Her eyes widen and she quickly looks back and forth between the people on the shore and me. Emotions are flying across her face but no words are coming out her mouth.
I grab her chin gently and look into her golden brown eyes. “Focus on me, babe. Forget them.” I reach out and squeeze her upper arm three times and with each squeeze, I say the words, “I. Love. You.”
That must have been all she needed because before I can steady myself, she launches her body across the board into my chest. Together, we crash into the water while holding on to one another tightly. Fortunately, we haven’t drifted too far out because I can still stand in this depth.
She squeezes me with all of her strength, wrapping her arms around my neck and burying her head into the nook of my shoulder. I tuck her legs around my waist and laugh at her reaction.
“Okay, now I’m really confused,” I say into her ear. Audrey pulls back from her death grip and looks me in the eyes. Her smile steals the breath from my chest and I want to freeze this moment. No going forward, no going back. I want to stay right in this moment forever with her.
Her teeth begin to chatter from the cold so with her clinging to my body, I slowly walk us back to the shore. Thankfully, the board is still attached to my wrist or I’d have to go hunt it down. I step out of the water while holding her up. I don’t have to work too hard because she’s clinging to me as if I’m planning on going somewhere without her. I drag the board further up the beach so it can’t get washed away with the incoming tide and release the leash from my wrist.
With my hands holding her ass, I sit down in the sand with her on my lap. The second I hit the ground, her lips slam against mine in a hungry kiss. I grab hold of her head and intensely return the ravishing. She lets a moan slip from deep inside and I eagerly search her mouth with my tongue.
We sink farther and farther until I’m lying on my back in the sand and she’s perched on top of me. She pushes up, her hands on my chest, and I love seeing her breathing erratically with so much lust in her eyes. The full moon glowing behind her creates a halo effect, perfectly showcasing my angel.
“God, you’re beautiful,” I whisper. “I love you so much.” My hands are still wrapped up in her hair and slowly I move them up to her scalp, so I can pull her back down to me.
She tugs back from my movement and whispers uncertainly, “You’re the second person to ever tell me that.”
Quickly, I flip her over on to her back and glare into her eyes. “Who the hell was the first? You’re definitely the first girl I’ve ever said that to.”
My stomach clenches. I don’t know why it bothers me that she’s already been in love before but it does. We’ve talked about our past relationships, pretty much every single one of them, and I sure as hell don’t remember her saying she loved any of those bastards. I hover over her, waiting for her answer.
She eyes me with nervousness and a little confusion. “Lane was the first.”
We both stare at each other, trying to figure out what the other is thinking. Then it clicks, and I dread the question I need to ask. “Wait, are you talking about all kinds of love? You mean, even when you were a kid, no one told you they loved you?”
“Who would have done it?” she asks with an almost childlike-innocence.
I’m struck speechless, because even after all of our late-night talks about our childhoods, I never put it together that no one loved this girl. The selfish part of me wonders if she’d had a different childhood, would she be here in my arms right now? But a bigger part of me would rather her have grown up feeling the love she deserved.
“You deserved it, baby. Just know that. You deserved someone to love you every single day,” I say, while cupping her face. She stares deep into my eyes and I can see her searching for the words to say.
I try to let her off the hook and say the first thing that comes to mind. “You know, I watched Jax tell Em he loved her for months, never hearing a reply. I used to wonder how hard that was on him. How painful that must be. But now I understand that when you love someone, as much as you would kill to hear it back, you also just want them to know. I’ll give you all the time you need, babe. I just need you to know how I feel about you,” I say. And it’s true. I don’t feel pain or anger about not hearing it back. Just relief to finally have that out in the open.
Quickly, she pulls the back of my head toward her and says, “I don’t need time, Jace. I’ve been crazy about you since the day you picked me up off the sidewalk. I think I’ve loved you since you gave me my penny.” I watch as she clutches the copper coin dangling from her neck. “I love you too...so much.”
The words are a choked bubble in my throat so I mouth them to her while squeezing her. I love you.
She looks down at my hand that keeps gripping her arm. “You’ve done this three-squeeze-thing before. I remember you did it that night we hooked up in Texas. You also did it that night out on the beach when I told you and Jaxon what happened to me. What does it mean?”
“First of all, stop calling what we did a ‘hook-up,’ it sounds too fleeting. Second of all, I honestly don’t know where it came from. I just had all of these emotions toward you that I didn’t know how to convey out loud. I guess it means I.” Squeeze. “Love.” Squeeze. “You.” Squeeze.
“I’m not sure what I did to deserve you,” she whispers.
“That’s funny because I’ve been wondering the same thing about myself.”
She still has my face in between her soft hands but I push forward to capture her lips. My hands slowly graze down her body, and when I feel more skin than clothing, I remember where we are. Out in public. Audrey is still wearing her skimpy bikini and I’m sure as hell tired of the admiring eyes.
Still holding her, I quickly stand up before setting her down on her bare feet. She whimpers when our lips part and I smirk at her eagerness.
“Soon, babe,” I whisper on her lips. “But for now, you need clothes and I need to have that talk with my brother.”
“My suit is still wet, I can’t put my clothes on now,” she replies.
We help each other dust the sand off of one another’s backs. When I’m extra thorough wiping off her perfect ass, she giggles and shoves me away.
“If you’re not putting any clothes on, then neither will I,” I declare. Her eyes quickly scan my wet body, licking a trail of heat from my head to my toes. “I mean...you’re practically na**d. It’s only fair...”
Slowly, I start to undo the top button of my shorts and her eyes widen. When I pull my zipper slowly down, her hand moves but she doesn’t stop me or say anything. I hook my thumbs underneath my waistband and begin to drag my shorts deliberately down my hips. I wait for the moment she realizes I’m going commando and that moment does not disappoint.
