Lia’s bathroom mirror felt cool against Giselle’s forehead. The grommet surfing camp didn’t start until nine, but Rabbit said he was going to surf first with some of the instructors, and Giselle wanted to take pictures of them in the early-morning dawn.
She coiled her hair into another chignon and tugged on another sweater. By the time Rabbit knocked, Coco was up, pulling at the straps of her Pretty Princess bathing suit. She tossed her ruffled towel on the couch and opened the door.
Rabbit leaned in the doorway sleepily, in a hooded sweatshirt and flip-flops, his curls matted to his head. Morning mist settled behind him.
“You’ll need a sweatshirt, little grommet,” he told Coco solemnly. “I need coffee,” he whispered to Giselle.
“I can make you some.” She whirled toward the kitchen.
“No, we’ll get some on the corner. C’mon.”
Giselle tore herself away from her instinct to take care of the gravel in his voice, to make sure another person in her orbit was satisfied and taken care of. Instead, she snatched her camera bag and yelled for Coco. It was uncomfortable but strangely freeing, to not care. Her arms felt light.
The morning fog drifted between the palm-tree trunks as they made their way down the narrow, tiled sidewalks, bright green ice plant pushing out of the sand around the sidewalk’s edge. Rabbit shuffled tiredly, Coco bounced behind him on the sidewalk, and Giselle fielded questions from Coco about how early seagulls awoke, and whether or not it was possible to “open” and “close” a beach. Rabbit gave a weak smirk once or twice.
A doughnut shop materialized out of the mist, with seven young guys waiting in molded plastic chairs, Styrofoam coffee cups cradled in their palms. Seven surfboards were stacked against the wall behind them. Giselle smoothed her Ann Taylor slacks and slowed.
The light was stunning. All she saw were the bright blues, reds, and oranges of the boys’ caps and clothes, the amber cast of the early-morning sun, the yellows in the surfboards—gorgeous contrast.
As she focused her camera, she wondered whether the boy in the bright blue knit cap belonged to that sunset-orange board right over his shoulder, but decided it didn’t matter. He twisted his neck to laugh at one of the kids next to him and blew the steam off the top of his cup.
She zoomed tightly—the line of the board, the line of his jaw, the circle of white Styrofoam, the sun rising against his face. Click. Perfect.
“Jensen, Corky, you remember Lia’s sister Giselle?” Rabbit motioned toward her.
Giselle wondered whether they had been in the apartment yesterday, because she didn’t remember any of them, although their heads bobbed.
“She’s going to take some pictures for the brochure.” He grabbed one of Corky’s doughnut remains and popped it in his mouth. “Be sure to look pretty for her.”
They all inspected Giselle with renewed interest.
“Mmm.” Rabbit bent toward Coco. “Do you want a doughnut?”
“Can I, Mommy?”
Giselle sent Coco into the shop with a hesitant nod. She hated the idea of her daughter eating a doughnut without any fruit or nutrition yet today, but . . . well, they were relaxing, and starting new traditions, and starting a new life. . . .
She wiped the morning dew off a plastic chair and reintroduced herself to the boys, shaking their hands primly. She found out who belonged to which board.
The other boys were much more animated than Rabbit had been, fueled already by a first cup of caffeine. Jensen tugged his sweatshirt over his hands and told her about the photographers who combed the beach area for the local surf magazines. Giselle adjusted her posture and tried to look nonplussed. These guys were almost pro already—used to cameras clicking on them, photographers following them out into the water, being interviewed for surfing magazines and sports television shows. And Giselle, with her little scrapbooking camera, was out of her element, once again.
“Let’s hit it,” said Rabbit as he emerged from the doughnut shop, bag in hand. The rest of the guys gathered their boards and followed.
The sidewalk broke off into tan, grainy sand, and they all took their shoes off to wade through the cold granules. There was only one towel on the beach—about a hundred feet away—and no people. Once near the water, the boys plopped their boards upright and shielded their eyes against the sun that was just starting to break through the fog.
“Bro, did you see that left?” said Jensen, pointing.
“Killer,” said Corky.
Without taking their eyes off the waves, they wriggled into wet suits. Rabbit smiled to Giselle. Coffee did him well. He was back to his regular self, and she raised her camera to capture him. Warm eyes. Orange sun. Click. Perfect.
“You comin’ in?” he said over the top of her lens.
She laughed. Never in a million years. “I think I’ll shoot from here.”
He stepped into his wet suit—a sleek, black short-sleeved number that ended just above his knees. He tugged the zipper up his back with a long neoprene loop.
Giselle tossed her sandals into the sand, trying to find a warm spot to sit. Straightening, she gazed at the dozens of seal-like surfers out in the water atop their boards, necks turned toward the horizon. She couldn’t believe so many normal human beings would be up at six in the morning in the freezing Pacific on a Monday.
“Why are so many people out there?” she asked.
“Dawn Patrol,” Rabbit said. “You’ve got CEOs to accountants out there. They come to get their session in before they get behind their desks and spreadsheets for the day. Gets their head in the right place. This place used to be the best-kept secret in Southern California, because a cove doesn’t sound like a great place to surf, but actually there are two reefs out there that make for some killer waves.”
For the rest of the morning, as the sun slowly revealed itself, Giselle pointed her camera, keeping Rabbit and the others in the viewfinder. A few times, Giselle put the camera down in awe, to watch as they took their waves with grace and speed. Rabbit and Corky and Jensen and Kino were like different people out there—no longer lanky-limbed boys, but acts of strength, with beauty and speed, bending and moving and lowering themselves in a rhythm only they understood.
