Giselle flung the suitcase on her sister’s tropical-patterned bedspread and let out the sigh she’d been holding since sometime over the air space of Kansas. Or maybe as far back as Illinois. Or maybe even since they’d been in the airport in Indiana.
She stared at a bright red cloth napkin Lia had left on the bed, next to a note in her sister’s loopy handwriting: “It’s okay. Relax.”
Giselle frowned and lifted the napkin, then felt four strings slip through her fingers.
It was a bikini. How very Lia. How very not Giselle.
She folded the triangles and tucked the package deep into the corner of Lia’s dresser drawer, amid some tissue-wrapped lingerie and a lavender drawer sachet.
“Mommy,” came a breathless voice from behind her, “there’s sand!”
Her daughter flung herself onto the bed, sending the suitcase and all their clothes bouncing and squeaking. “And Aunt Lia left me sandals! Can we go to the water now? Can I put on my suit?” Little hands gripped the edge of Giselle’s suitcase.
“In a minute.” Giselle closed the drawer. “Why don’t you help me unpack?”
Giselle’s fake enthusiasm—held in a false falsetto since Indiana—sounded too breathless, but Coco seemed to buy it, and her little pale legs whisked her to the front room.
Giselle tried to take her twenty cleansing breaths while Coco was gone, but, as usual, she only got to about the seventh. Coco came bumping back through the doorway with a pink Barbie suitcase.
“I wonder how Aunt Lia knew I liked pink sandals.”
Giselle eyed Coco’s sparkly shoes and the tutu she’d worn on the plane. “Probably a good guess.” She lifted Coco’s suitcase onto the bed beside hers.
Lia’s beachside apartment was small—not much more than a box, really—but Giselle felt a wave of appreciation that her sister had opened it to them, and on such short notice. Sandy Cove was the perfect place to escape for two weeks. But California would have been much too expensive without Lia’s apartment. Giselle couldn’t use up what was left of her cash reserves.
“What was that song Aunt Lia taught you?” Giselle asked over her shoulder as she yanked closed the bedroom’s palm-colored curtains.
Coco flung one of her blond braids over her shoulder and began swaying her hips. “Stir it up . . .” she began singing. Her toothlessness lent a lispy charm to the Bob Marley song.
Giselle smiled. “. . . Little darlin’ . . . stir it up . . .”
Their hips moved in exaggerated sways, and soon most of Giselle’s worries were tucked away with their T-shirts, shorts, Giselle’s tailored slacks, Coco’s sleep toy Ninja Kitty, and their sensible bathing suits.
While Giselle was sad she wouldn’t get to see Lia, who was tied up with a business trip in New York, she was sort of relieved. The pitying platitudes were exhausting. Especially when coupled with the hushed tones from friends and family in Indiana: Omygod, what will she do? And what will she do without Roy? Giselle knew the way to make the hushed voices stop was to show everyone what she was made of—lift her chin, showcase her strength, saunter into a room with a confidence she might dredge up from somewhere. But she hadn’t quite been able to do that. Maybe she just needed time. . . .
As Sandy Cove’s afternoon light began calming her through the mango-colored shades, Giselle felt relaxed enough to get into Lia’s tiny kitchen and bake. She’d picked up a few staples at the beach corner market to make her raisin cookies. Counting strokes and measuring ingredients always did her wonders.
While she measured and poured, Coco sat at the dining table and told knock-knock jokes until a sharp rap sounded at the door.
“Someone’s here,” Coco whispered.
The tightening began in her neck as Giselle wiped her hands on a towel and made her way to the entryway.
She peeked through the peephole and saw a totem pole of a boy standing on the porch.
He was young—maybe twenty—with a black rubber item folded like a tablecloth in his right hand. Sable brown hair coiled into quarter-sized curls all over his head, and a brown tuft of hair sprouted from his chin in a hippie “soul patch” style. His toast-colored eyes were close together, giving him a comical air. He brought them closer to the peephole, his face distorting in the funny glass.
