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Second Chances: A Romance Writers of America Collection, Page 2

J. Kenner

  "You still live around here?" I say, lowering myself carefully to the toilet.

  "I moved away for school but came back closer, to Victoria, when my dad got sick. I'll need you to ..."

  I follow her gaze and realize what she means. "Oh right," I say, and begin unfastening my belt.

  "Here, let me help you."

  When she reaches for my pants, I shake my head, mindful of the bandage as I ease the fabric down my hips.

  "Your dad got sick?" I ask, feeling the heat in my neck, on my face, as I sit in front of her in boxers, my pants at my ankles while the cameras roll over her shoulder.

  She pulls on a pair of rubber gloves, and--in a move that absolutely isn't making this any easier--kneels in front of me.

  "Cancer," she says. "In his liver. I came back when he got sick." She pulls the seal off a bottle of antiseptic and opens a new roll of bandages. "Mom moved him closer to me in Victoria for a while. I was working nights in the ER so I could care of him during the day. He died about a year ago."

  I think back to a year ago. In all honesty, it feels like a lifetime ago. It was around the time things were really bad. The money was gone and everything on the boat that could break down did. Finn was back and forth to San Diego, and Colton and I barely had time to leave the boat. "I'm so sorry, Emmy. I hadn't heard."

  "It's okay."

  "He was a good man," I add.

  "Thanks, he was," she says quietly. "But yeah, he was sick. He's better off now. Does that sound terrible?"

  I shake my head, staring at her face. I've never been this physically close to her.

  "Does this hurt?" she asks, fingers pressing into the skin around the bandage.

  I can barely breathe. "No."

  She nods, whispering, "Good," as she tests other spots closer to the wound, getting a sense of whether there's sensitivity, I guess.

  "My mom died of breast cancer when I was four," I say after a beat of silence. "I don't remember any of it. I think it was easier on me than my brothers or my dad. I'm sure it's hard to lose someone you've known your whole life."

  "Yeah," she says, and looks up at me with a shy, grateful smile. "Thanks. You know, I've seen you a few times. Filming."

  "You have?"

  She begins to unwind the bandage, and I force myself not to think about how she looks kneeling in front of me or how many times I've imagined just being near her like this. Hand-to-heaven, I'd change positions with her in a heartbeat.

  She unwraps the tape and begins to gently peel the bandage away. "Out at Dockside with your brothers. And once on the boat, when Mom heard you guys were docked."

  "Why didn't you say hi?" I ask. We're breaking the rules talking about the show--that sort of circular awareness that we're on television is a little too meta for the producers and, invariably, they cut it. But I love the idea that she's sought me out.

  All of this--every second--feels surreal.

  "I don't know," she admits, "I guess I wasn't sure you'd even remember who I was."

  "You think I wouldn't remember you?" I say, hoping she doesn't notice the embarrassing emphasis to my words.

  She nods, pulling the gauze from the puncture wound, and I hiss in a breath.

  "Sorry," she says, wincing. "I know it's sore. I've got to clean this out and irrigate it."

  "It's all right," I tell her. "Do what you need to do."

  I watch as she flushes out the wound, keeping my eyes on her face and not on the grotesque hole in my leg. The injury doesn't seem to faze her in the slightest; she works with gentle but meticulous focus.

  Seventeen episodes in and I know the producers want to see something of my off-hours--something personal. Finn and Harlow juggle their marriage in two places, and the audience loves their heat and humor. Colton sleeps with--and inevitably breaks up with--every pretty girl who crosses his path, and viewers eat it up. Matt and Giles have sent models out to talk to me and tried to get some of the cuter girls in town to hang around Dockside when we're filming, but, much to their disappointment, nothing ever happens. The few girls I've been attracted to seemed less interested in me and more interested in when the cameras might be around.

  I stare at Emmy only inches away, studying the curve of her mouth, the smooth slope of her cheekbones. Her face is so familiar and twangs some aching, vulnerable string inside me. My brothers think I'm a twenty-four-year-old virgin, and while it isn't true, I don't have a ton of notches on my bedpost, either.

