Unconditional, p.9

Unconditional, page 9



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For the convenience of people who used the pier to fish, the restaurant had designated a restroom for their use with an outdoor restaurant right behind the bar. Valerie loved to fish, but she didn’t love the fishy smell that clung to her hands after handling bait and fish all day. After washing her hands, she used a travel-size bottle of hand cream in her backpack, warm vanilla scent, that she’d picked up at the mall, before checking her cell phone.

  One missed call from Kylie, a text from Mom—Have fun, my love! Tell me about it when u get home, k? It was cute to her, how her mother had mastered short cuts on texts as well as any teenager.

  The second text message had come from Zed. Reading it brought an exasperated sigh from Valerie.

  so whos the fisherman? I no we said we were taking this slow and could see other people but wow that was quick. we just got back together and u didnt say a word bout it either. alright not a big deal just kinda sneaky of you but ok.

  “Sneaky? Really, Zed?” she mumbled to herself as she jammed the phone back into her shorts pocket.

  This was coming from the same guy who had done his share of “sneakiness,” and not only when they were younger, either. The very last time she’d been his on-again girlfriend, he’d secreted away a side-dish girlfriend, someone from Lodi who’d been visiting Wildwood with a few of her friends. Valerie had found out from the grapevine, because Zed would have kept the little game going for as long as he could if he hadn’t gotten caught, that they had continued to see each other for months. All the times he’d said he was going to New York on business, he’d really been driving up to Lodi to visit his little redheaded secret.

  Could it be that Kylie was right? She tried to avoid the subject whenever her best friend and her mother were in the same room, because those two agreed with each other when it came to Zed. But Kylie had said something that had stuck with Valerie.

  Zed was your first love. I don’t believe he was ever really the person your heart made him out to be, but you haven’t stopped believing the dreams of the teenager you used to be. That’s why you keep holding on, because you think your love is going to make him into something he’s never been and never going to be.

  Valerie smiled, walking back along the long pier, past others who were dropping their lines into the water below. She remembered how she’d teased Kylie about behaving like an amateur psychologist.

  And yet…it rang true. Her best friend was like that sometimes, very insightful and, Valerie would say, even wise. Maybe Kylie sometimes seemed to just know her better than she knew herself.

  Up ahead stood Josh, checking her line. He had paused and was watching her approach, standing with his long, slim legs spread apart. His tan was deepening from the time they’d already spent out in the sun that day, and there was something oh-so-hunky about the way his complexion went so well with his wind-tossed, sandy brown hair. His sunglasses concealed his eyes, and she mused how he reminded her more of some handsome secret agent rather than a beach-going local.

  Awesome guy, she thought.

  She found it funny how she’d gotten his choice of drink right on the money. He hadn’t even waited until they’d broken out the sandwiches, either. Josh had whipped out the chocolate milk container and had begun to sip it.

  Chocolate milk, an occasional soda, and iced tea. He told her that morning that he never drank except when he was younger, and that he’d done that only to be part of the crowd. Now, he said, he felt no such peer pressure. He claimed not to like the taste of beer, wine or liquor, and that he wasn’t into drugs, either.

  Then maybe April was mistaken about…that other matter? Josh hadn’t mentioned a word about it. In fairness, though, that wasn’t something a person offered to bring up, especially while out on a first date.

  Please,let it not be true, Lord, she prayed. I don’t know—can I pray that? I guess not. You can do anything, I know. You’re God. But the past is there; it is what it is. It can’t be changed. Please let him be honest with me. I’ve had enough of a man keeping secrets from me, Lord. I’d rather he not disrespect me with a lie. That he be honest with me.

  Josh was wiping his hands on a small towel he’d brought with him when she made it back to their spot on the pier.

  “You missed it,” he announced.

  “What? Oh, man—I wasn’t even gone that long!” she moaned.

  “Yep. Feast your eyes on this baby…”

  He opened his cooler, which they’d used to store any fish they’d caught—if any were, in fact, caught. Fishing was often a gamble, but a fun one. Inside the cooler, resting on a bed of ice, was a fish big enough to produce two suitable fillets.

  “Oh, that’s one gorgeous fish,” she said reverently.

  “Yeah, ain’t he good-lookin’? He’ll look even better on a dish with lemon and tartar sauce.”

  “Next to some of those yummy, little fingerling potatoes. Roasted fingerlings.”

  “And corn on the cob.”

  “With butter.”

  With all that talk of food making him hungry, Josh licked his lips. That made her think of kissing. The thought of kissing him made her have to catch her breath.