“Mommy, why do penguins eat fish for breakfast?” Coco yelled from down the dune, where she was doing cartwheels in the sand and inspecting the prints her hands and feet made.
“Is this a joke or a serious question?”
Giselle tried to remember whether she’d heard this one as she adjusted a towel around her shoulders.
“Um . . .” She steadied her camera for the next shot, searching for Rabbit. Why do penguins eat fish for breakfast, she mused, trying to think of the answer but mostly trying to get Rabbit’s mop-top in her viewfinder.
“Because doughnuts get soggy,” said a man’s voice behind her.
Giselle whirled to see Fin blocking the morning sun, boasting the same-style short-sleeved wet suit that Rabbit had worn, although Fin’s arms and legs filled it out more considerably. A bright blue surfboard was beneath his arm, and the morning light caught him beautifully on the side of his face. He smiled at Coco. “That sounds like one of Rabbit’s jokes.”
“That’s right,” said Coco. “You’re the winner. You win a prize.” She galloped around him in a circle.
“Um . . .” she said. “A shell. Just a minute.” She shuffled her feet through the sand to search.
Fin turned toward Giselle and raised his eyebrows.
His hair was wet, standing on end, as if he’d just pushed it up with his hands. The damp edges at his neckline curled around the high neck of the wet suit. She had the strangest urge to reach out and touch it.
Instead, she forced her attention to her camera, hoping the air would cool the heat in her cheeks. She raised the lens. Zoom. Frame . . .
“Whoa,” he said, putting his hand up. “Hold on. What’s that for?”
She lowered the camera. Because you look like a god, she thought. “The light is great on you,” she said instead.
“I don’t like having my picture taken.”
Giselle tried to wrap her mind around that. How could you look as good as this guy, with those made-for-a-camera teeth, and not like to have your picture taken? Plus, as a pro surfer, he must certainly be used to being in the limelight.
“Rabbit and the boys out there?” he said, peering out at the surf.- Whose POV will the story be in?
“Yes,” she said, still mulling over the last point.
He nodded toward her camera. “Is this for Rabbit’s brochure?”
“Yes, but why don’t you like having your picture—”
“Are you a professional photographer?”
She couldn’t tell whether he was annoyed by that or impressed. “It’s just a hobby. Lia mentioned Rabbit might need help.”
“Well, if Lia recommended you, I’m sure you’re good.”
Giselle bit her lip. Lia recommended me because I’m her sister and she feels sorry for me. She turned, instead, toward the water. “So were you out there? I didn’t see you.”
“I usually do a morning session down there, by my house. The swells are good here, though.” He gazed at the water longingly.
“Have at it,” she said, motioning toward the waves.
She was curious to watch him. After watching Rabbit and the boys this morning, she was eager to see, now, what Fin could do out there—how he could defy nature with the strength in his legs, push up off the board with the power in his arms. She wondered what he would look like, taming what seemed untamable.
“Too many people.” A strange flicker went across his face. “So about our agreement—we didn’t get a chance to talk much after the party. You’re still okay with it?”
“Yes.” She glanced up to see whether perhaps he was changing his mind.
Coco came bounding up from the side, her palm outstretched. “It’s broken, but it’s the prettiest I could find.”
Fin bent forward and gingerly picked up the small piece of shell she had in her hand. “An abalone.”
Giselle couldn’t help but smile. It was nice to see the life come back into his face.
“Abalone. It’s a mollusk. This type of shell is used for lots of jewelry—see how shiny it is?” He pointed to the swirls of blue and lavender inside the broken piece and Coco nodded. “Nice choice.”
Coco beamed. “It’s your prize.”
“Are you sure you don’t want it?”
“No, it’s your prize. But you have to take good care of it.”
“I will. Thank you.” His fist swallowed the shell. “I’d better go,” he said to Giselle. “So one o’clock? I’ll pick you up at Lia’s?”
“Thanks, little grommet.” He lifted his fist with the shell inside.
Fin began trudging back up the coastline, his body rippling under the sleek black suit, his backside curving into thick, muscular thighs.
Giselle caught herself gawking, and immediately pretended she was getting something out of her camera case. As soon as Coco resumed her cartwheels, though, Giselle allowed herself a nice, long stare.
* * *
Fin pulled his bare feet through the dry sand and began his mile-long trudge back to his place.
He’d trekked all the way down here to see if he could get a glimpse of her—cursing himself the whole way, because it was a goofy, juvenile reaction to a woman he shouldn’t even be paying attention to.
He’d thought maybe his reaction last night was due to too much scotch—he really needed to stop drinking like that—but today, like last night, the sight of her was enough to rattle him.
He’d come down to tell her the details of the wine and art event—what he was going to need her to do, in case she wanted to back out. He needed to be honest. But watching her eyes this morning—that curious stare that dove through him—was enough to clam him up again.
He wondered whether it was because he was attracted to her, but dismissed that. He never worried about what women thought of him—even gorgeous ones who looked like Grace Kelly.
No, this discomfort seemed to come from some kind of assessment she was making. And, for some reason, he wanted it to go his way.
Whom he didn’t even know.
And couldn’t sleep with.
What the hell?
He trudged the last half mile trying to clear his mind, then propped his surfboard along the wall of his patio. He swore at himself again for not coming clean—now he’d have to hope for the best, even if his scheme repelled her.
He’d just tell her today at one.
A funeral seemed like an appropriate place anyway.