Giselle opened the door a crack.
“Heeeeey,” he said. His eyes took in as much of her as he could see from behind the door, but the gesture didn’t feel insolent, or even flirtatious—which was good, since he seemed at least fifteen years younger than she was.
Giselle flung the dish towel over her shoulder and tucked a strand of hair back into her chignon as she pulled the door wider. He wore bright orange-and-brown knee-length swim trunks that hung low on his waist, as if there weren’t quite enough body to hold them up. He stood the same height as Giselle, but was reedier, the outline of his ribs pressing through his tanned skin. His knobby feet were covered in sand.
“You must be Lia’s sister,” he said lazily.
“You look just like her.” A note of wonder hung on his words.
“Thank you.” Giselle smoothed her skirt.
She was flattered—she thought of Lia as beautiful in every way—but Giselle didn’t see a resemblance. She felt much older, although their age difference was only six years. But she also felt duller, and at least a dress size bigger. Despite the fact Giselle had won beauty contests throughout her teens, her confidence had plummeted when Roy had had his first affair.
“This is for your daughter.” The rubber item unfurled from his fingers. It was a small wet suit. “I’m Rabbit.”
Rabbit? Giselle blinked back her surprise. So this was who Lia had told her about? Somehow she’d had the image differently in her mind: She’d pictured maybe a grizzled old guru who lived on a sand dune with parrots. Or at least someone out of junior college.
Clutching the wet suit against her chest, she held out her other hand in default hostess mode: “I’m Giselle.”
He regarded her hand with amusement, then shook it briefly. “Sweet. You have something cooking in there?” He tried to peek around the door.
“Oh—raisin cookies.” She stepped back, and Coco popped her head around, able to stand it no longer.
Rabbit studied her as she pushed her way through the doorway. “And you must be Coco.” He crouched to the ground, rubbing the tuft of hair on his chin. “I’ve heard all about you from your aunt. How do you feel about being a little grommet this week?”
“A young surfer. Lia signed you up for my camp. I have twelve new groms coming.”
Coco’s short, jilting bounces expressed everything.
Thank goodness Lia had arranged this. It would be good for Coco to escape the drama that had become their lives. All Giselle had to do in return was take pictures for Rabbit’s brochure. And go out on one date with a guy Lia knew named Dave or Don or something.
Although it was a pretty close toss-up, the brochure made her the most nervous. Marketing-minded Lia had coordinated it, even though Giselle had insisted she had no brochure experience. In fact, she had no work experience at all, unless you counted posing as the perfect doctor’s wife at charity balls. But Lia had insisted that the photos Giselle took of Coco were excellent. Your photos capture such truth and beauty, her sister had said. Giselle had continued to protest, but Lia reminded her that Rabbit wasn’t exactly a Fortune 500 company. He couldn’t even pay. Except in trade. Which was where Coco benefited.
“I have a surfboard for you,” Rabbit whispered to Coco. He glanced up at Giselle. “Can you come see it?”
Giselle hesitated. The unpacking wasn’t done. She hadn’t taken her twenty cleansing breaths. The raisin cookies had four minutes left. She needed to organize, prioritize, get their lives in order.
But she caught the expression on Coco’s face—one of hopefulness, a trust in adventure—and decided she could take a few cues from her daughter. Giselle did need to learn to relax. She did need to straighten her backbone and garner some strength. She did need to learn how to grasp adventure.
“Sure,” she said, shrugging as if she made impromptu decisions all the time. “But I have a few more minutes for the cookies.”
“I’ll wait.” Rabbit grinned.
When the buzzer finally went off, Giselle loaded the entire batch onto a plate to bring to his apartment. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and took Coco’s hand. “Then let’s go.”
She tried not to think of the clothing still on the bed, or the blind date with the man whose name she couldn’t remember, or the twenty cleansing breaths, while she followed Rabbit next door.
