Fudge. Now she’d have to face David and Laney on her own. Of course, she’d had lots of practice confronting awkward occasions throughout her life. She’d survived them all, sometimes even with her dignity intact. Resiliency was the silver lining afforded by her many disappointments. Drawing a deep breath, she crossed the ground-floor hallway.
Voices descended from the kitchen. An unfamiliar velvety baritone rang out, which she presumed was Hank’s.
“So who’s Vivi?” he asked.
“David’s shadow.” Vivi actually heard the impish smile in Jackson’s intonation, even as her stomach knotted. His shadow? “Actually, she’s been Cat’s best friend since middle school. But she’s had a massive crush on David since we were all kids.”
Oh, God. David hadn’t been surprised by that horrid nickname. Had they often joked about her behind her back? She stood, frozen and breathless, on the fourth step.
Hank’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Is she hot?”
“How would we know? She’s like a sister to us,” Jackson said. “I guess she’s pretty cute, in an unconventional way. A little sprite. Blond, blue-eyed, big smile.”
David remained mute on the subject. A hot mixture of agony and self-disgust washed through Vivi while she acknowledged the time she’d wasted on a man who apparently only ever considered her a member of his family.
Of course, in the very beginning she’d understood their differences had been insurmountable. David had been eighteen, the captain of the lacrosse and debate teams, and perpetually besieged by perky, uninhibited cheerleaders. On the other hand, she’d been a thirteen-year-old stick figure with a camera hanging from her neck and fingers stained with brightly colored oil paints.
Regardless, she’d been undaunted. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, she’d been certain her love would eventually win him over. Now she had to face facts instead of cling to delusions. Refusing to hide in the stairwell like a mouse, she resumed her ascent, but then the men continued talking.
“What’s she like?” Hank asked.
Simultaneously, Jackson answered, “Quirky,” while David stated, “Exceptional.”
“Cute, quirky, and exceptional. Well, if you’re not interested, David, can I have her?” Hank teased.
His shadow. Seized by the need to wrest control of her situation, she charged up the last few steps, two at a time, and abruptly entered their conversation.
“I think that’s a question better directed to me. After all, David’s not my pimp.” She smiled cheerily, as if this were a normal discussion, and prayed her flushed cheeks wouldn’t betray her.
All three men stared. Reddening necks broadcast their embarrassment at having been caught gossiping. Jackson covered his laughter by coughing.
She stole a glimpse of David, who stood in silence, staring at her with his typical intensity mingled with something she couldn’t quite identify.
His stiff demeanor proved he still suppressed his deep well of emotion, which made her insides melt. Her heart thudded in response to his quiet, powerful energy. Look away.
In order to convince everyone she’d finally outgrown her crush on David, she began flirting with Hank.
“Hi. You must be Hank. I’m Vivienne, but my friends call me Vivi.” She shook Hank’s hand and flashed a coquettish smile. “So, to answer your earlier question, I’d say you have an uphill battle since I’ve typically preferred brunettes.” She winked at Jackson and then resumed smiling at Hank. “Of course, I dated Alex in college—a hot blond, like you—so you never know.”
On that note, all three men’s jaws dropped. Wrapping her makeshift ponytail around her hand and then setting it free, she laughed and crossed to the refrigerator to find a soda. She hid behind the open door, letting the chilled air cool the heat in her cheeks. Having gained a toehold on her pride, she shut the door and turned to face them.
“Cat’s texting Justin, so she could be a while. Is anyone heading to the beach yet, or am I on my own?” She popped the tab of the Diet Pepsi can and took a swig. Her nose wrinkled at the tickle from the released carbonation.
“I’m ready,” Jackson said. For the first time, Vivi noticed how shaggy he’d let his wavy hair become.
“Me too.” Hank wiggled his brows, causing her to laugh.
His tanned, square jaw and celadon eyes made him look like the quintessential lifeguard. An old, soft T-shirt hugged his muscular chest and emphasized his swimmer’s build. Most women would go crazy for this guy, but Vivi’s knees weren’t weakening. Nope. Despite his good looks and evident testosterone, Hank barely registered a blip on her radar. Clearly she’d procrastinated visiting a shrink for far too long.
At least the tension had eased. She tipped her chin and raised her brows at David, silently questioning whether he’d be joining them.
“Laney’s changing upstairs.” He studied her as if to gauge her reaction to the idea of meeting Laney. “We’ll be down later.”
“Super. Looking forward to meeting her.” Vivi smiled sweetly, lying through her teeth. Threading her arm through Jackson’s, she thrust her can of soda toward the back door. “Let’s go!”
Hank picked up the cooler and followed them outside.
They crossed the yard and came to the first of the 163 rickety steps leading from the top of the cliff to the beachfront below. Vivi paused to survey the sandy beach, which stretched along the base of the cliffs several hundred yards to her left. The few homes scattered across the top of the bluff shared this spectacular view.
She fixed her attention on the sun-bleached staircase, which twisted its way down the face of the bluff. The worn wooden structure resembled the framework of old-fashioned roller coasters, and equally terrified her, too. Concentrating on avoiding splinters, she firmly gripped the railing and followed Jackson and Hank down to the beach.
While helping the guys set up umbrellas and beach chairs, she managed to conjure up distinct images of David in the kitchen. His high cheekbones, thinly sculpted nose, and square jaw made him striking beyond compare—just masculine enough to avoid being labeled a “pretty boy.”
Countless daydreams had peppered so many days since they’d first met. His analytical nature and calm demeanor had been a fixed point around which she’d bobbed and whirled while battling her chaotic life and emotions throughout the years. She’d entrusted him with her secrets and fears. In every circumstance, he’d made her feel understood—known and accepted.