Leaning forward to peer out the windshield of her rental car, Giselle followed Rabbit’s beat-up Volkswagen through the weathered streets of Sandy Cove.
The isolated town bore little resemblance to the flashier beach towns farther north, which she’d visited often when she stayed with her mom. Her mom and younger sisters had eventually made their home in Los Angeles shortly after her parents’ divorce, but Giselle had started college that year and fled back to Indiana, happy to be near her father. She hadn’t liked L.A. much: It was too pretentious, too much of a show-off. But Sandy Cove, farther south, was different. Weatherworn, with cliffs and hillsides setting it apart and an “Old California” vibe that was ceaselessly forgiving, the little town seemed made for people who wanted to hide.
Coco pointed to a bulletlike train that glinted in the sun, passing through. Giselle crossed the tracks and parked behind a community of narrow, aluminum-sided homes, laid along the sand like piano keys. The bases of the homes were permanent—some with Polynesian-style lava rocks, some with stacked stone. The entire community had a 1950s ambiance—the rental office was flanked by retro tiki torches and miniature palm trees, and many of the homes still had green-turf balconies and Plexiglas-panel windbreaks standing at attention against the ocean. It looked like a community that time forgot.
The party house boasted the same retro feel, but with an updated, million-dollar face-lift. A slate walkway led to a bright white door, and a vintage Sputnik-styled lantern hung in the doorway.
Giselle, Rabbit, and Coco stepped into a small, open living area. Dark wooden floors and wainscoting showed off sleek, masculine furniture. Eight-foot walls of glass showcased a long stretch of ocean and horizon, all the way north and south. The house perched right above the sand, only about twenty feet from the water, but elevated by a wall of rocks. A set of nautical-roped stairs zigzagged to the sand, where several children played. A second patio held a cluster of adults, who sipped colorful stemmed drinks and complimented one another’s bright tropical dresses and shirts over the steel-drum tunes that came from a live four-piece band.
Coco spotted a girl about her age sitting in the sand, playing with a bright pink sand bucket off the main-level patio. The girl looked up and asked Coco whether she would like to play.
Giselle wished it were that easy for her. She smoothed her spring sweater and cotton skirt and studied the clusters of absurdly beautiful people.
Rabbit had, as Giselle had feared, slipped away. She took a glass of champagne from a passing tray and wandered toward the patio rail, where she could keep an eye on Coco and her new little friend. The foamy waves of the Pacific rolled up behind the girls, the water glistening like gemstones. Giselle had told Rabbit she’d stay only an hour, but as soon as she saw the view, she decided she might wait until the sun went down. Watching it from here would be magical.
She leaned into the rail, letting the rhythmic roar of the sea envelop her, allowing her shoulders to relax for what felt like the first time in days. She let the seaside serenade lull her.
“You came,” said a man’s voice over her shoulder.
She whirled, then tripped backward to see Fin.
He had clothes on today—a loose-fitting button-down shirt that draped off his shoulders, narrowing at his hips and falling over a pair of dressy shorts. He didn’t have the air of a surfer about him today. He looked like a yachter, perhaps. Or some wealthy woman’s boy toy, with his blond tips and expensive clothes. He was remarkably handsome up close—his face lean at the sides, with lines around his mouth—and he offered her the kind of grin that must stop many a surfer girl’s heart. But the thing that stopped Giselle’s was his eyes. She’d noticed them before, in Rabbit’s apartment, but up this close they were stunning: bright blue, with an outline of navy.
Giselle glanced over his shoulder, almost expecting the wealthy woman he must belong to to materialize behind him.
“Rabbit invited me,” she blurted out.
Fin seemed to find that amusing. He nodded and looked into the tumbler he held with an amber drink. “I’m glad.”
“He said there’d be lots of kids,” she babbled, “and that I could invite my daughter, even though we weren’t going to come. I wasn’t really sure. . . .” She lamely indicated Coco playing in the sand. “I don’t even know whose party this is.”