Let their new life begin. . . .
A waist-high gate divided the halves of the second-story patio Rabbit and Lia shared.
When her sister had said that Rabbit lived “next door,” Giselle hadn’t realized how close that would be. No wonder their mother wouldn’t stay here. Having their coiffed, French-manicured mother staying within shouting distance of a barely clad boy like Rabbit, who probably got stoned to the Doors and tracked sand across the patio on a regular basis, would be their mother’s undoing. Eve McCabe typically chose to stay at a Hilton in posh Newport Beach several miles up.
Rabbit strode toward his wide-open door in that rubbery way lanky boys move. Music tumbled out: some kind of folk singer with a mellow, seaside sound. Soon the music swallowed him.
Giselle stalled. She peered around the doorway, but he’d already disappeared.
His place was entirely white and beige, with an empty expanse of stained carpeting. A lone card table was set up where a dining table would normally be, a smattering of potato chips and empty beer bottles littered across its torn top. Beanbag chairs were tossed about the living area, filled with boys with shaggy hair and sandy feet. One was playing a guitar to a song on the speaker.
Along the living room wall were four bright surfboards, each more colorful than the last. One showed off brilliant stripes and flames, two teemed with plant shapes, and the last was in swirls of yellows, oranges, and reds. A fifth, with a bright turquoise stripe down the center, lay across the mottled carpet. One of the boys sat on top, his legs crossed into a suntanned X.
“Hey,” said the one on the board.
Giselle thought perhaps it was meant to be a greeting and gave an uncertain nod.
“C’min, Giselle,” yelled Rabbit from around the corner.
She took a few tentative steps onto the linoleum patch that served as an entryway, her espadrilles crunching in the scattered sand grains.
A boy in the kitchen drew a bottle of beer out of a cooler and held it toward her.
“No, thanks,” she said, wrapping her arm around Coco’s neck and looking toward the doorway where Rabbit had disappeared.
“Are those for us?” he asked, eyeing the plate of cookies.
“Yes.” She thrust the plate forward.
He took a cookie off the top and bit into it as he surveyed Coco. “You must be one of Rabbit’s groms.”
“I am.” Coco nodded. “He’s bringing me a surfboard.”
“Step aside!” Rabbit’s voice emerged from a back bedroom. In both hands, he gripped an enormous turquoise board. He dipped it so it didn’t hit the doorway, then gingerly laid it across the carpet. The boys moved to make space.
“This was my sister’s when she started,” Rabbit said.
Coco bounced around it. A wood-grain pattern ran down the center, with two bamboo shoots on either side. A row of yellow hibiscus flowers entwined through the bamboo. The artwork was faded where the hibiscus flowers began, and there were plenty of scratches and dings, but Coco’s face lit up like a Christmas tree.
“My sis was a little grommet like you once,” Rabbit drawled. “Now she’s on the Women’s World Tour and rides for Roxy.”
Coco turned wide eyes toward Giselle. She clearly didn’t understand any of that, but she could tell it sounded impressive.
Rabbit walked around the board. “So you can use this when you practice, but in my class we’re going to use blue foam boards like the other kids, okay?”
He patted the center hibiscus. “Kick off your shoes.”
Coco mounted the board with great seriousness. Rabbit’s finger outlined elements of the design that would give her cues—her left toe should line up with the wood grain, while her right heel should round the curve of the bottom hibiscus.
He sat back on his haunches and frowned at her feet. “Are you left-handed, little dudette?”
Coco nodded hesitantly.
“Ah, a goofy-foot,” he said. “I thought so. This doesn’t look natural for you. Kino surfs goofy, too.” He motioned with his thumb to a guy sitting behind him. “Let’s switch feet.”
Rabbit continued in his rhythmic drone while Giselle breathed in the scent of the ocean that wafted through the nearby dining-room window. The boys’ chatter went on in the background—some argument about something called onshore swells. The mellow seaside singer continued to encourage love and sunshine. Giselle closed her eyes and inhaled cocoa butter and salty air, feeling a strange, sudden peace in the room full of strangers with whom she shared very little except being part of the human race.
