the veins in his arms bulging over his muscles. Wild, feral eyes stared back at her and Marshall couldn’t suppress the shudder that stole over him. Damn, what kind of idiots bloody a girl with a boyfriend like that?
Shay’s eyes finally focused on hers and, as they did, his breathing slowed down.
“Shay, you can’t. I’m all right.”
“He hurt you. He was going to...” His voice choked, his jaw set tight, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides.
“He didn’t. They didn’t. Marshall stopped them.”
And hearing her say those words made Marshall feel like he could take on the world. But they had hurt her. She’d been cut and bleeding.
Shay seemed to get possession of himself, and turning his back on Lara, hoisted Knife Guy up by the neck with just the grip of his fingers.
“Get the hell out of here you stupid ass lander. If I ever see you again, I swear, I’ll kill you.” Shay tossed him like a shirt, kicking him in the butt when he made to run.
Dopey still hadn’t moved.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” Lara admonished, looking genuinely distraught. “They’ll make trouble for you now.”
“Do you think I care?” Shay said as he stalked over to where Marshall still sat in the sand.
“Marshall,” Shay called, but he couldn’t quit staring at Lara.
Marshall’s tore his gaze away and let it fall to the necklace the guy wore, using the pearl as a focal point. His head still swam. If he could just focus maybe he’d be able to stand up. The pearl was odd. Not like his mom’s small ivory pearls. Shay’s was an iridescent green and swirled with some kind of energy. Lara wore one too. Same odd color. Same hypnotizing quality.
Magic. The word popped into Marshall’s mind, and he thought he’d must have a concussion. Lara scooted forward and he thought if magic had a smell it would smell like her.
“We should get him cleaned up,” she said and his eyes fell to her feet next to his knee. She had a veil of skin between each of her toes. He’d heard of defects where people had skin growing between their toes, but this was different. The skin between her toes didn’t look like some genetic defect. Her feet looked natural, oddly sexy.
Oh God, kill him now if he was thinking shit like that.
“Maybe we should take him to the hospital,” she said.
“No,” That brought Marshall out his wayward thoughts. Though it didn’t keep him from checking out Shay’s feet. He had webs too.
“You all right, man?” Shay asked as Marshall’s gaze jumped between the two of them.
“What are you people?”
24 years later
Marshall sat on the towel he and Lara had laid out—one of those oversized beach towels big enough for them to share with enough space for the basket she’d carried down stocked with her favorite cheese, and fruit, and the bottle of wine he’d brought.
She was in the water, and every now and then he’d catch a glimpse of her when she resurfaced, her dark head gleaming above the swell of the waves. She never went more than a few hundred yards out, unlike Noah and Jamie who’d would be gone for hours. Of course, he never worried about them the way he did Lara. He would have thought after all these years he’d be used to seeing her in her element. It was part of who she was, what she was, and after all this time she still enchanted him. She needed the water like he needed the air. Maybe not as much as she used to, but he felt privileged she let him be a part of her time in the Deep. She trusted him and that meant more to him than he’d ever admit to her.
Marshall put the bottle of wine he was about to open aside when he caught sight of a dark shadow skimming just under the surface. Bull shark, maybe eight feet in length. He rose from the towel and walked to the shoreline, wading in to his knees. Even knowing she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, the impulse to go in after her, put himself between her and any danger, was strong.
The water was clear enough he saw her swimming toward him—her long streamlined body, a symphony of movement under the surface, as though she was gliding across ice. Without realizing it, he’d waded farther out and the water now lapped around his bare chest. Lara continued to swim straight for him aa the shark crossed between them and Marshall tensed, on the verge of diving in after her. But the shark moved on, leaving him with a pounding heart. Lara surfaced right in front of him, emerging out of the water like the goddess she proclaimed protected her. Her eyes lit on his face and her mouth tilted in a teasing smile.
“You scare me like that on purpose, don’t you?” he said when she made to splash him. He grabbed her wrist, his fingers closing around the fine bones, and in his mind he pulled her to him and finally set his mouth on hers.
“You make it too easy.” Her gaze shifted to the fading shadow of the shark. “He’s beautiful though isn’t he.”
You’re beautiful, Marshall thought, but all he said was, “If you say so.”
“I do. Now pour me a glass of that wine you brought.”
Lara always made him feel seventeen again, especially when he was forced to wade out of the surf behind her. His eyes kept dropping to the fine curve of her ass. The woman was a goddess herself, and he loved her like this, with a sheen of Gulf water on her skin, her dark hair roped over the contours of her back.
After he’d toweled off, he opened the bottle of wine and poured them each a glass. She’d unpacked the crackers and opened the container of crab dip she’d made. It was one of his favorites. They fell into companionable silence as they sipped their wine, enjoying each other’s presence, the slow, peaceful descent of the sun.
A month to the day after Shay’s funeral, Marshall had shown up at Lara’s house with the same bottle of wine, acutely aware the day would be hard for her. It had been hard for him too, and he’d gone to see her as much to comfort himself as to comfort her.
Unknowingly it had been the start of an unspoken ritual for them. In the subsequent months, he’d continued to show up at her door on the same day. His schedule was always open and she was always waiting for him.
Sometimes she would cook. Other times, Marshall would bring take out. Sometimes they’d talk about everything, or they’d talked about nothing. Sometimes he’d listen to her talk about Shay, and how much she missed him. He’d talked a few times about his ex-wife, Clare. How they’d been happy for a while and then they just weren’t. Marshall wondered what Lara would do if he told her he loved her. If she’d ask him not to come anymore. Though he’d been tempted to tell her—in the last few months especially—he was afraid of ruining what they had. Her friendship meant too much to him to risk her being uncomfortable with him because she didn’t share his feelings. It was obvious she cared about him, but he’d watched her with Shay for almost twenty years. She’d never looked at him the way she had looked at Shay.