  I don't play the game as well, I guess.

  But then it hits me. Is this as fake as the rest of it? How much are they paying Emmy to be here? What have they promised her?

  She blinks up as she finishes the final piece of tape and smiles proudly. "You're all set."


  She helps me stand, and, in the small space, it feels even more intimate. Always on the tall side, I shot up even more after high school. Emmy isn't small by any stretch, but she only comes up to just below my chin, and now she's standing with barely any space between us. I can feel the heat of her body, can smell her shampoo.

  "You okay?" she asks.

  I swallow. "Yeah."

  "Is there something--?" she says with a small giggle and touches the side of her face. "You're staring."

  I blink away. I can't get out of the bathroom until the camera moves, and then Emmy leaves, so I'm trapped. But fuck, the last thing I want to do is make her uncomfortable. "I'm sorry."

  Her fingers brush mine. "It's okay. I wasn't complaining."

  We're so close and she's right here. My brain goes fuzzy.

  The words are out before I can think better of it: "I was in love with you."

  Her eyes go wide, genuinely surprised. "You--what?"

  "Yeah. I ..." I look down, embarrassed. "I spent my entire life imagining what it would feel like to say that. I never imagined there'd be cameras around when I did."

  I try to smile to take the bite out of what comes next. "So, if you're here for money, Emmy, or to mess with me somehow ... just, go easy, all right?"

  I lift my chin to the cameraman, Dave, silently telling him we're done here.

  FINN CATCHES MY EYE when I come aboveboard, and I read the question in his face: All good?

  It's rhetorical; he knows me well enough to know I'm not thrilled with this entire situation. I've become hyperaware of every interaction I've had since the show started: locals who are suddenly my new best friends, girls from around town who never noticed me and now do, phone calls from distant relatives we haven't heard from in years. These all felt pretty obvious; I knew that kind of shit would happen.

  But this Emmy situation feels like a low blow: bringing in someone I had genuine feelings for and playing it for ratings?

  I move past Finn on my crutches, growling inwardly at the realization that nothing would feel better than some hard, physical labor right now. Instead, my options are limited to some rewiring we could do on the fuse box or sitting on the deck with a book while my brothers bust their asses for the camera.

  Nodding to one of the crew members that I need my tools, I move inside to the control room and pull up a stool. Guess for the time being I'm the ship's electrician.

  Finn and Colt give me a wide berth. I know we'll talk later. I don't know when Emmy comes upstairs to head over to the crew ship, but by the time we push off and into the open water, she's on the Lenny Lou behind us with the crew.

  Downstairs that night, it's a good forty-five minutes of eating our dinners in grunting silence before anyone brings it up.

  I can tell it's killing Colton, but for once he's keeping his shit together and leaving me alone. Finally, Finn wipes his mouth, puts his napkin on the table, and leans back, looking at me.

  "How'd it go?"

  I nod, eating another bite of canned green beans before answering. The crew has been waiting all day for this conversation.

  "Fine," I say.

  Finn nods, too, working to find the best way to do this without putting me on the spot too much
. "She's been working at Mount St. Mary's?"

  I take a swig of my beer. "Yeah."

  "Weird to see her, I bet," he says, and when I look up at him, his eyes are tight. Fuck. I know that face. He's been instructed to talk it out and hates it nearly as much as I do.

  Most of the things we've had to do for this show have been a breeze. Fix up the ship on their dime? No problem! Get more days off and get paid more out on the water? Sure thing! But these social things--the heart of the show, and we know it--really do suck sometimes. Viewers have watched our dad struggle with the health ramifications of a stroke he had over ten years ago; they've watched Harlow and Finn try to find their footing amidst distance and all this insanity. They want the danger and excitement of life out on the ocean, but they want the real parts, too. Unfortunately, the Roberts men aren't really known for being chatty.

