I took off sailing across the dunes. Warm, sun-bleached sand chafed between my toes; a sweetly salty breeze rolled off the sea, ruffling my hair and rushing over the rippling beach with gentle fingers that swept the hills flat and reformed them as easily as clay. The sky glowed periwinkle over my head, so blue and perfect it was almost artificial. The wind raced alongside me as I ran.
"Hey, Tor! Look!"
I slackened my speed, panting as I jogged up to a pudgy sophomore – Hi – standing at the very edge of the waterline, hand cupped over his forehead to shield his eyes as he pointed out over the sea. The ocean was as energetic as we were – waves rose, built, and threw themselves onto the beach, sending clouds of cool, salty spray into the air and onto the sugary white sand. I followed his keen, flare-enhanced gaze to a wave about a quarter-mile from where we were standing. Protruding from the rich turquoise surf was a gray, water-slicked nose, followed by a sleek silver body, arching dorsal fin, and a strong, smooth fluke that rhythmically beat the ocean surface. Bottlenose dolphins – a pod, I realized, as more of the magnificent creatures broke into visibility from the cresting wave. A couple of them leaped from beneath the surface, curved bodies forming graceful arcs, before flopping back into the water with a tremendous splash. Shelton – chocolate skin beaded with sweat – and Ben – his muscular arms crossed over the chest of his plain black shirt – joined Hi and I to watch the unfolding spectacle.
Fins skimmed the surface as the eccentric group sped toward shore. As they neared us, our flare vision sharpened the view to spectacular clarity – I could see every drop of saltwater as it glittered on their impossibly smooth skin; could gaze into their small, dark, but gloriously intelligent eyes; could listen with ease to the clicks, chatters, and whistles they exchanged, trying to decipher the bits and pieces of their mesmerizing language. Calves stuck close to the sides of their attentive mothers; pillars of water erupted from blowholes as they exchanged a stale breath of air for a fresh one.
I grinned as the bottlenoses went on the hunt. They churned the seabed with their tails, "enclosing" the fish that darted and swirled in the shallows in a muddy ring, and waited for their clever trickery to take effect. Their prey – deceived into believing the mud is a solid barrier- lunged skyward for escape, only to plummet into the waiting, gaping mouths of the hungry dolphins, thrilled at their success. Hi chuckled as a young calf, not quite an expert on the technique, peered around in confusion as a silvery fish bounced off his melon-shaped head and into the water to freedom.
Then, as quickly as they'd come, the now full-bellied dolphins turned from the shore, plunged beneath the surface, and swam out toward the open sea, their dorsal fins occasionally slicing into sight, their flukes swishing fluidly in and out of the water as it churned in early anticipation of a new wave.
The strong emotions my flare demanded of me slowly dissolved into nonexistence, and I felt the bright gold fade gradually from my eyes. I blinked and rubbed them, squinting and trying to see the dolphins as they headed lazily for the horizon, but without the aid of my wolflike senses they were no more than moving blurs in the far distance. "I lost my flare," I said aloud, seating myself on the beach and splashing my bare feet in the rising tide.
"Me too," Shelton sighed, followed by murmurs of agreement from Ben and Hi, whose eyes were also empty of saffron fire. They plopped onto the sand beside me.
Way off from where we were sitting, beyond even the vanishing dolphins, the sun was just beginning to descend from its midday peak, its white-hot blaze starting to soften into a soft, warm peach. Light shimmered and danced on the ocean – I didn't need flare vision to see its beauty, the pink, yellow, and orange that mingled and swirled over the surface, like a watercolor that was constantly moving, constantly changing as the sun sank toward where it would meet the sea again. I glanced at my watch. 5:30. I copied Shelton's sigh, stretching out on the beach and resting my chin on my folded hands.
"Shoot!" I cried aloud, leaping to my feet like the ground was electric. I checked my watch again, yanking my phone free of my pocket to check the times. Both calmly reported the same digits. Five. Three. Zero.
"What's up, Tory?" Hi was reclining against a dune, hands behind his head, legs crossed like a primadonna sitting with a magazine. "Is it your daddy dearest?"
"Worse," I moaned. "I've got a cotillion event at 7:30. I'm supposed to be home…" I rummaged through my jumbled thoughts before correcting myself. "…was supposed to be home at 5:15 so Whitney would have plenty of time to 'primp me for the party.'"
