He stretched his neck once more to rid himself of mounting tension. Unable to recall the last time he’d relaxed, he’d desperately hoped returning to his favorite place would help him unwind this week. But now Cat seemed preoccupied with her Justin, Laney’s antennae were training on Vivi, and Hank was sniffing around Vivi like a dog in heat. Only Jackson appeared to be enjoying the sun and surf.
David wished he could be like his brother, who accepted things more easily. Unfortunately, he viewed the world in black-and-white terms, having never quite learned how to deal with the gray. That trait was probably one reason he couldn’t forgive his father.
He inhaled deeply and then consumed the rest of his water. Closing his eyes, he daydreamed about prior weeks spent on this beach.
Like his mother, he’d always treasured this island and the long summer days spent here with family and friends. Well, most of his family, anyway. His father had never stayed for more than two or three nights before rushing back to Connecticut. Now David doubted work was the reason he’d left them so often.
His father’s duplicity proved a loveless but pleasant relationship was the smartest choice. Shared goals and interests mixed with attraction left no risk of a broken heart on either side of the equation. David’s idea of the so-called match made in heaven.
He absentmindedly crushed the empty plastic bottle in his hand; the crackling sound wrenched him from his thoughts. Feeling exposed, he glanced around. No one else seemed to notice. Huh. He’d become invisible.
A little while later, Vivi and Hank returned to the group. Clutching a cup containing small sea creatures, Vivi kneeled beside Cat.
“Look what we found.” She inched closer to Cat, eyes gleaming in anticipation of the torment she seemed to be planning, and brandished a small crab in her right hand and a starfish in her left. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Ew, Viv.” Cat shielded herself with a magazine. “Put those back in the water!”
David had often wondered how two near-polar opposites maintained their friendship for so long. Then again, he and Vivi also shared a bond despite her personality being the antithesis of his—because of it, in fact. Yin and yang.
The thought reminded him of the jade bangle bracelet he’d brought back from Hong Kong for her, which was engraved with carvings of a dragon and a phoenix—symbolizing the union of yin and yang. He’d placed it in his desk drawer weeks ago, waiting for the right time to surprise her.
When Vivi spotted Laney, her childish behavior subsided. After returning the crab and starfish to the cup, she wiped her sandy hands against her slim thighs and stood to introduce herself to Laney.
“Hi, you must be David’s girlfriend. Laney, right? I’m Vivienne, a friend of the family.” She extended her hand. “But everyone calls me Vivi.”
Her dirty fingers starkly contrasted with Laney’s manicured ones. David noted tremendous differences between his girlfriend’s cultured refinement and Vivi’s unpretentious manner. He watched Laney assess Vivi’s inexpensive swimwear, old baseball cap, and unkempt ponytail, and then dismiss whatever competition she might have feared earlier.
Like most people, she’d underestimated Vivi’s charm. He’d often wondered how so many could miss it.
Remarkably, Vivi appeared unaffected by Laney’s presence. Her evident lack of interest or envy rattled David. He’d grown accustomed to her doting manner. More than accustomed, actually—he’d liked it and now lamented its absence.
When she walked to the edge of the water to wash her hands, he followed her into the surf, eager to reestablish their rapport.
“I’m glad you’re here, Vivi,” he said, yanking on her ponytail. “Now we can make up for lost time.”
“That’s an odd saying, right?” She kept her eyes on her hands and legs as she cupped water to rinse them. The water beaded and rolled off her skin, washing away most of the sand. “Like you can actually get back the wasted time.”
“I guess you have a point.” He frowned. He bent over to push a fallen section of hair behind her ear. “But we’ve always had a great time here. It’s the perfect place to catch up. I’ve missed our conversations.”
She stood fully and raised her eyebrows. Did he see doubt behind her eyes?
“Are you living in that same apartment in Astoria?” he asked, grasping for neutral territory.
“Yep. New York must seem humdrum to you after your stint in Hong Kong.” The corners of her lips quirked upward and she planted her hands on her hips. “I guess congratulations are in order, although I’m not surprised. I always knew you’d be successful. Is partnership everything you want it to be?”
“Time will tell,” he replied, unable to reach through the emotional distance between them.
“Yes, time changes everything.” She tilted her head sideways. “Does Laney like New York?”
He’d never been comfortable speaking about any of his girlfriends with Vivi, preferring to spare her feelings by compartmentalizing his private life as much as possible. Today Laney’s presence forced the issue. “She’s not yet settled. Work takes up most of her time, and she hasn’t any friends there.”
“Well, she has you, anyway.”
Over the years he’d learned to read Vivi’s various expressions, including several different smiles. But he couldn’t read this one, which made him feel untethered.
“On another note, I bought you a gift in China. If I’d known you would be here, I would’ve brought it with me.”
“Really?” She looked surprised. “What is it?”
He smiled, envisioning her reaction to the simple jewelry he’d selected especially for her. “I think I’d rather surprise you with it in person. If you want, I’ll give you a hint. It’s made from something believed to bring luck and protection.”
“Well, thank you for whatever you bought me. I guess I’ll have to wait until you can find time in your schedule to squeeze me in.” Her somber tone nipped at his conscience. He froze, grappling for the right response.
“Sorry, Vivi. I wanted to see you sooner but didn’t want our first visit to be rushed. It sounds lame, but I had severe jet lag my first two days back. Then I got tagged to take over a significant client transaction that’s required fourteen-hour workdays because the closing date got bumped forward. Great for my career, not so great for my personal life—not that the firm gives a fig about anyone’s personal life. Fortunately we just closed the deal this past Friday, so I’d love to make plans whenever you’re available.”