  "Yeah, it was weird," I say, and fuck it. Might as well lay it all out there. It's not like she'll be around when it airs, anyway. "She's the only girl I ever liked that way, you know? But it's different now when people talk to us."

  "Yeah," Finn says.

  "And it's one thing if it's Mellie at the bar or Dustin calling to chat after we haven't seen him in seven years." I take another long pull of my beer before finishing my thought. "But to have someone I liked my whole life show up ... just makes it hard to trust."

  "Well," Colton says, leaning in, "look at it this way: if she's only around when the cameras are here, then you know."

  He's got a point.

  "Just let her do her job," Finn says quietly. "The way you look at each other is enough to have Matt and Giles dancing. You don't need to do any more."

  Dave grunts, irritated, from behind his camera. That'll have to be cut. But fuck it. I feel about a million times better just having talked it out a little.

  Emmy comes aboard the following morning with her little bag and a tentative smile. Goddamnit, she's sweet. I want to be irritated with her being here, but it's just not possible. It's not her fault that we did this show and it's left me paranoid about people's intentions.

  Even though I know, yeah, she may be here for the novelty of it, I'm still wary of being alone with her after my huge confession yesterday. So I pull my pants down inside the control room, in plain sight of everyone.

  Colt whistles, leaning on the lever that pulls up our biggest net. "Getting indecent up in here."

  Emmy blushes but gets to work.

  "Still doesn't hurt?" she asks again, feeling around the edge of the bandage.


  "It's not red, so that's a good sign," she says. I can only nod, not sure what more to say.

  Her hands are both careful and competent. And while she unwraps the bandage and takes care of me, she fills the space, asking about my brothers and about fishing, never once bringing up what I said.

  A week. A whole week with Emmy, every day. At first, it's a little stilted, but how can it be helped? Emmy is there a couple times a day, cleaning me up and then disappearing so the cameras can get all the shirtless filler footage and Levi-Hates-Sitting-Still footage they can handle. When a seine net is dumped on board and some of the fish escape the hold, Colton has one of the extra hands step in and take my place. A line snags on the way in, and I'm not quick enough to get to it before it breaks. But when Finn trips over one of my crutches and insists that surely it's time for Emmy to check my leg again, I lose my temper and throw a roll of electrical tape overboard--much to the delight of our producers who catch it all on film.

  She stays away otherwise, careful to give me space, but I start to look forward to our time together. I ask her about school in Oregon, and she tells me about joining the women's rowing team there. And I see it now, in the strength of her shoulders, her back. She asks me about my dad, and I tell her that he's stronger now but not as strong as he used to be.

  She fills the silence with quiet words; she doesn't boast, but she's never self-deprecating, either. Cynically, I try to read her to see whether she's watching for the camera or turning her body to face this way or that, but she never seems to.

  I don't want to like her, but it's getting harder and harder to remember why.

  Six days after Emmy first came aboard, we're finally back at port. Finn, Colton, and a bunch of the crew are off for a night out, which means beer, peanuts, and rude jokes at Dockside.

  I'm just coming out of the shower, my leg wrapped in plastic below my hip, when I hear someone walking aboveboard. It's after eight; everyone who would normally be here should have left an hour ago. When I check my phone, I don't see any missed calls.

  We have crew members guarding the boats in a sort of half-assed way all the time. Mainly because there's always someone tinkering with the equipment on the Lenny Lou or sleeping on the boat when we're docked. But even though there isn't anything all that valuable to take off the Linda, it doesn't always stop the local kids from climbing aboard and taking pictures they can share with their friends or post online.

  Pulling on a pair of sweats, I limp up the steps, calling out, "Who's up there?"

  When no one answers, my pulse picks up, and I grab the bat we always keep tucked just inside the door to the control galley.

  "It's not a good idea to climb up here, guys," I say, moving along the railing toward the stern, where the rear deck spreads out wide and flat. "Tons of stuff to get tangled in if you don't know what you're doing."


  I whip around at the sound of my name and then drop the bat, horrified.