"Um…" Ben was standing now, too, shuffling his sandal-clad feet in the sand. "Want me to drive you home? In Sewee, I mean," he added hurriedly. "So you're not later than you already are."
Moment of awkward silence. Then, "Sure. Thanks. Kit's going to kill me if I don't get home, like, now. And Whitney is probably freaking out already."
Ben nodded curtly – man of many words, that one – and jogged toward his beloved runabout, bobbing easily with the rise and retreat of the gentle tide. He swung over the side and headed for the controls, me standing in silence by the rail and waving for the other Virals to join us. It wasn't like they had a way home once Ben and Sewee were gone.
Hi hurried – or did was his definition of hurrying was, a rather slow, ponderous gait that simply had more suspension than his normal, plodding walk – toward us, Shelton trying to drag him along as Ben swiftly revved the motor and prepared to steer us clear of the shore. Hi hauled himself over the edge with Shelton's aid and together, finally a pack, we puttered out into open water and away from Loggerhead Island and the Dead Cat beach – the place I would much, much rather be.
Ten minutes later, Sewee nosed up to the dock, bow bumping against a post and jolting us all in our sitting and standing positions. I stumbled and braced myself against the rail, laughing quietly under my breath as Ben shot us all a look, a mix of don't you dare say a word and sorry. His driving needed as much help as his flaring. Not that he'd ever admit it.
I rushed toward the rail, hurling a quick thank you to Ben as I went. Hi helped to boost me over the edge and I dropped to the sand, bending my knees to soften the fall and taking off down the path that led to the LIRI employee townhouses. A quick glance at my watch – 5:42 – lengthened my stride. I didn't even pause for breath as I blasted through the front door, almost blowing past Kit before I skidded to a halt, remembering what I was running for.
"I'," I got out, managing to spit the entire sentence out in one breath. "I'm really…"
"Stop." Kit placed two hands on my shoulder and shook me gently. "Breathe."
I exhaled heavily. "That's it," he teased. "You draw air into your lungs, and then you let it all out. In and out."
He waited patiently while I went to sink, threw back a few swigs of water from plastic cup, and regained my breath. "I'm so sorry," I repeated. "I was out at the Dead Cat with Coop and the guys…" Coop. Where was the wolfdog? The thought made my heartbeat race with alarm. I made a mental note to text Ben, Hi, and Shelton once I got upstairs. As in, the second my feet hit the floor.
"…and we totally lost track of time," I continued, my voice even. "I'm really sorry."
"No prob, kiddo," Kit said soothingly. "Whitney occupied herself picking out your entire outfit."
"Entire… outfit?" I squeaked. "Dad, I can handle that on my…"
"Tory, darling!" Whitney sauntered into the room, looking very much like a life-size Barbie doll with flawless blond hair, sparkling eyes expertly rimmed with black-brown eyeliner, lashes that hung dark and heavy with mascara, a pink-lipsticked mouth, a thick, sugarcoated southern drawl and a one-hundred-percent designer wardrobe that would take a decade of Kit's work to even begin to afford. Not that I wanted any of it.
In short, Whitney Rose Dubois was my complete, polar, night-and-day opposite.
She engulfed me in a hug and I mouthed kill me, just kill me now at the ceiling, well aware that, unfortunately, the fluorescent lightbulbs did not take pity on me. She stood back to survey my appearance; the longer she stared, the more her blinding white smile began to fade, replaced by the tight-lipped pout of disdain, disgust, and disappointment that she usually wore when I came back from an outing with the boys at the beach. Wet sand was caked on my clothes and shoes; I could feel a smear of dirt over my left eyebrow, and my less-than-straight to begin with hair had been mussed beyond what Kit's southern belle girlfriend could accept.
"Come on, Tory, dear," she chirped, a picture of sickening enthusiasm anyway as she grabbed my hand and led me upstairs like a dog on a leash. That thought summoned the possibility of Coop, alone on the island. But he's not alone, I reminded myself. Whisper and the rest of the pack are there. That made me feel a little better. "We've got to get you cleaned up and changed!"
I would've gagged if I could, but I was suffocating in the cloud of expensive perfume that hung thickly around the woman, and I was holding my breath, doing my very best not to cough. If I'd been flaring the stench of roses, lavender, citrus, strawberry, sugar, and every other sweet thing that ever existed would've strangled me before I got halfway up the stairs.
