“You should go back to yours,” I said. “People get hurt over here.”
“You don’t scare me,” Tyler said, leaning in. “Stop being so damn stubborn. I’m good for you.”
He tipped his bottle until it clinked against mine. “Just what I look for in a girl.”
I sighed. “I feel like I need to drink something stronger.”
“Just one?” Tyler asked. He wasn’t really offering, and I could see the patience in his eyes as he waited for me to make my own decision.
I considered his question, and then perched my elbows on the table, holding my head in my hands. “You’re right. I shouldn’t.”
“All right, time for us to head out.” Tyler stood, bringing me with him.
By the time we reached the alley, Tyler had already given me a cigarette from his black pack and was fishing for a lighter.
He was staring at the sky, and I retreated beneath his arm when a loud boom echoed across the sky like thunder. A rainbow of colors rained down, and I gasped. Another rocketed up, exploding in golden sparkles.
Tyler looked at his watch, pressing a button that ignited the face so he could see the date. “I’ll be damned.”
“July 4th? How did we miss that?”
Tyler led me to the street, his arm still hooked around my shoulders. We watched the fireworks for close to an hour before the finale lit up the night sky.
Tyler hugged me to him.
“Is it lame that I’m thinking about how many fires the fireworks could potentially start?” I said, looking up at the incredible bursts of light.
Tyler turned to look at me. “Is it lame that I want to kiss you right now?”
I could still see the fireworks in my peripheral, feeling a bit sentimental. This was a particularly poignant Independence Day.
I closed my eyes, and Tyler leaned down, touching his lips to mine. What had started out as sweet and innocent quickly changed, and I gripped his T-shirt in my fists. When I pulled him against me, I could feel him harden inside his jeans, making me moan in his mouth.
He took a step back, still holding me in his arms. “That was awesome and unexpected.”
“We should definitely go home,” I said, breathless.
He held up his keys. “I was thinking the same thing.”
My body jerked me awake, my eyes wide and staring at the ceiling above while I panicked for just a moment, trying to recall where I was, and whose arms were around me. In my dreams, I had been on a yacht in Sanya with Finley, feeling the hot sun on my olive skin and looking at the world through a pair of five-hundred-dollar sunglasses.
I touched the heel of my hand to my forehead, already mourning the carefree feeling I had on the imaginary boat with my sweet sister.
My cell phone buzzed, and I reached over to retrieve it from the wooden nightstand someone had cut from a log. Finley was texting me. The previous texts were of her looking bored on a beautiful beach, slathered in suntan lotion on the bow of Andiamo, or effortlessly beautiful while she shopped on Hainan Island. The last few texts were the increasingly impatient requests for me to contact her. I read over the saltiest one that she’d sent since she’d left, and couldn’t help but smile.
Ellison, text me back. I want proof of life, or else I’m getting on the next plane to Denver so help me god.
I typed a response but let my thumb hover over the SEND button. Sending I’m alive, I’m happy, I miss you wouldn’t be enough.
Tyler’s lips touched my temple. “Send it.” He cleared the hoarseness from his voice. “She’s worried.”
“She’ll know something’s wrong. She can read me, even halfway across the world.”
“Ellie,” Tyler said, holding my body against his. “You can’t duck this forever. You’re going to have to talk to her sometime.”
I sent the message, and then turned off my phone, sitting up. My muscles ached as I stretched, complaining from the strange position we’d slept in all night, trying to fit on a twin-sized bed.
“I got an invitation in the mail the other day. My brother is getting married again.”
“No, they eloped, so they’re making it formal so the family can attend. It’s going to be in St. Thomas mid-March next year.”
I sighed. “I love St. Thomas, but that’s not enough time for me to save.”
He touched my lower back with the tips of his fingers. “I’ve got it. Wanna go? With me?”
I looked over my bare shoulder at Tyler. “Like … as your date?”
He shrugged, stretching his arm above his head. “You can call it whatever you want. I just want you there.”
I looked forward, pulling the blanket up over my chest. “I don’t need a passport for St. Thomas.” I sighed. “I hate this. I feel like this,” I said, gesturing between us, “is paying for whatever.”
He chuckled. “It’s not. I had already planned to ask you to go.”
I offered him a small, regretful smile. “We can’t do this again.”
His sleepy grin was infectious. “You keep saying that. Why don’t you just admit it?”
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” he said, but the grin was wiped from his face when I stood, taking the blanket with me to the bathroom and grabbing my bath bag and robe from the knob of the armoire on the way.
I hung the robe on a hook that was nailed into the divider between showers and let the down quilt fall to the floor, reaching behind the plastic curtain to twist the knob. The water sprayed from the head, instantly steaming. I stepped under, letting the water run over my head and down my face.
My mascara burned my eyes, and I reached for the soap, quickly scrubbing it away. Tyler had kissed me all the way to the bed and undressed me, and neither of us had left that spot the rest of the night. His tongue had tasted almost every inch of my body, making me come over and over until my legs twitched with exhaustion.
Once it was over, though, and I was lying in his arms, I could feel his relief. He practically radiated how at home he felt against me, and all I could think about was that it was getting harder to pretend what we had was just sex. Underneath his thick armor, Tyler cared about me, and I wasn’t sure I deserved that—at least, not yet.
I stepped out of the shower, fully intending to talk to Tyler about where he saw our benefriends relationship going, but a stranger was standing in the doorway, stunned but not at all trying to shield his eyes from my bare skin.
“Does this outfit have sheilas, or are the Alpines allowin’ conjugal visits?” he said.
I pulled my robe from the hook and wrapped it around me. “I’m the photographer. Who the fuck are you?”
He laughed, delighted with my answer. “I’m Liam. This wog is Jack.” Liam was at least six feet two inches, but Jack was taller, and very blond.