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Lila’s gaze traveled down my bare chest, so I took my time reaching for the shirt I’d discarded last night. Let her take her fill. I knew my chest was impressive. I worked hard to keep my body in shape. I watched her, and when she realized she’d been caught checking me out she looked away and blushed adorably. I considered staying shirtless but decided that was desperate. Tugging my shirt over my head, I walked over to the kitchen area and pulled out a stool across from where she was working. I’d offer to help but you seem to have it under control and it looks like you’re almost finished. I am. Want some coffee? I preferred tea, but I nodded. Yeah, I’ll get it though. She turned and grabbed a cup. I got it. Stay seated. I watched her fix my cup. Cream or sugar? No thanks. She handed it to me. There you go. I started to say more when banging on the door downstairs made us both pause. Lila frowned and we waited then. Soon after, it happened again. She moved the skillet off the eye of the stove. I think someone is at the door. I’ll check, I said standing up. You’re in the middle of all that. Okay thank you, she replied and went back to finishing the bacon. I was almost down the stairs when I realized who I was about to greet at the door. It was a gut thing. I should have expected him to return after last night. Lila had been so busy looking back at Cruz that she hadn’t realized I checked to see what had her attention. The guy stayed there awhile. Her not going to him was a bold move but I still thought she was weak. Him coming here this morning wasn’t good. But this wasn’t my decision to make. When I crossed the studio and got to the double doors of the entrance, there he was. Exactly who I expected. Looking like he’d drank a fifth of whiskey and hadn’t slept a wink. I wanted to leave his ass out there. Safely away from Lila. From hurting her even more. But then she could have a reason to be mad at me. I wasn’t here to protect her. At least not from this. Cruz, I said as I opened the door. He pushed by me and headed for the back door that led to the apartment. I’d been right about the whiskey—he reeked of it. This wasn’t what she needed. He didn’t seem to give a shit though. Are you trying to crush her? I asked still standing at the door wishing he’d walk back out of it. He stopped and waited a beat before glaring back at me. You don’t know shit. She doesn’t love you. You’re the fucking bandage. The hate in his tone was a bit alarming. I shrugged. I wasn’t affected by his hate and I wasn’t scared of him. He was built. Tall. But he was hung over, and I had the upper hand. I know she’s hurting. She’s trying to heal. But you won’t let her. You keep ripping her open again and again. He stared at me. Like he would like to murder me with his bare hands. I didn’t move. I didn’t want to fight the guy. Lila wouldn’t be happy about it. I’m not good enough for her. Why can’t she see that? He sounded pained. Less anger more regret. I think she can. But can you? His hate flared back to life. I love her. I would die for her. Take a fucking bullet for her. Can you say that? You barely know her. I’ve known her all my life. Loved her most of it. I just didn’t want to. As he said the words, I could see the shock in his eyes. He surprised himself. I doubted he’d ever admitted that out loud. You have a funny way of showing love, I told him. He ran his hands through his hair and the wild look in his eyes was a man that was wrecked. She’s destroyed me. I am fucking ruined. I need her. I’m so damn addicted to her I can’t function. I can’t stand her being with you. That you or someone like you will be the right one. Good enough. That she’ll belong to another man. I can’t fucking stand it! he ended that with a roar and pulled at his hair like a man possessed. You’ve had too much to drink. Go home. Sleep it off. Think this through and if you still want to come back. He shook his head. I can’t leave. Not with you up there with her. This was worse than I thought. She was in love with a psycho. Why was no one in her life concerned about this? The guy needed some mental help. If you love her then be the man she deserves. This, I said waving my hand at him. Is not that man. You’re a fucking mess. He glared at me and started toward me. His fists were clenched at his sides, so I prepare to defend myself. I hated to hit a drunk man, but I wasn’t going to let him kick my ass either. Cruz! Lila’s voice stopped him. I looked over his shoulder to see her standing there. So innocent and sweet. This madman she was in love with didn’t match up well at all. He paused then turned to her. Lila. The tears in her eyes weren’t falling yet, but they were there. Unshed. What are you doing? she asked sounding like a teacher put out with an unruly student. I love you, he said. Her tears broke free then. I heard. They stood there staring at each other. I walked around them and back upstairs to get my things. I didn’t belong here. Not now. Cruz Kerrington FIGHTING THIS WAS impossible. I’d tried. I had tried so damn hard. But I couldn’t. Was I good enough for Lila Kate? No. Did she know all my dark secrets? No. Would she love me if she knew? Probably not. She’d hate me. I didn’t want her to hate me. She turned and grabbed Eli’s arm as he came back downstairs with his bag. His staying the night here had been the last straw. I’d cracked. My chest exploding would have hurt less than seeing her with him last night. Eating fucking ice cream, walking around town like a couple. I couldn’t stomach it. I knew after that I had to do something. Just let me talk to him. You don’t have to go, she said to Eli. Yeah, he does, I argued. She frowned at me. No, he doesn’t. Yes, I do, he said saving me from having to argue with her. Because his ass needed to go back to fucking Alabama and stay there. This, he said pointing between Lila Kate and me. This needs resolving. I’m in the way, and honestly, I don’t want to watch any more of the train wreck. I took a step toward him my hands balling into fists. Lila Kate was in front of me before I could take two steps. Both her hands on my chest. Cruz. Don’t. Just go upstairs. Please. Her big beautiful eyes were telling me to go upstairs . . . to her apartment. That meant I wasn’t the one leaving. So I backed away and nodded. Thank you, she whispered as if he couldn’t hear her. Don’t touch her, I warned him making sure he understood I’d find his ass. I’d track him down and make sure neither of his hands worked again. Cruz, please, Lila Kate begged. I turned and walked to the back door only glancing back once. I’m sorry about all this, she told him. I never expected him to come here. But you’re glad he did, Eli replied. Yes, she said without hesitation.

