Sam cleared the table and attempted to do the dishes, but Nonie wouldn’t hear of it. She shooed Sam upstairs to finish getting settled. Normally, she would’ve fought her on this, but Sam was too tired. She went upstairs, took a long, hot shower, and just enjoyed the water as it flowed over her from head to toe. It washed away any doubts she’d had about coming. She went back into her room and was surprised to see her window open. She could’ve sworn that she’d closed it. Maybe Nonie opened it?
Maybe you’re just tired and forgetful.
As she toweled off her hair, she walked over to the large, open bay window and looked out over the rolling sea. She loved the way the light played on the water, like stars dancing in the ocean.
She looked over at the Drew house and again saw someone standing in the upstairs window. The light was on, and she could quite clearly see it was a man, a very tall man. He filled the entire window—definitely not Davis. She could swear he was staring back at her. Sam couldn’t look away. She knew it was rude to just blatantly stare, but he probably couldn’t see her anyway.
Sam quickly stepped back from the window. What am I doing? I’m being ridiculous. She rolled her eyes at her silliness and stepped back to the window, but he was gone. Great, I’ve been home for less than a day, and already I’ve insulted the creepy neighbor. “Nice move, Sam,” she said. “Really smooth.”
Sam tossed the damp towel aside and flopped down onto her bed with an audible grunt. The rush and excitement of moving home had worn off and been replaced by exhaustion and a hint of fear. Was she doing the right thing? Was moving back home a new beginning or a huge step backward? She let out a large sigh, and one of Nonie’s famous sayings came drifting through her mind. She always said, “Everything will work itself out.” Somehow that was always true, but it didn’t make the journey any less challenging.
Her eyes drifted closed, and she tried to focus on the familiar and soothing sounds of the seashore. The cool evening breeze blew in through the open window in sync with the rhythmic sound of the waves. She inhaled deeply and relished the sharp, salty air that rushed into her lungs and cleared her head. She had planned to do more unpacking, but was too wiped out.
Sam picked up her head and glanced over at the large pile of unpacked boxes and bags that taunted her from the corner of the room. Just lying down for a few minutes couldn’t hurt. Right? Right. Who was she kidding? There would be no more unpacking tonight. Nope. After all, the pile of crap would still be there in the morning. She leaned over and turned out the small jeweled lamp on her nightstand.
Her head once again nestled in the large soft pillow. She stared at the ceiling and absentmindedly played with the silver cross at her neck. It had been her mother’s when she was a girl, a First Communion gift. Jane had it put away for Sam after she was born. Nonie, of course, then gave it to Sam on her First Communion. She never took it off.
People often asked her if she missed her parents. That was a difficult question to answer because she was usually misunderstood. They died in a boating accident when she was just six months old. She had no memory of them. It’s hard to miss people you never knew. She missed the memories she never got with them, but Nonie and Pop were always there. Every holiday or birthday, Nonie would have a story about her mother, Jane, and one or two about her father, Lucas. She wished she could’ve known them. Based on the stories she knew, she would’ve loved them. Sam did love them, just not in a way she could easily explain.
As she drifted off to sleep, her thoughts went to the man in the window. Who was he? Did he live there all alone? Then she smiled sleepily and told herself that tomorrow, after she found a job, she was going to go over there and introduce herself to the neighbor. He can’t be all bad, she thought. After all he waved. Then she fell into the welcoming arms of sleep and dreamed.
Sam dreamed of the house next door.
She was walking along the beach at sunset with the wind whipping her hair up into her face. She heard her name whispered on the wind. It was him.
His voice was deep and rich, a caress along the nape of her neck. She turned toward the familiar baritone as it curled like mist inside of her. High above her on the bluff loomed the Drew house, and at the top of the beach steps was a man. Her dream lover. Her lips curved into a small smile. She started toward him, drawn to him almost inexplicably. The sun glared brightly behind him and blocked out his face. He cut a hulking, shadowy figure, waiting for her with an outstretched hand.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he purred.
His silky familiar voice slid inside of her, sending delicious shivers through every inch of her body. She grasped the rough wooden railing and recognition flooded her pounding heart.
It was him. The man who’d been calling to her in the house for all those years was her dream lover. She was sure of it. She swallowed hard and steadily made her way toward him.
Heart racing, fingers trembling, she reached out to take his hand. Eyes squinting against the setting sun, she struggled to see his face.
Without warning, a huge black-backed seagull shrieked and swooped down toward her. Startled, Sam reeled back and felt herself falling. She heard him curse loudly as she flailed wildly, and her body plummeted helplessly toward the beach. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for what was sure to be a painful impact on the beach below. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a slightly hysterical voice reminded her that she was dreaming.