  "I'm sorry!" She approaches, her face partially obscured in the darkness. "I didn't mean to startle you. I left my bag here and need it for my shift."

  "Holy hell, Emmy, you nearly got clocked in the head. You should have called."

  She shakes her head. "I don't have your number. Only Matt's. I thought you'd be out with everyone else."

  Glancing around, I see no cameras, no crew, no fuzzy mics hovering just out of view. "I know they want us all there, but a night at home sounded better to me."

  "Makes sense." She smiles, and this I can see in the darkness.

  I expect her to leave, to find her way to the dock, and head into town with everyone else, but she lingers instead, sliding her hand over the railing at her side.

  "Can I ask you something?"

  I nod, realizing we're truly alone for the first time. "Sure."

  "What happened the other day?" she asks, looking up at me after she says this. "You said you ... liked me, and then ..."

  I pause for a moment, not sure what to say. "I got wary, that's all," I admit finally. "All kinds of people are coming out of the woodwork since the show started. I don't mind it, usually, but when you showed up ..." I shake my head. "I didn't know what to think."

  She takes a step closer. "I can understand that." I feel her hand come over my forearm and slide higher, and it's only now that I realize I never put on a shirt.

  "I get it, how it would be hard to trust people." Her gaze is fixed on my face as she says, "It's not about the show for me. They asked around the hospital and when I heard it was you ... well. I guess I didn't like the idea of it being some sexy model-turned-nurse from Vancouver." She gives me a tiny, guilty smile. "I needed a break from the ER. And ... I like you. I always liked your family."

  I nod. There's a thunder rolling in my chest. It causes a riot inside me; my blood feels too hot. "Well," I say, struggling for breath, for words, "I ..."

  "But I do get it," she says, a little quieter now. "Why you'd be wary. If you liked me before, you probably think they're using me to get a reaction out of you."

  I laugh. "I'm sure they're using you to get a reaction out of me."

  "Well, I wanted you to know that I wasn't part of it," she says. "There was no subplot pitched to me. They asked for a nurse, and I agreed. I get it now, but I'm not here to play you."

  I nod, unsure what else to say. Having her so near me is almost painful. Of any of us Roberts boys, I have the least experience with women, but really
, I'm not all that surprised when she takes another step closer, and then another, so she's up against me.

  Her hands come to my chest--cold from the night air, maybe cold from nerves, too--and then she stretches, pressing her mouth against the pulse in my throat and whispering, "I wish you'd have said something when we were seventeen."

  I feel dizzy, and it has nothing to do with the movement of the boat. "What're we doing?" I ask, but my hands come around her waist, settling at that sweet curve between back and ass, and I hold her to me. Fuck, it's heady. How many times have I imagined this? She's warm and firm, and I could see how it might feel to pull her over me, when no one's around like this, and take my time making her feel good.

  "I don't know," she admits, and her voice shakes a little. "I just wanted to see you again. But then you said that thing about liking me, and being here all week ... watching you work out here ..."

  I chase her mouth, swallowing her words with my kiss, and it feels every bit as good as I dreamed it would. She makes these noises that seem to hit me as tiny pricks of heat, exploding all along my skin. I want to be slow, to go easy and notice every little touch, but it's hard when she's there, pushing me against the wall to the galley, her hands moving up and all over me.

  She likes my skin--I know because she tells me--and her fingers slide over every inch of my torso while her mouth is busy on mine. Pretty soon it's like her wildness gives me permission to do more than just stand there stunned by her, and I pull her onto the deck, undoing that little sweater so I can get my mouth on her, tasting the pulse in her neck. I want my hands on her, touching that sweet place between her legs that makes her gasp and bite me and beg.

  It's headed somewhere--fast--and I don't have anything.

  I pull away, groaning, because she's shoved my pants to my knees and has a grip on me, and it would be so goddamn easy to go right where we both want me.

  "Wait," I say, trying to distance myself from how good she feels on my fingers, how much better it would feel to ... "Do you have anything?"