She was embarrassed she was talking so fast. She couldn’t remember the last time a man had left her so flustered. And this one was so . . . young. Wasn’t he? It was hard to tell. She stole a quick glance at his mouth, at his square jawline. He could’ve been twenty-two or thirty-two, really—he had one of those faces that made it hard to tell. But either way, he was clearly younger than she was. She took a deep breath and decided it was safer to simply not look at him.
Taking a sip of champagne, she kept her eyes on Coco. The flute stem provided a thankful distraction for her hands, and she grasped it tighter, as if she could harness some of the recklessness of her pounding heart—perhaps wrap it neatly around the stem.
The music lulled into a Caribbean-sounding number, and several guests began rolling their hips.
Fin leaned closer. “Can we go somewhere?” he said over the music. He reached toward her lower back, not touching her, but indicating he’d like her to move with him.
Her heart thumped again—flipped, really, right there in her chest—at his ocean eyes and coconut scent. She almost snapped her champagne flute.
“My daughter,” she choked out, indicating Coco. “I need to keep my eye on her.”
The music grew louder and a young couple in matching red bathing suits did a rumba toward them. Fin smiled to the woman and stepped aside, then directed Giselle’s attention to a spot in the sand just behind Coco.
“How about there?” he said toward her ear.
A cluster of bright white beach chairs occupied the spot he indicated, just out of reach of the lapping foam.
Giselle nodded, her gaze skimming over his forearms—much too thick, too roped, to belong to a boy.
As she surreptitiously extended her inspection to his hands, he reached back to steer her across the patio to the steel-drum beat, turning sideways through several clusters of people. He nodded to several of them.
When they got to the chairs, she positioned herself to make sure she could see Coco, smoothing her skirt with one hand and balancing her champagne in the other. He studied her carefully. The sun was setting behind him, shining through the blond strands of his hair.
“I noticed you at Rabbit’s apartment yesterday,” he said.
The waves cracked, and Fin’s voice drifted on a current of wind. She pulled the comment back, letting it flutter about her, forcing it into her consciousness while she tried to filter it, process it, put it somewhere inside her normal view of herself. She couldn’t, exactly. She nodded, deciding to avoid mentioning that she’d noticed him, too, particularly his bare chest. She was pretty sure gorgeous surfer dudes didn’t care about being noticed by scrapbook moms.
She took another sip of champagne.
“I have this event to go to,” he went on. “It would be a favor.” He took a nervous sip. “I need someone to go with, and when I saw you, I thought you’d be perfect.”
It sounded like a compliment, but the fact that he wasn’t meeting her eyes indicated otherwise.
“If you tell me it’s a mother-son ball, I’m going to kick sand at you,” she said.
He squinted at her for several long seconds and then smiled. She had the strange thought that there was a lucky girl somewhere who got to see him smile like this all the time.
“Those boys at Rabbit’s must be doing a number on you,” he said. “Are they still calling you ‘Donna’?”
Her breath caught in surprise. “How did you know?”
The name hung in the air while Giselle assembled it in her mind. Slowly, inside, she began to crumble. She pulled her sweater tighter and looked away.
Fin did a double take through his bangs. “They mean it as a compliment.”
She nodded halfheartedly. Of course they did. A pearl-clad 1950s television housewife was exactly who everyone wanted to be compared to.
“You . . . just have an air about you.” He shrugged.
Giselle sucked in as much air as she could, as every organ inside her seemed to deflate. She could almost feel her breasts flattening against her chest. She looked over the top of his blond head at the ocean, briefly, just to gather her senses, then forced herself to face the fact that whatever reason she’d hoped he’d invited her out here—that wasn’t it. Whatever reason he’d noticed her at Rabbit’s apartment—that wasn’t it, either. She looked away from his tousled hair.
“Do I need to bring cookies?” she said sarcastically.