Suddenly, a vice like grip had a hold of her arms. Her body jerked as though she’d pulled the rip cord on a parachute. Her eyes flew open, and to her surprise the waves splashed far below her dangling bare feet. She was no longer falling, but flying. She was soaring high above the dark blue water, and her bathrobe fluttered open around her legs. She licked her lips, and although it was just a dream, she could actually taste the salt on them. Were you supposed to be able to taste things in a dream?
Breathless, Sam took in the sun-kissed ocean as she soared high above the crashing waves. To say it was beautiful would have been an understatement. If only it were this blue in real life. She had dreamed of flying before, but this was different. She wasn’t flying. It was more like she was being flown. Something, or someone, had a hold of her.
A slight pressure on her upper arms increased almost imperceptibly. Her breath stilled, and she closed her eyes. Ohmigod! You’re going to be fine. It’s only a dream. Steeling herself, she cracked open one eye and glanced quickly at her right arm. The white terry cloth puffed out between yellow, and sharply taloned feet of what could only be a bird. Was it that weird seagull? She swallowed hard and summoned her courage. C’mon Sam. It’s just a dream. Right? In a moment of bravery, she looked up to see what held her so effortlessly.
Her mouth went dry at the sight above her. The most enormous bird she had ever seen held her as though she weighed nothing at all. Massive brown and bronze feathered wings pumped loudly in her ears and matched the pounding of her heart. Brilliant yellow eyes peered down at her over a sharply hooked beak. The scream, which had been brewing inside of her, bubbled up and boiled over, shattering the night.
Sam woke up to the shriek of her alarm. The sun streamed into the room, and she squinted against the blinding light. With her breath coming in ragged gasps, she ripped the covers off and launched herself out of bed. “What the hell kind of dream was that?” she blurted a bit too loud. She slapped her hand over her mouth to keep any more outbursts from attracting Nonie’s attention. She walked over to the open window and slowly peered outside. The world looked normal. No giant, weird, yellow-eyed birds. Sam took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Okay, Sam. Calm down. It was just a dream, a really weird dream.” She closed the window and went over to quickly make the bed. Sam rationalized that the dream was merely a result of being overtired from moving in yesterday. That would make perfect sense, she thought, not really convincing herself.
After a hearty breakfast of Nonie’s famous blueberry pancakes, they set out for town. It was a late summer day, deliciously warm with a breeze that had cleared every cloud from the sky. She had almost completely forgotten about her bizarre dream. They drove with the windows down because it was a gorgeous day and because the old Bug didn’t have any working air-conditioning. They pulled into the diner parking lot, and Sam smiled at the memories, which flooded her mind. The Dugout was a classic, old-fashioned diner, which Nonie and Pop took her to every Sunday after church. It was a popular spot in town with both locals and summer people. Millie Sparks ran it like a kitchen on a Navy ship. There was a lot of colorful language and not much patience for stupidity.
When they walked into the diner, the old bell above the door announced their entrance. They were immediately greeted by Millie who practically knocked over the busboy on her way to the door. Millie was a short, robust woman with a mischievous grin, and Nonie’s best friend for over forty years. Her salt and pepper hair was cut short and stuck out in a thousand directions around a round face with mischievous eyes.
“Well slap me silly, and call me Millie!”
She always did have a way with words, Sam thought with a smile. “Hey, Millie, it’s so great to see you,” Sam said. Millie grabbed her in a big bear hug, then pulled back and eyed her suspiciously.
“Sammy girl, how are you? You are gettin’ too damn skinny! Sit down at my counter, and I’m gonna make you the biggest stack of French toast you’ve ever seen!”
“Thanks, Millie, but Nonie already filled me with blueberry pancakes.” She rubbed her stomach. “If this keeps up, I’ll get even fatter.”
“Why do you young girls always want to be skinny? Men like a girl with meat on their bones. Ain’t that right, Billy?” she said to the loyal busboy who also happened to be her son. It was the same sweet guy she’d almost plowed to the ground a moment ago.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Hey, Sam, welcome home.”
Billy was a sweetheart. Nonie called him a gentle soul. He was pretty much raised in this diner, bussed tables for his mother, cooked, whatever she needed. Sam had known him all her life. “Hi, Billy.” She hugged him. “It’s great to see you. How’s Mary? I heard you had a baby?”
“Yup, little Willie. He’s six months old already.” Beaming with pride, he instantly pulled a family picture from his back pocket.
Sam looked at the smiling faces, and a twinge of longing hit her. What is it like to have that? she thought wistfully. “He’s adorable. You’ve got a beautiful family Billy.” Sam handed the photo back.
“Well, quit the yappin’, and get back to work, Billy boy.” Millie slapped him good-naturedly on the back.