  “That menu sounds perfect,” he declared.

  “And we forgot biscuits. I know how to make really good ones from scratch, like the ones you get at Red Lobster, with some shredded cheddar and rosemary and garlic spice.”

  He cleared his throat. “You think you’d like to…have that for dinner tonight? Or…You’re busy after your volunteer work?”

  One date…to be continued. Tonight.

  “We could do that,” Valerie murmured, replacing her own sunglasses onto her face. “But, um, could we invite someone? Why don’t you see if your friend, Elliot, wants to come?”

  The both of them, alone in her apartment. That was inviting trouble. He seemed to understand what she was saying.

  “Elliot? Don’t know if he can make it, but, sure. And you invite Kylie—or your mom, if you’d like.”

  She chuckled, more from the jitters. Funny that he should suggest her mother be invited. Though there’d been a time when Mom had liked Zed, for the past couple of years she’d been downright chilly and distant toward him. That had to have been her natural maternal instinct, her need to protect her daughter, even if she was now an adult.

  “Sure you don’t mind?” she asked.

  “Mind? No. It’ll be like a party. ’Course, unless we catch another fish or two in the next hour, it won’t be enough.”

  “I have some frozen coconut shrimp at home. It’s out of a box, but it’s not bad. Oh—and I can defrost a steak, too. Kinda have a surf and turf meal.”

  “Surf and turf. I like that idea. The shrimp sounds good, too.” Grinning, he rested his hand on the pier’s wooden railing behind him.

  This was the part where, if they were further along than just the first date, a kiss would have been in order. She was thinking about that a lot, being around him. Valerie forced herself to return to the safe topic of dinner.

  “I’ve got some tomatoes at home, too. I’ll pick up some lettuce and cucumber for a salad.”

  “Okay. And I’ll pick up a dessert. Something sweet. Got anything special in mind that I should get? Cake? Pie?”

  Lord, I wouldn’t be staring at him like this if You didn’t make him so good-looking! She almost laughed out loud. That was one of Kylie’s favorite lines.

  Josh Coleman wasn’t just handsome. She had been around attractive guys before, even dated a couple, including Zed. Looks weren’t everything. Some men weren’t the whole package. Maybe they were easy on the eyes, but then they weren’t at all adept at making conversation that flowed easily. Or they had no sense of humor, which she found to be a deal killer, or they weren’t very attentive or romantic or gentlemanly, including toward their own date. Some acted annoyed when there were kids around…another deal killer, to her.

  Simply being around Josh was…making her heart race. Being around him, whether they engaged in conversation or not, made her heart feel lig

  “Something sweet,” she responded at last. “Whatever you want to get for us. My mom has a sweet tooth, so she likes just about everything, as long as it’s made with sugar. And Kylie and I aren’t fussy, either.”

  “Ohhhh—look at that, Val! Look at that!”

  He’d called her Val. Like her mom and close friends did; like Zed had always done. Her nickname, spoken by his voice, sent a pleasant tingle through her.

  Gliding across the perfectly blue summer sky was one of those small planes used for aerial advertising. Its engine could just about be heard above the sound of the peaceful waves beneath the pier, and the banner trailing behind it read, NINO’S CRAB SHACK SEAFOOD BEER LIVE BAND ON FRIDAYS.

  “That’s how you know you’re at the beach,” he said. “I never see those things anywhere else.”

  “Me, either!” She laughed. Then she noticed his rod moving right before he freed it from a holding post. “Looks like we might just have enough fish! Yes!”

  “Come on home, baby!” Josh growled playfully.

  It happened naturally. She had been looking out at the water, her gaze following his line. The fish, with Josh’s hook in its mouth, was still putting up a spirited fight as it emerged from the dark North Atlantic waters. In the distance was a party fishing boat, the kind that held thirty people or more, and one of those boats that left out of Cape May in search of whale and dolphin sightings. Above them was that sunlit Jersey summer sky, dotted by cotton candy-like white clouds.

  Valerie was touching his arm, her hand resting gently on one of those big, strong biceps of his. He reeled in the fish and gazed back at her.

  “I’d better get you home now,” he said huskily, “so you can change and get your violin. Don’t want you to be late for Meadowview.”

  “Yeah. Well, congrats on the fish. He’s bigger than mine, I think.”

  Josh nodded. “We had one good day of fishing, I’d say.”

  “Mmmmm.” Then, reaching up on her tip toes, Valerie planted a kiss on his mouth. Just a sweet, easy, but long kiss, every bit as wonderful as she’d imagined it would be. “Now it is.”


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