He laughed. He had a nice, mature-sounding laugh. “I heard they were good, but no. It’s a wine tasting and art auction. I have to impress some people. I was thinking about asking your sister, but when I came by to see if she was there, Rabbit said she was gone for a couple of weeks.”
Lia? It hadn’t occurred to Giselle that Fin might date Lia. She tried to picture her extroverted, hair-flipping little sister on the arm of this magazine-cover surfer boy and felt, first, a stab of jealousy. But then she dismissed it. Lia wouldn’t date someone like Fin. Lia had liked serious boys when she was young, then moved on to serious men. First it was boys who wrote dark poetry and rode motorcycles to high school; then it was men who wore black suits and took over companies. Fin wouldn’t fit into her worldview at all.
“Do you . . . date Lia?” she asked anyway, unable to keep the incredulity out of her voice.
“No, no.” Fin shook his head as if the idea were preposterous. “She’s not—I’m not . . . her type at all.”
At least they agreed on that much.
“We’re friends. She’s helped me out of a few jams. But this one—even she wasn’t right for this. But you . . .” He looked her up and down. “You’re perfect.”
Giselle let the words settle over her for an instant, enjoying their flash of warmth. She didn’t hear compliments very often, particularly from her ex, who had looked at her as if she were simply part of the furniture for the last several years. But then she noted another of Fin’s skittish glances and reminded herself he was probably up to something.
“You must know a million other women?”
“Not old enough.”
Her extraordinary reserve allowed her to keep perfectly still. One didn’t get through excruciating high-school beauty pageants by letting hurt feelings show. Her eyes, however, must have given her away.
“I don’t mean—” Fin lifted his hand. “I just mean I need someone my own age.”
Clearly, he’d missed the mark on this one. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Twenty-nine. . . . soon.”
Giselle looked at him skeptically. “When’s soon?”
She raised her eyebrow. Twenty-eight? She had about seven years on him. Although at least he was older than she’d thought. He’d looked boyish from a distance, but—up close—he had all the strength that brings a man over the threshold from boyish to sexy. He was definitely already there.
But, even so, this wasn’t possible.
“Well.” She stood, brushing the sand off her legs. “I’m a little older than that. And besides, it certainly must serve you well to have a beautiful twentysomething on your arm?”
“Not at this event.”
He seemed resigned to the fact that she was leaving. He took a sip of his drink and looked, for the moment, terribly sad and lonely.
“You must know several sophisticated thirtysomethings.” She could see at least seven or eight from here—glowing tans, beautiful bodies, windswept hair in shades of gold.
“Too married,” he said without looking.
She watched him for a minute as the waves crashed behind them. She almost asked how he knew she wasn’t married, but then remembered he’d asked Rabbit. So that was it: She was the only thirtysomething who was still single in the state of California. Her fingers instinctively went to her wedding ring. It was a strange habit, keeping the ring on, and she couldn’t exactly explain why she did it. She knew it had something to do with Coco—she didn’t want people to look at her and Coco, alone, and think she was depriving her daughter of a two-parent home. It was strange and pathetic, but there it was.
“Yeah, that threw me.” He nodded toward her finger. “I double-checked with Rabbit.”
A quiet tingle ran through her at the thought of being discussed, privately, between two men. But then she told herself to ignore it. She was being discussed as Donna Reed, after all, not Pamela Anderson.
“Rabbit talks too much,” she said, with more irritation in her voice than she wanted.
Fin chuckled into his drink. A light breeze came up and blew sand across their shoes.
“Why do you still wear it?” he asked.
She felt her face flush. She didn’t want to discuss her personal choices with this surfer. What would he know about the difficulty of having your husband run away from you? Of not being able to face any of your friends or family because you didn’t even know what went wrong? Of feeling like you’d failed in a catastrophic way?
“It’s difficult to explain.”
“Try me.” He looked straight at her—as if he actually expected an answer—but Giselle shook her head.