Whitney hurried me down the hall, shoved me into my bathroom, ordered me to "shower" and "not come out until I'm spotless." In her dreams. Channeling my anger into the movement, I jerked on the faucet, switched on the hot water and stood, teeth gritted in frustration, until steam curled around me like fog. I stepped reluctantly beneath the pressurized spray and used the mildest soap I owned to gently scrub the sand and dirt from my pale skin, lather up and rinse my fiery red hair, and shave my legs clean of any stubble. I rubbed myself dry with a fluffy, mocha-colored towel and emerged in an aqua robe Kit had gotten me as a random "just because" present.
"No, no, no," Whitney cried, ushering me back out of the bedroom before I could get a glimpse of what monstrosity of a dress she'd laid out for me this time. "Blow dry your hair and then you can come in." she beamed. "You're going positively love the dress choices, Tory!" Her tone was positively gushing. Ugh.
I slammed the door and turned the blow dryer on my impossible scarlet mane, intentionally setting it on low so it would take longer. But unfortunately, it didn't take long for it to dry, and I picked the knots with a comb, brushed it smooth and silky, and tied it back before exiting the bathroom for the second time.
"Much better," Whitney sang. She flung open my bedroom door and gestured to three dresses, hung on my dresser, with a dramatic flourish. "Ta-da!"
I gaped at the possibilities, my mind struggling to decide which was worse. The first option was a dark, rich fuchsia – ugh, pink – with soft, natural ruffles through the skirt, a tight, body-hugging waistline, and no straps. Joy.
Choice number two was deep hunter green, sleeveless with two straps that knotted together behind my neck. A pale green ribbon looped around the waist and could be bound at the front or side as a bow. The skirt was long and flowing; when worn it would probably brush the floor, very elegant and also very not me.
Number three – a dark, admittedly beautiful royal purple number, strapless; a thin black belt encircled the waistline, latched by a dainty silver buckle. The skirt would cling slightly closer to the body than the others and flared slightly as it cut off just below the knees. Thin curlicues of silver laced up from the hem; nothing too dramatic, just a little something to catch the light and glitter.
I hated them all. But since I had to choose, I decided third time's a charm. The last possibility – the violet gown with the belt – was dubbed the winner, and Whitney whipped out her jewelry case, sifting through her seemingly endless supply of rich, luxurious accessories that I would prefer to never see, let alone wear. She withdrew a delicate silver chain, weighted by an opal pendant that boasted a lovely swirl of pale green and the same purple as the dress. My ears weren't pierced, much to Whitney's dismay: "But earrings are so ladylike," she'd whined to Kit, but lucky for me, he'd drawn the line at going to get that issue "fixed."
She also plucked out a simple bracelet to match.
Then shoes. She found a pair of silver-white heels, glittering with rhinestones, but I adamantly vetoed the decision in not-quite-favor of a pair of black flats. If I was forced to sacrifice my evening, I wasn't going to spend it tottering around in shoes I could barely walk in, let alone dance.
For the first time that night, she left me alone so I could change into the dress without her breathing down my neck. I grumbled under my breath as I stepped into the swath of dark lilac fabric, hiked it up and zipped it, with some effort, up my back. I looked into the mirror; smoothed it out where it pinched. Then I slid into the flats; wiggled my toes around. After I clasped the necklace around my throat, lazily tugged the bracelet up over my hand and onto my wrist, and checked my hair in the mirror, I swiped my phone off my nightstand and powered it on. A little red bubble with a one in it popped up at the corner of my text symbol, and I tapped into the app, scrolling through names and text inboxes until came to the one with a blue "unread" circle. Jason Taylor. Ugh. I scanned the message. Pick you up seven? ;)
The very thought of sharing a car with Jason made me groan. I hated to do it, but… I opened up the phone keyboard, typed in four – my speed-dial for Ben, three was Shelton, two was Hi and one was Kit – and tapped call. It rang one, twice, three times before rolling into his voicemail box, with a default message, of course. I left a rapid-fire run-on sentence – "Hi this is Tory please call me back bye" – and hung up, pausing exactly five seconds before punching the four back in and redialing. This time, after two rings, a husky voice answered on the other end of the line.
"Hello?" Grunted and slightly irritated.
"Ben!" I couldn't keep the relief from my voice. "Um…"
"What is it, Tory?" I could hear the slosh of water in the background. Good, he was with Sewee. Maybe I was about to get lucky.
"Um, Jason just texted me asking when to pick me up."
"So?" Cold and accusing. I swallowed.