The scent of vinegar and accumulated dust made her sneeze and her eyes water, but she gritted her teeth and pressed on, sweeping and scrubbing the dirt, cobwebs, and mouse droppings from the white golf cart. It was a two-seater cart with a bench in back. Once she washed and rinsed it with the hose and dried it with old towels Lucille had provided, she was surprised to discover that the little cart and vinyl seats were in pretty good shape. Like the Cadillac, it was probably only taken out once in a blue moon. Carson took heart. A new battery, maybe a few other incidentals, and this golf cart might really work.A few days later, she was rumbling in her cart along the narrow roads shaded by scores of palm trees and the graceful low boughs of ancient live oaks. She felt the breeze against her cheek, heard the crunch of gravel beneath the wheels, and likened the feeling to being on a boat in the water, closer to the world around her and not trapped behind steel doors and glass.

Darn Mamaw for always being right, she muttered to herself, having to admit she loved it. Carson liked to name her vehicles, so she christened the cart Bouncing Matilda. While Matilda wasn’t the Blue Bomber by any stretch of the imagination, it had a certain charm all its own and did the job of getting her from point A to point B on the small streets of Sullivan’s Island—at least in the daylight. As she drove along the road at a slow speed, she chuckled, remembering those two old hens sitting on the porch playing gin rummy and how they’d completely bamboozled her.That night Carson found Nate lying on his bed already in his favorite pajamas with the spaceships-and-stars pattern. He was reading a book. He looked at her as she approached, his body stiffening in wariness. She felt immensely sad to see it. She wanted him to like her and to feel at home here. He was such a skittish little guy with his dark eyes staring up. Suddenly she thought of Delphine and, in that moment, knew exactly how to behave around Nate. They really were alike in many ways, she thought.She walked slowly to the bed, not getting too close, not making any sudden moves. Here, Carson said, holding out two books. I bought these for you. I thought you’d like them.

What are they? he asked in a small voice.Nate pulled himself up into a seated position and cautiously took the books. As he saw that they were both about dolphins, his face lit up.

They’re not baby books, she told him, getting closer but mindful of keeping her distance. This one describes some of the research on the intelligence of dolphins. I really enjoyed it. Like, did you know dolphins look at themselves in the mirror? I mean, they know it’s themselves they’re looking at. That’s called being self-aware.

I read about that already, Nate said, matter-of-factly. Mamaw gave me a book about dolphins.Meg turned toward Nero, her eyes wide. It’s true. The trees told me you mean to burn them.

The Germani groaned, half-conscious on the ground. Nero recovered more quickly. He raised a finger, admonishing, guiding. Listen to me, Meg. I’d hoped the grove could be useful, but obviously it is fractured and confused. You can’t believe what it says. It’s the mouthpiece of a senile Titan queen. The grove must be razed. It’s the only way, Meg. You understand that, don’t you?He kicked Gary over onto his back and rifled through the bodyguard’s pouches. Then Nero stood, triumphantly holding a box of matches.

After the fire, we’ll rebuild, he said. It will be glorious!Meg stared at him as if noticing his horrendous neck beard for the first time. Wh-what are you talking about?


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