Sam and Nonie took a seat at the counter as Millie poured them some coffee.
“So, your grandmamma tells me you need a job, and as fate would have it, I need a good waitress. These summer kids are gonna split on me in the next couple of weeks, and it’ll just be me and Billy. If you take it, it’ll be just like old times. You interested?”
“Absolutely, Millie, you’re a lifesaver.” Sam smiled.
“Well, we aim to please round here. What’s say we have you start the last week of this month? Give you a week to get back in the swing of the things before the Labor Day crush. Sound good?”
“I could start tomorrow.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. Your grandmother just got you back. I’ll never hear the end of it if I hog up all your time right away.” Millie pursed her lips and scratched her head. “How ’bout the day after tomorrow?”
“Well, OK.” Sam sipped her coffee and shrugged. “Day after tomorrow sounds fine, I guess.”
“She’s right dear,” Nonie chimed. “Besides, it will give you a bit of time to concentrate on setting up your art studio.” She smiled at Millie over her coffee.
“What art studio? What are you talking about?” Sam sent a confused look to Nonie who was busy sharing a conspiratorial glance with Millie.
“You’ll see when we get back to the house. Right now, we need to head over to the art supply store and stock up. Bye, Millie. See you tonight at your place for bridge.”
Nonie put money down for the coffee and walked out to the car, leaving Sam sitting there with her mouth hanging open.
“Well, you gonna just sit here like a wide mouth bass? Don’t do that, you’re scarin’ my customers. Go on. Git. I’ll see you the day after tomorrow for work.” She flicked her dish towel at Sam.
“B-but,” she stammered, feeling bewildered.
“No buts. Go with your grandmother. She’s been planning this surprise for you ever since you said you were comin’ home.”
She stood up, slipped on her aviator sunglasses, and went out to the car. Nonie sat in the passenger seat with a satisfied smile on her face. Sam started the engine and stared at her grandmother. “Okay. Spill it.”
“You drive. I’ll spill as you say.”
As they drove over to the art supply store in town, Nonie began to divulge the surprise she’d been carving out. Once Sam told her that she was moving back home, Nonie went to work on setting her up an art studio in the little garage at home. Sam couldn’t believe it. She was so used to working in a catch-as-catch-can way. The idea of having an entire studio space for her was like winning the lottery. When they pulled into the parking lot of the art supply store, she shut off the car and grabbed Nonie in the biggest hug she could muster. “Thank you so much.” She laughed.
“You’re so welcome. Come on, missy, let’s get you stocked up. By the way, I’m paying.” She raised her hand to stop any reply. “Don’t even think of arguing with me. I’m an old woman. If you fight with me about it, it could give me a heart attack. Consider it your thirtieth birthday present.”
The crisp air-conditioned air hit her bare arms and legs welcomingly. She closed her eyes and breathed in the distinct aroma of paint with a hint of sharpened pencils. It reminded her a bit of the first day of school. Nonie got a shopping cart, and they went to town. Charcoals, brushes of varying sizes, paints, watercolors, pencils, paper, canvas—the whole kit and caboodle. They paid for their purchases and then spent a good twenty minutes figuring out how to fit it all in Sam’s little car. The drive home seemed longer than normal as her excitement grew. She couldn’t wait to see what Nonie had done.
They pulled in the driveway, gravel spitting up from the wheels, echoing Sam’s impatience at the car’s slow climb. Finally, she pulled around to the side of the house and up in front of the little garage. Getting out of the car and taking in Nonie’s creation, she was ashamed of herself for not noticing it yesterday. The garage door had been replaced with French doors, and pink and white impatiens created a colorful border along the welcoming little path.
Nonie walked ahead of Sam and opened the doors, leaving her speechless. What had formerly been a dark little one-car garage was now a bright open space. The walls were painted a beautiful eggshell color. The cement floor was replaced with hard wood planks in a warm honey tone, and barren walls were now adorned with built-in shelving and cabinets. There were some easels and various organizational containers just waiting for her to use them. The absolute crowning jewel, however, was the enormous picture window at the back wall. It delivered a breathtaking view of the ocean. On the ledge sat a lovely silver frame with an old black and white photo of Sam with her parents. It had been taken on the very beach she looked down on now. It was Sam’s favorite. Overcome with emotion, she picked up the picture. The image blurred through the flood of tears rolling down her face. Nonie came over and wrapped her up in one of her delicious hugs.
“I figured this place had just become a big junk room, and I had to clean it out anyway. So what better way to make use of it than for you to work in?”
Sam sniffled and giggled as she wiped off her face. “How did you get this done in such a short amount of time? This is just too much. Nonie, how am I ever going to repay you for this?”