"And I really don't want to ride with him, so I was wondering if you would… drive me? I mean, you know, just a favor, I mean, I could pay you back, of course…" I was rambling and I knew it, but I was practically on my knees and begging here. I couldn't take rejection as an answer.
"Yeah, sure. What time?"
I pressed my phone to my chest and let out a long breath of relief before raising it back to my ear. "Seven, at the Charleston dock? Thank you so much, really. Thanks."
"It's no problem." His voice was gruff. "See you then." And then he hung up.
"But he said yes," I murmured. Thank goodness.
"Tory, darling," Whitney called, "Are you done putting everything on, sweetie?"
"Yes," I answered. "You can come in." Please don't.
Of course she didn't pay attention to my mental message. She bounded inside, looked at me from head to toe, and immediately beamed, throwing her arms around me in a cautious hug so she didn't rumple her precious dress. "You look absolutely gorgeous, honey," she squealed. "Come, we must show your daddy." I managed to snatch my phone before she herded me back down the corridor, down the steps, and into the kitchen, where Kit was waiting, looking totally, utterly bored. He brightened at the sight of me, decked in my purple gown and silver jewelry. "You look wonderful, sweetie." There was no sugarcoat or falseness to his words; they just held the sweet, simple warmth of a father complimenting his daughter. However much I hated the situation I couldn't help but feel a swell of pride at Kit's praise, something Whitney's words never sparked in me.
"Thank you." Short and sweet. I hoped he could feel the emotion those two words conveyed.
"Go on." He drew me into a hug. "Try to enjoy yourself," he whispered in my ear, his words muffled by my hair. I nodded reluctant agreement.
"Wait, honey!" Whitney cried as I hurried to run out the door with my purse and phone in hand. "Isn't Mr. Taylor coming to pick you up?"
"No," I tossed over my shoulder, almost grinning as I announced the second half of my decision, but Kit somehow beat me to it. "No, Ben's taking her." How did he know?
"One of those wild boys from the beach?" Whitney recoiled, hand over her heart, and for a second I wondered if she'd have a heart attack, and whether or not I'd have to attend the funeral. But Kit slung an arm around her and was patting her back as I exited, the last words I heard from Whitney being "Wild… too wild for such a pretty girl like her."
I ignored her as I raced toward the docks, thoughts about Kit whirling through my mind as I ran, not wanting to keep Ben waiting if he was there. How did he know? Did he overhear? And even more startling, were Ben and Kit working together on this?
I approached the docks and scanned for Sewee, but she wasn't tied there and I apprehensively unlocked my phone, relieved when the clock only read 6:53. He wasn't late; I was early.
So I stood, waiting, pacing up and down the wooden planks as I awaited my chauffer's arrival, occasionally pondering the idea that he wasn't coming at all. But at 6:59, Ben's beloved roundabout motored up to shore, Blue letting the engine idle as he sat back and waited for me to board. "Thank you so much, I-"
He cut me off. "I told you already. It isn't a problem." He helped me over the rail – I could swear he chuckled a little at the difficulty of hoisting the soft purple skirt over the edge without tearing it – and we both stood for a second, taking a breath.
"You look really nice," Ben breathed. He'd said that to me once before – when he'd previously taken to a debutante event – but then it had been solemn, curt, merely a polite comment to give when he took a girl to someplace like that. But this time he seemed to really mean it – just like Kit, there was warmth behind his words, but it wasn't like my father's tone. It was more… pleasantly surprised, happier, admiring. And, also unlike Kit, it made my heartbeat take off and out the window. Why? I wondered, but my subconscious needled at me with the answer. Because you like him! You've liked him forever!
Did I? Did I like Benjamin Blue? Watching him as he piloted Sewee, skin bronze in the moonlight, dark brown-black eyes sparkling, raven hair tousled gently by the wind, I could certainly believe it – and nobody could blame me. I unconsciously shifted closer to him and he glanced at me but said nothing.
The event was being hosted at a yacht club, and I was almost sorry when we pulled up to the dock. Ben and I had chatted softly along the way – averting the subject of the virus in case anyone else heard us – and I'd rather enjoyed it, and could tell from his warmed expression that he had, too, and my stomach gave an involuntary flutter. Why was this suddenly popping up now?
"Have fun," he told me as I disembarked, grabbed my purse and waved goodbye. I stood – watching – until he motored out of sight. Then I turned and, with a bleak feeling of dread, headed into the club.