“Now!” shouted Rabbit.
Coco pushed up with her arms to bring her feet to the cues.
“Excellent,” he drawled, grinning. “That was a beautiful pop-up. Let’s try it again.”
Coco giggled, and he went on while Giselle noticed a beer bong in the corner of the room. Over her shoulder, two of the boys began swearing. One shoved the other, and a third threw a bottle across the room to a catcher in a beanbag.
Giselle reached for Coco’s shoulder. As nice as it had been to be welcomed into this underworld for a minute, it might be time for their exit. “I, uh . . . We really need to go.”
As the swearing continued, she cupped Coco’s ears and began steering her more firmly toward the front door, but a smooth, firm voice came rolling across the room: “Boys!”
The room stilled.
The voice came from another tanned, barechested figure leaning in the doorjamb, watching everyone, with a black rubbery tube stretched from one hand to the other. He looked older than the others, although Giselle couldn’t be sure. He definitely had a more solid body, with actual muscles that looked like they would keep him grounded if a big gust of wind came through. His blond-tipped hair was pushed up as if it had just dried that way. He had on swim trunks, his wide chest boasting the dull sheen that salt water leaves, a dusting of wheat over copper.
He frowned at the boys who were swearing, then motioned with his head toward Coco.
“Sorry, Fin,” one of the boys said. He gave one last quiet shove, though, like a puppy frolicking.
Giselle meant to turn her attention back to Coco, but found herself unable to take her eyes off this newest appearance, captivated by his perfect chest, his square jaw, the rock-shaped shoulders. His body was a gorgeous color—a golden brown, with tinges of smoky red at the tops of his shoulders. Giselle thought it would be perfect to paint. Her second thought was that it would be perfect to photograph. And her third was that it would be wondrous to touch.
As her mind lingered on the last thought, imagining her finger running along that ridge that defined his shoulder from his biceps, he met her gaze.
She averted her eyes. Sweet criminy. She pulled her cardigan closer and smoothed her hair. She was a stay-at-home mom from Indiana. Comptroller for the PTA. A scrapbooker. And he was just a kid. What was wrong with her?
She clasped one of Coco’s shoulders and leaned toward Rabbit. “We need to get going.”
She’d had enough of the surfer underworld for one day. And this California sunshine was frying her brain—staring at a twentysomething surfer. Was she losing her mind?
Rabbit unfurled his legs. “Join us. We’re cooking out.”
“Can we, Mommy?” Coco begged.
Giselle ran Coco’s braid through her hand. “I’ll think about it.” But she’d already dismissed it. Drinking beer and eating hot dogs with a bunch of sandy boys that looked barely out of high school was probably not what she and her five-year-old daughter should be doing. And she didn’t need that Fin kid distracting her with his golden shoulders and strange blue eyes. Maybe she’d find a nice, clean Olive Garden nearby.
She gathered Coco’s shoes, grabbed the empty cookie plate, and hustled out of the room, trying not to look back toward Fin. The other boys called out good-byes—she thought one called her “Betty”—but mostly she focused on getting Coco to the patio without any more gawking.
As she passed the doorway to the bedrooms, however, her curiosity ran rampant against her better sense. Suddenly, wildly, uncontrollably—her gaze swept back.
But he wasn’t there.
She couldn’t tell whether the air whooshing out of her lungs was from disappointment that she didn’t get another glance at his sculpted chest or relief that she wouldn’t embarrass herself any further. Either way, she gave up a prayer of gratitude that her decency had remained intact for the next sixty seconds.
After Rabbit and another boy laid the surfboard in the center of Lia’s living room, Giselle closed the door and leaned her head back.
She took twelve cleansing breaths.
Starting a new life might have to come in smaller steps.