“JACE!” she gasps with bulging eyes, reaching for my waistband. Quickly, she pulls them back to my hips, and then hurriedly re-hooks the button and yanks the zipper back into place. “You win! You win! I’ll go grab my clothes.”
I throw my head back laughing and smack her ass to get her moving. “Hurry. I’ll meet you back at the fire pits.”
She starts slowly running away and turns back to holler, “Love you!”
I smile like a damn Cheshire cat and call back, “Love you more.”
As I jog back to where I dropped my clothes earlier, I feel as if my feet are literally floating a few seconds longer in the air. My body feels lighter than it ever has before. I remember the first time Lane told me he loved me. To have that kind of connection with another person is a necessity in every human’s life. I had no idea what I was missing until I was loved.
But to be loved by your significant other...to be loved on a soul-deep level is an amazing thing. To have someone cherish your mind and your body is beyond anything I ever imagined. Some people never find it and some walk right past it. We almost missed this opportunity and what a shame that would have been. Hearing those words pass through his lips will forever be ingrained in my memory.
When I reach my clothes, I quickly pull my shorts up, put my shirt on, and tie the halter back around my neck. I catch sight of my phone in the sand, realizing it must have fallen out of my pocket. I dust it off and check the time. My heart beats wildly when I notice twenty-three missed calls. Why would anyone need to call me that many times?
Quickly, I unlock it and see that they are all from Cole, and all were made within the last twenty minutes. I slide my finger across his name and hold the phone up to my ear as I begin walking back toward the party.
“Please f**king tell me you’re with everyone!” Cole shouts into the phone.
“I’m with everyone,” I quickly say back. “Cole? What’s going on?”
Jace is standing around talking to Lane, Quinn, and Em as I walk toward them, but I must have a frightened look on my face because he begins to quickly stride in my direction.
“It’s Jaxon. Fuck!” Cole yells in a panicked tone through the phone. He continues yelling and mumbling, but I can’t keep up with a word he’s saying.
“What’s going on? You need to slow down Cole.”
“Why doesn’t anyone have their damn phones?” His voice hasn’t calmed down and I’m slowly starting to panic at his tone.
“What. Is. Going. On?” I say loudly and as clearly as I possibly can.
“Jaxon got hurt at practice,” he says, but it’s difficult to hear because there’s a lot of commotion and electronic beeping in the background of wherever he is. “I’m in the f**king ambulance with him, Audrey!” His speech begins to slow down and I hear a hitch in his breathing, almost as if he is crying or on the verge of it. “He’s not waking up. They can’t get him to wake up!”
My hand flies to my mouth to cover the gasp. “Oh God! Where are you, Cole?” I shout.
The second I yell his name, I have everyone’s full attention. I repeat Cole’s words out loud, “UCLA Medical Center.”
“The hospital?” Quinn asks in a confused tone. “What’s wrong with Cole?” she panics.
Cole continues yelling in my ear, I have four sets of eyes on me that want more information, and I still don’t know what is going on.
“Give me the phone, Audrey,” Jace bites out harshly.
Em’s whole body locks up and the red plastic cup she’s holding slips from her hand, crashing to the ground and causing a wild splash at our feet. Jace lets out a string of curses and takes off at a dead sprint toward the parking lot. Sand flies out from under his feet in his hasty retreat.
Once it clicks, the rest of us look at each other and start to run for our cars as well. At the same time we reach the parking lot, Jace’s black Camaro is roaring out onto the main road.
“Girls. In my car. Now. None of you are driving,” Lane calls toward us.
Thank God for him because I don’t think we even remember where we had parked, let alone how to start the car. We swiftly scramble into his black SUV and Lane peels out in the same direction Jace is headed.
“Audrey, what did Cole say?” Em’s small voice asks from the backseat.
“He didn’t tell me much. I think we should wait until we get there to find out everything from a doctor,” I respond, trying to detour her.
“I just need to know what he said.”
I let out a sigh. “The only thing he told me was that Jaxon got hurt at practice and that...they couldn’t get him to wake up...”
I turn back in time to see her flinch and grab onto Quinn’s hand tightly. Lane softly curses and continues trying to drive as fast as he can without getting us pulled over. It takes thirty excruciatingly long minutes to get to the hospital. I can’t even begin to imagine everything that is running through Em’s head in that amount of time.
Lane pulls up to the drop-off to let us out, and I spot Jace’s Camaro parked haphazardly in a fire lane near the emergency room entrance. Quinn, Em, and I hop out and they rush inside. Lane steps out and finds an employee staring begrudgingly at the Camaro. When he sees Lane begin to leave his car, he starts shaking his head and telling him he needs to move it immediately.
“Chill, I’m going inside. I’m gonna get my buddy’s keys and I’ll move both cars. Calm down,” he says, in a tone that doesn’t allow any argument.
I’m the last of my friends to enter the emergency room and the scene is overwhelming to take in. I immediately spot my boyfriend’s large frame towering over the receptionist. I can only imagine what she’s thinking as he growls out commands at her. She probably doesn’t know whether to cry or slip him her number for later.
Lane walks up and grabs Jace’s keys from his pocket without even a sideways glance from him. Jace isn’t paying attention to anything besides getting to where his brother is.
“Jaxon Riley,” I repeat for what feels like the hundredth time to the brainless girl at the front counter. “He’s my brother. We look exactly alike. Can’t miss him. He was brought in by...ambulance,” I swallow the last word painfully.
“Well try again, ma’am! Jaxon Riley. J-A-X-O-N...” I begin to spell harshly.
“Oh! Jaxon with an X. Well, that’s different,” she says nonchalantly and continues typing another million f**king words into her computer.
“Look, I hate to be a tyrant but I need back there. Like yesterday. Just open those doors and I can find him on my own.”