He bobbed his as if to acquiesce that she didn’t want to say. The sunlight caught his face as he stared at the ocean. And, as soon as she was about to turn, his eyelashes lowered. He looked knowing, somehow. But also achingly, painfully lonely.
“When is this event?” Her words, now spoken, hung in the breeze between them, seeming like they belonged to someone else.
“Wednesday.” His expression shifted from doubt to hope. “Look, uh—Giselle, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s not Donna.”
He grinned. “Look, Giselle, I didn’t mean to insult you. I’m sorry if I did. I just mean that this event is important to me, and I need to bring someone who is beautiful and sophisticated, and when I saw you at Rabbit’s place, I thought you were perfect. Even better than Lia.”
She kept very still. She was afraid if she moved, her face might reveal her skepticism. He didn’t say it as if “sophisticated” were something he necessarily admired, but her heart hung a little over the “beautiful” part. She hadn’t heard that compliment from a man in quite some time.
And, really, who was she kidding? Spending an evening in this gorgeous man’s company, sipping wine and looking at art, didn’t seem like the worst idea in the universe. She could call Lia and make sure he was okay. And she and Coco had their own event to go to this week, after all, and Roy’s mom might want Coco to—
An idea hit her.
“Uh—Fin, isn’t it?”
“Definitely not Donna.”
“All right, Fin. I have an event myself this week. And you—” She let her eyes wander up and down, the same way his had, but she didn’t quite have the audaciousness to do it right. “You’re perfect.”
He regarded her with suspicion. “Perfect how?”
“Young enough. Hunky enough. Pro surfer enough.”
He laughed a little and stared at his glass. Clearly, he hadn’t seen this coming. “How do you know I’m a pro surfer?”
“Rabbit told me.”
“Did we already say Rabbit talks too much?”
“I think we agreed on that.”
He stared at the ocean for a second. “I’m not on the tour anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
He shifted his attention and studied her suspiciously. “When is your event?”
“What is it?”
His eyebrows shot up. “Seriously?”
“Why do you need a pro surfer on your arm to attend a funeral?”
“Because I’m swimming with sharks.”
Several expressions crossed his face in rapid succession—doubt, humor, maybe even a hint of admiration. He settled on a hesitant smile. “I’m listening.”
“It’s at one o’clock. I just need you to come along, stand there, and look pretty.”
He chuckled at that. “All right. I guess I can do that. What should I wear, my nicest black wet suit?”
His expression turned somber. He swirled his drink in his glass a few times. “Whose funeral is it?”
He nodded slowly. “I suppose, then, there’s an ex-husband on the scene?”
Giselle paused. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might not approve of all the details. She nodded hesitantly.
He looked at her for a long time. “All right. As long as this isn’t one of those scenarios where you need a stand-in so he can beat the crap out of me.”
She laughed at the absurdity of it—her skinny, bespectacled husband taking a swing at anything besides a golf ball.
“I don’t think that’ll be an issue,” she said.
Roy had run away. He obviously wouldn’t be jealous. She simply wanted Fin to accompany her because she didn’t want to look pathetic. She wanted to look pulled together, like she’d moved on. And not just moved on, but moved on with this guy. She wanted to show his whole family that she had a new image now: one of strength. One of the ability to move forward, without them, without Roy. . . .
“Any requests for me, for your event?” she asked.
He took a sip of his drink. “Don’t look too sexy.”
Giselle suppressed a laugh and tightened her cardigan around her middle. As if that would be a problem. “This is a crowd that wouldn’t like that?”
“Something like that,” he said, avoiding her eyes.
They walked another four or five steps toward the house, until Fin became engulfed by a cluster of partygoers. He looked over his shoulder at Giselle and mouthed to talk to him before she left.
Giselle nodded, then searched for Rabbit. When she found him, she asked just exactly how famous Fin was.
