Laney and Jackson viewed him through narrowed eyes. Ignoring their stares, he inhaled slowly and snagged a bottle of water from the cooler.
“What would you like to drink, Laney?” David asked, noting the visible waves of heat rising from the sand.
“Diet soda, please.”
He handed her an icy can and sat beside her. Beads of perspiration gathered at his hairline within minutes. He guzzled half of the contents of his water bottle without stopping.
David sat back in his chair and tried not to notice Vivi gleefully stooping to discover ocean treasures. He also tried not to wonder how much more interesting it would be right now at that end of the beach with her. Hank would soon learn Vivi was never dull.
Unwittingly, a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Seeing her evoked so many memories.
When he’d left for college, she’d stowed a secret love note in his computer case. To this day, her brazen declaration of affection remained the sweetest gift he’d ever received from any girl. He’d kept it tucked away in his wallet for years as a sort of talisman.
Throughout his college and law school years, she’d routinely mailed him care packages. His roommates had devoured the snacks. He’d enjoyed her colorful letters most—rife with indignant opinions of high school gossip and gamesmanship, which she’d navigated poorly. Sometimes she’d included a sketch she’d drawn, or a photo she’d taken, to remind him of home and what, or who, eagerly awaited his return. He’d cherished her reminders more than he’d ever admitted to anyone.
Of course, now their attenuated relationship was yet another victim of his damned promise. But Vivi’s presence offered an unexpected opportunity to reconnect. An opportunity he’d gladly embrace. For once, Justin’s bullshit might yield a positive outcome.
Cat arrived on the beach and tossed her mammoth silver tote bag next to David’s chair, kicking sand up against his leg.
“Nice.” He peeked at her from over the top of his sunglasses and grinned. “Thanks.”
“So what’s with the beard, by the way?” She rested her hands on her hips. “I barely recognize you.”
“It’s hardly a beard.” David rubbed his hand along the day-old stubble on his jaw before introducing his sister to Laney.
“Hi, Laney. I’m the pain-in-the-ass sibling, or so I’m told.” Cat winked at David. He watched his sister size up Laney’s attire, physical attributes, and disposition. “How long have you two been dating now? Five months?”
“About seven, actually,” Laney replied.
“Oh. Well, it’s nice to finally meet you. What’s your accent? Midwestern?”
His sister’s direct approach made him smile until Laney shot him a miffed glance. Was she angry he hadn’t told his family much about her?
“Yes,” Laney replied. “I’m from Chicago.”
“Nice city,” Cat said. “Now you’ve moved to New York, right? Are you on the Upper East Side?”
Cat’s transparent fishing expedition drove a prickle of annoyance down David’s spine.
“I’m undecided,” Laney replied. “Acclimating to the new office, partners, and clients has been exhausting, so I haven’t spent much time looking.”
“Huh. That must be why I haven’t seen much of David, either.” Cat turned toward David and shoved his shin with her toes.
Before he could respond, Laney intervened. “Yes. It’s quite a coup to make partner at a top firm by his age. The expectations are pretty daunting. Maybe you should cut him a little slack until he settles in at the office.” She smiled pointedly at Cat.
David watched his sister’s mental retreat from Laney’s admonishment. Shielding her eyes with her hand, Cat turned to scan the beach and spotted Vivi and Hank. Her bothered expression echoed his discomfort with their apparent attraction.
“Is Hank hitting on Vivi?” She leaned over and lightly batted the top of Jackson’s head. “You’d better have him back off. We don’t need any sexual complications this week.”
“Settle down. Hank’s not her type,” David chimed in without thinking.
He shuddered at an image of Vivi and Hank engaging in any kind of intimate behavior, a first for him. Suddenly the weight of his sister’s amused glare landed on his shoulders.
“Why isn’t he her type?” Cat scoffed with smug satisfaction. “Just because he’s not you?”
Jackson laughed, David groaned, and Laney became exponentially more interested in Vivi.
“What’s that mean, David?” Laney drew her glasses down her nose and locked eyes with him. “Did you date her?”
“No,” he said. “I never dated Vivi.” He cast Cat a warning glance.
Jackson settled back in his chair with a smirk. Cat paused, appearing pleased to lord power over her oldest brother. The creases in David’s forehead deepened as she opened her mouth.
“Vivi’s not David’s type. But since he believes he’s God’s gift, he thinks no woman could ever be interested in anyone other than him.”
Laney’s suspicious expression remained firm despite Cat’s lopsided grin.
“Yes, I’m God’s gift, Laney. Lucky me, or I’d never have had a shot with you.” David smiled tightly in spite of Cat’s teasing, or the fact that Hank and Vivi continued their journey farther down the beach.
“Yes, lucky you. And don’t you forget it.” Laney tipped her chin up and resumed her reading.
Cat plunked herself down under the umbrella beside David. After slathering SPF 90 sunscreen on her body, she hugged her knees to her chest and stared across the ocean. The distant aspect of his sister’s gaze tugged at his heart.
Leaning forward, he whispered, “I know I haven’t been the best brother lately, but if you need to talk, or vent, about whatever happened with Justin, I’ll walk with you.”
She studied him and then let her gaze drift back to the horizon.
“Not now, thanks.” Her posture stiffened. “Maybe later.”
Even if her rebuff was a defense mechanism resulting from his apparent indifference during the past year, it still smarted.
He tugged on her ear. “Whenever you need me.”
He watched her, resolving to regain her trust, knowing it would take months of effort, not days. He could live with her and Jackson’s displeasure more easily if it weren’t for the fact that his father’s relationship with them was as close as ever. Utterly unjust.