“Don’t be silly.” She chuckled. “Actually, I’ve always wanted a portrait of our home. Perhaps you could see your way clear to whip one up for me?”
“Consider it done.” Sam turned and hugged Nonie. “Thank you so much. This is the most amazing gift. I love you, Nonie.”
“I love you too, Samantha Jane.” She released Sam. “Now, if you can manage to settle in here on your own, I have to get some things done around here before my bridge game tonight at Millie’s place.”
Nonie gave her hand one last squeeze and headed out of the studio. Sam followed her out and brought in the rest of their purchases. Once it was all inside, she jumped up and down like a little kid, shrieking her delight and good fortune. Out of breath and deliciously exhausted, she turned slowly and surveyed the space, taking in the light from various angles in the room. “Luminous,” she said breathlessly. “Absolutely luminous.”
From behind her, she heard an oddly familiar voice purr. “I couldn’t agree with you more.”
Startled, she whipped around to see the most breathtaking man she had ever seen in her entire life—real or imagined. He stood over six feet tall, a body built like a Greek god, chestnut hair, and enormous, gorgeous brown eyes that looked straight through her. He stood there casually with his hands in his pockets, leaning against the doorway. He delivered a sexy smile that said he knew exactly what she was thinking. She realized she stood with her mouth hanging open like a large mouth bass. Sam snapped her mouth shut and desperately attempted to collect herself. “Uh-hi? Have you ever heard of knocking?” She knew how rude she sounded, but couldn’t help herself.
“Of course, but you were enjoying yourself so much that I hated the idea of interrupting you.” He smiled as he stepped toward her with an outstretched hand. “I’m your neighbor, Malcolm Drew. I just moved into my family’s summer home and wanted to come over and introduce myself.”
When he took her hand in his, an electric shock went to the very core of her. Surprised, she instinctively took a step back. He loomed over her, and for the first time in her life she felt very small. “Yes, of course my grandmother mentioned something about that to me earlier today.” She took her hand back from his possessive grip.
“My family has owned that house for years, but only old Davis has really called it home.”
Sam detected an accent of some kind, but couldn’t put her finger on what kind it was. She watched him slowly tour the studio. “It’s a shame really, since it’s so beautiful here.”
He casually walked around her new studio as though he owned the place. He absentmindedly touched the brushes standing up in the various jars on the shelves.
It was starting to piss Sam off. She didn’t even know this guy, and he was invading her space big time. “Yeah, well it doesn’t feel very beautiful after about eight weeks of digging your car out of snowdrifts and winds that cut through you to the bone.” Sam began unpacking one of the bags she brought in. This guy was making her nervous, and she had to do something other than stare at him.
“You grew up here then?” He leaned one hip against her drawing table.
“Yes, for the most part.” She avoided his gaze. “I went to boarding school for high school though. Nonie felt it was too desolate here in the winter and that a teenage girl might find trouble with nothing but time on her hands.”
“Nonie? Is that your grandmother?”
“Yeah. She and my grandfather raised me after my parents died.”
“Are these your parents?”
He picked up the framed black and white photograph from the windowsill and ran one finger along the edge. His hands were visibly strong, and she couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to have him stroke her with those long beautiful fingers. Her face flushed, and she quickly took the photo from him and placed it gently back on the sill. What was wrong with her? She had just met this poor man and was already imagining herself naked with him. Sheesh.
She cleared her throat and hoped she didn’t look as embarrassed as she felt. “Yes. Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve got a lot of settling in to do here and…”
“Of course,” he said. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Before leaving, he turned to Sam and took her hand in his. His large brown eyes fixed onto hers, and everything seemed to stop. He towered over her, surrounded her, and zeroed in on her. She was right. His hands were strong, and they melded against hers perfectly. She couldn’t move. What the hell was wrong with her? She had always fancied herself an independent woman, but at the moment she wanted nothing more than to stay locked in this man’s gaze forever.
Lifting her hand to his mouth, he gently brushed her fingers with his firm, warm lips. “It was lovely to meet you, Samantha,” he murmured, looking at her more thoroughly than anyone ever had in her entire life.
Their eyes locked, and her stomach did a little somersault. Staring into those spectacular brown eyes, Sam got the oddest sense of déjà vu. If she didn’t know better she’d swear she’d met him before. As if he read her mind, he winked, and a crooked grin played at his lips.
“It was lovely to meet you too,” she said in a much huskier tone than she intended.
With a smile and a nod he released her hand and seemed to glide out of the studio. Sam folded her arms in an attempt to still her quaking body. She drew in a deep breath to steady herself, and it dawned on her that he’d called her Samantha. Normally that would be fine, but she had never told him her name.