“Pro All-American, World Cup, Brazilian Open, Azores Islands Pro, U.S. Open twice,” Rabbit said. “I could go on. He’s a god. I’d show you all his trophies, but he’s got them locked up in a closet.” He shoved his thumb over his shoulder.
Realization was slow in coming, but Giselle’s gaze followed Rabbit’s thumb. “This is his house?”
Rabbit frowned. “That’s why I invited you, Giselle. He asked me to.” His face took on an air of concern. “It’s okay, right? If you want him to just leave you alone, I’ll just—”
“No,” she interrupted. “It’s okay.”
She took a deep breath. All right. A gorgeous pro surfer, who had all these people here to see him—including at least forty stunningly beautiful women in very small bikinis—had just asked her on a date. Or, well, not really a date. An event. And she’d asked him to a funeral.
Giselle looked around and set her champagne glass on a table behind her. She took another breath and tried to speak rationally, like this all made sense and she fit in here. “He said he’s not on the tour anymore,” she said casually.
Rabbit rolled his eyes. “Unfortunately.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means he’s not on the Men’s World Tour anymore. He’s trying to get back on it.”
“Why is he not on it now?”
He shook his head. “I’ll let him tell you.” Then he looked at her with that concern again. “It’s okay that I brought you here?”
“Because I promised Lia I’d watch out for you, so if you—”
“Rabbit.” Giselle held up her hand. “Stop.”
He looked uncertain.
“Lia is my younger sister. She does not need to be watching out for me. And you, certainly, don’t need to. I’m fine. No more of that, okay?”
He nodded, but looked less than convinced.
They wandered throughout the party, did a couple of turns to the steel-drum band, played with Coco in the sand, then ran into Kino. The whole place was body-to-body people, but she didn’t see Fin anymore. After she gathered Coco into her lap to watch the sun set, Rabbit smiled at her over the top of Coco’s hair. They watched the setting sun with several other quiet people in the sand.
When she was ready to leave, she finally found Fin in the kitchen with his arm around the waist of the young woman in the bright yellow bikini. Giselle tried not to notice how comfortably his thumb rested near the shockingly low bikini strings.
“One o’clock?” he said, stepping away.
She glanced at Yellow Bikini and pulled her sweater tighter around her. “Yes.”
She wondered how difficult it would be for Fin to spend two whole afternoons with her, Ms. Donna Reed, when he was used to these bathing beauties with the long legs and belly-button rings. She fingered her top button and tried to keep her eyes off Yellow Bikini’s cleavage. Even she found it stunning.
“One,” she agreed.
He nodded and studied her over the rim of his drink.
Giselle abruptly turned to find Coco, and put her hands on her shoulders to hustle her out the door. Fin was probably counting the seconds until he could get his hands repositioned across Yellow Bikini’s abs.
This wasn’t a date.
She needed to keep remembering that. She was simply filling a role.
She scurried down the pathway with Rabbit, her hand clutching Coco’s, and bit her lip while trying not to cry.
She knew she shouldn’t feel sad. There were plenty worse things than being Donna Reed.
At least, she supposed there were.
Fin sipped his drink and watched Giselle walk down the pathway with her little girl and Rabbit in tow, then congratulated himself.
Finding an unmarried thirtysomething at this late date had proven nearly impossible, and he had almost given up yesterday morning. But there, in a little floral sweater, walked away his ticket to success.
He turned and moved his smile to the nearly naked Veronica, who looked hot over there in that yellow string bikini, and wished, vaguely, he could bring her. But that would be impossible. Veronica wouldn’t be able to get his sponsorship back. And neither would several other women at this party. The contract VP kept telling him his reputation was bad enough with the Jennifer thing and the string of surfing losses since her death but, on top of that, his reckless behavior—and the constant parade of rotating bikini models—was not helping an iota.