But he had this—a few hours once a month when he had her all to himself.
“You’re taking care of my boy aren’t you?” she asked as he refilled her glass.
No matter what else they did or didn’t talk about, they always talked about their kids.
“That boy is a born warrior,” he said. “Shay would be proud of him.”
“He wouldn’t be the only one, would he?” She eyed Marshall over the rim of her glass.
Yes, Marshall was proud. Proud because he knew some of the things Shay and Lara endured and still they raised good boys. Boys with heart and courage. Boys he’d be proud to call his own—felt like his own sometimes.
“You’ve done good,” he told her, knowing how much she’d worried about Noah and Jamie in those first few months after Shay’s accident.
“I can’t take all the credit,” she said. “Some of that belongs to you. What you’ve done for Jamie?
He’s like a different young man.”
Marshall wasn’t so sure how much he’d really done other than offer him Jamie an opportunity. Marshall had been trained by the U.S. Government, and now he was the one doing the training, and he’d seen qualities in Jamie that couldn’t be taught—that couldn’t be developed through discipline. Despite Jamie’s inherent genetic traits that put him on a different playing field than any of the other young men he’d recruited, Jamie was a natural leader. It wasn’t in everyone’s nature to be sacrificial, but it was in Jamie’s. And Marshall hoped to hone his innate abilities into something special. In Marshall’s mind, Jamie, and Noah too, were contenders to be real life super heros.
“I’m taking care of him. I won’t promote him until I know he’s ready.”
“I know you won’t. I wouldn’t trust my boys to just anybody,” she said.
The sun was beginning to dip in the sky and he held her glass while she reached for her cover-up and pulled it over her head.
“I want to hear about Erin,” she said, reclaiming her glass.
Marshall held tightly to the smile that spread over his face whenever he thought of his fifteen-year-old daughter. Almost sixteen she’d be quick to remind him. Erin had been the best part of his happy years with Clare. The best part of his life now other than the woman sitting across the towel from him.
“She’s with Clare this weekend.” Marshall leaned back one one elbow and crossed his feet at the ankles, breathing deep the simplicity that was laid out before him—a strip of white sand, a stretch of aquamarine water, a sky flush with the colors of a setting sun, the woman he loved, whether she knew it or not, beside him. Simple and so blessedly complicated, just like his daughter. “God, that girl is going to be the death of me.”
“What has she done?” Lara crossed her legs and leaned forward, swiping a cracker with dip. A strand of her hair blew wildly in the breeze and he wanted so badly to reach out and touch it and tuck it behind her ear.
“Nothing,” he said. “She’s absolutely perfect. Perfect grades. She carries more than her weight around the house and never complains about it. She never breaks curfew.”
“Sound’s horrible.” Lara mock shuddered and flashed him a brilliant smile. A smile he hadn’t seen near enough in the last few months.
He’d known the minute she’d opened her front door earlier that she was having a good day, that Shay wouldn’t weigh so heavily between them. He liked seeing her like this, feeling like he had her all to himself.
“It is horrible,” he said in all seriousness. “Do you know what it feels like to live with this perfect human being, hiding my faults as best I can, knowing one day she’s going to see right through me and then what will I do?”
“Actually, I do. Seems just a matter of time doesn’t it that you’re going to disappoint them in a way they’ll never get over.”
“Well, I might have already done that with Clare. That’s damage I can’t undo no matter how much I love Erin.” And then he felt guilty. Erin still had her mother, while Lara’s boys were left navigating the most important years of their lives without a father.
“She’s like you, Marshall. Tough as nails and tenacious. Which leads me to observe she’s been good for Noah. They’ve been spending a lot of time together lately.”
“Yes, I’m aware,” he said.
“Is that okay with you? Shay always swore up and down he was thankful we never had a daughter, that he didn’t think he’d be able to handle it.”
“They’re just friends aren’t they?” Fifteen. Fifteen was too young for a boyfriend. And as much as Marshall liked Noah, he remained standoffish. Marshall hadn’t quite gained Noah’s trust.
Lara laughed and it was like music on the breeze. “Yes, they’re friends. You should see your face.”
Marshall crunched a cracker in his mouth.
“They remind of two people I used to know,” she said and it twisted his gut to realize she was referring to the two of them, not really understanding why.
“If their friendship is anything like ours, I’d say it’s good for both of them.”
“I would too,” she said, her smile wistful. “Twenty years. Hard to believe we’ve been friends that long.”
“Yeah, time flies,” he said.
“Sucks doesn’t it.” She took a sip of wine under the doleful look that came into her eyes.
“I don’t know. We’re still friends after more than twenty years. That doesn’t suck.”
“No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t at all,” she said unable to hide the despondency in her tone.
And just like that he watched her sorrow swamp her. Marshall could feel her being carried away as if she were floating away with the tide.
“Our friendship means more to me than I can ever express,” she said. “You’ve been my anchor this last year, not only for me, but for Jamie as well, and I’ll always cherish for you for that.”
“Lara, you don’t have to explain or thank me,” he said. “Friends, remember?”
“Maybe I do. Is this really enough for you? Because it might be all I can ever offer. Simple friendship.”
Marshall had asked himself that same question countless times and the answer was always the same.