Until now, Fin hadn’t cared. He liked his dates rotating. But now he’d lost the last of a long list of sponsors, mostly because of his losses since Jennifer. And he only had Mahina left, who was hanging by a thread. That contract was supposed to expire next weekend, on his birthday, and the renewal wasn’t looking good. If it happened at all. From what Fin could glean, it looked as if his life of pay-for-play might be over.
Downing the rest of the scotch, he looked at the space Giselle had just vacated, there on the pathway, and wondered how well he’d be able to pull this off.
He couldn’t lose surfing.
He’d already lost everything else.
Of course, he hadn’t told Giselle all the details. And he certainly hadn’t anticipated the fact she’d unnerve him once he began talking to her.
She had kind of a Grace Kelly thing going—something that smacked of sophistication and secrets, but with an innocence that made you wonder what you could show her. And the cookies were a final touch—he didn’t even know there were really women like that, who baked cookies and brought them next door on a plate. But what really stayed in his memory were her lips. Clearly, she had no idea of the power they had. Fin eventually had to keep his eyes trained on the ocean while they talked, taking only quick glimpses of her to keep the conversation going. Lia had pretty lips like that, too—it must run in the family—but Lia’s mouth didn’t make him think of sex like Giselle’s did. Something about those voluptuous lips, combined with her prim manner, was an irrational turn-on. And the fact that she didn’t seem to know it made it all the sexier.
He ran his fingers through his hair and found a spot on the living room chaise behind Veronica. He was going to have to watch himself. He needed Giselle for this event, but that was it. She was much too entrenched in the people he knew, like Rabbit and Lia, for him to be thinking of her lips. Or wondering about her ex. Or trying to determine how “ex” he was.
He vaulted across the hardwood floor to pour another drink. He poured two, actually, and walked one back to Veronica, reveling in the exotic face she turned toward him. She gave him that secretive smile she always slipped him, while she continued her story with a handful of his acquaintances, who laughed simultaneously at something she said. One or two looked at him with that sad, pitying face he sometimes got—still too often since last August.
He tried to focus on the strings that tied Veronica’s bikini together, taking another sip of his drink and motioning for her to do the same. But he was stunned at his lack of reaction. He swirled the drink in his glass, horrified to have his mind drift back to Giselle.
That Donna Reed number she wore was damned cute. He wondered what she wore to bed. He pictured something sort of prim, that she’d undo with her fingertips and . . .
He stood again and walked to the window, where he could watch the surf. Business. That was it. She was going to get him this sponsor back. And, once she did, he was going to take her home, say good night, and thank her. With words. Then he’d head out to South Africa for the Ballito competition and continue on with his life.
He was not going to think about her lips or what she might do with them, or how her legs might feel, or what she might wear in his bed. Despite how pretty she was, any fool could see she was too vulnerable for that kind of thing. And, although his most roguish sense told him that a vulnerable woman was the easiest kind of woman to get, his slightly more decent sense reminded him that Lia would kill him. And Rabbit, with all his gangly loyalty, was acting as if Giselle were his responsibility for some reason.
So no more. There were plenty of other women he could sleep with, to take that edge off. It wasn’t like California was having a shortage of women. And Giselle was the type who men fell in love with, not the kind that empty-hearted bastards like him took to bed for as long as a good Ziggy Marley CD lasted.
“What do you think, bro?” Kino materialized beside him. “Dawn Patrol?”
“Tomorrow?” Fin asked.
He normally liked to do his morning session without an entourage, but maybe agreeing to go with Kino and the boys would be good for him.
“Nah, Rabbit needs to stay here—he’s starting his groms tomorrow.”
Fin’s synapses fired from grommets to Coco to Giselle. . . .
“Is that so?” he said.
“That’s so, bro.”
Fin nodded. The idea of seeing Giselle again before the funeral—even though there was a good possibility she’d be covered head-to-toe again—felt oddly compelling.
“I might join you,” he found himself saying.
He drained his glass again and realized he might already be on a slippery slope. He needed to behave.