Jessica reminded Rebekah for the tenth time to text her the minute she was on the school bus and kissed her good-bye. “And don’t forget to lock up.”
“Mom, Jeremy is going to be late for his first day if you don’t leave now! I’ve got this. You weren’t this worried in Boston—big city, bus routes, scary. Look around, just saying.”
“I knew Boston. I knew our neighbors.”
“I’ll be fine. If you’re so worried, when I get my license—”
“Stop. I’m not ready to go there.”
Rebekah kissed her cheek. “I know, Momma.”
Jeremy was patiently buckled in the front seat when she climbed in. “Sorry. I know you’re excited and nervous.”
“It’s fine, Mom. You know they offer a boarding option if the hour drive every day becomes too much.”
“I enjoy the drive. Besides, my rush-hour commute in Boston was always an hour minimum, and the scenery wasn’t nearly as nice. I’m going to look for a bartending or server job in town to give me something to do while you’re in class.”
The ocean was on either side of them for most of the ride to Nags Head.
She watched him enter the Coastal and Oceanography Studies Institute and promptly burst into tears just as she had his first day of kindergarten. “Jesus, this is ridiculous. When did my kids grow up?”
She circled the parking lot when she noticed him waving her down in the rearview mirror. She returned to the entrance and rolled down the window. “What’s up?”
“The director wants to speak with you.”
“Fuck, what now?”
“I’m keeping track; just because the jar didn’t come with us—”
She held up her hand. “I know. I know. I’ll park.”
Jessica parked and hurried inside. She was promptly met by a windblown and sunburned middle-aged man. “Mrs. Williams, welcome to the Coastal and Oceanography Studies Institute. I’m Whitaker Baumgartner, institute director, and I feel we have a misunderstanding.”
—eccentric and legendary explorer, conservationist, innovator, scientist, photographer, author, filmmaker, and researcher known for spending his life studying and advocating for all ocean life, who now apparently had added passing his knowledge on to the next generation to his résumé. Jessica was in awe for most of the hour he showed her around the campus.
She returned to her SUV with a handful of tissues wadded up in her hand, the director’s words echoing in her brain. “Student boarding isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. Jeremy will be allowed a home visit every third weekend. He will be fine. Relax. Take a deep breath.”
She’d promised to bring his packed bag back at the end of the day.
Relax? Take a deep breath?
Was the man fucking insane?
Jessica climbed behind the wheel, buckled, and exhaled. “Now what?”
She drove the hour back to the beach house, packed his bag for a three-week stay, and headed back out. Well, there’s no point getting a job in Nags Head. Maybe there’s something here in town.
She had driven past every bar and seafood house on the loop when she saw a hand-written window sign. AFTERNOON SERVER NEEDED. IMMEDIATE START. MUST BE TWENTY-ONE.
She parked. The building looked fairly dive-esque. She stopped and read the menu posted by the door. Captain Jack’s Seafood and Suds apparently offered the largest selection of local and craft beers on the island, along with daily-catch specials.
She took a deep breath and marched in, then went straight to the bar.
“What can I get you today?” The man behind the bar was tall, blond, very tan, and extremely muscular; his chiseled arms delayed her ability to meet his gaze. She finally did, saying, “I wanted to fill out an application for the server position.”
“Awesome.” He bent down, she assumed to grab the paperwork from beneath the bar.
Her gaze caught on a display case behind him filled with framed photos of soldiers in action, war obviously exploding around them.
The air caught in her lungs, refusing to go in or out.
Lungs exploding, she glanced at each wall and discovered war memorabilia and action photos were the theme. Fuck.
She raced from the room as fast as she could, barely making the edge of the parking lot before she doubled over and threw up.
JOSEF DEVRIES WATCHED the captivating woman with auburn hair and emerald-green eyes race out of his seafood-and-beer joint. It had been a long time since he’d garnered that tragic of a reaction from anyone. He exhaled as a muscle tightened in his jaw. The last few years, he’d been lulled into a peaceful acceptance his body was marred, so even the occasional child’s curious inquiry as to how he’d gotten hurt didn’t faze him.
From a window seat, Bob, one of his regulars, said, “Hey, Joe, you should go check on her. I think something’s wrong. She just dropped in the grass.”
Joe frowned. Yeah, seeing me. No doubt.
“Can I talk you into going out there and checking on her, Bob?”
Bob patted his knee and tapped his cane. “Storm coming in, buddy. I’m staying planted right here until you toss me out sometime after dinner.”
“I only toss you out because if I don’t, you drink too much after sunset.”
“Darkness draws the demons of the past in. You’ll understand the nearer you get to the grave.”
“Aren’t you cheery this morning?” Joe brushed off the front of his spotless black polo with the Captain Jack’s Seafood and Suds
logo and pushed a hand through his hair before managing to gather enough courage to go outside. He hadn’t been nervous about the scar covering part of his right cheek, jaw, neck, shoulder, and pec for years. He’d survived the burn unit in Germany and half a dozen surgeries in a US treatment and rehabilitation center before being honorably discharged from the marines. Seeing others in worse shape than himself hadn’t made his pain less, but it had helped him appreciate how lucky he was. He hated to think of it as luck, but what else was there? He certainly didn’t believe in a higher power, not that he ever had, but if he had, war would have stolen the delusion, he was certain of that.
“Are you okay?” His shadow fell across her, and he could tell she’d vomited and was still sobbing. “Is there anything I can do?”
She took a deep breath, wiped her face, and stood. Her hands were still shaking when she admitted, “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Tell me what happened? Was it me?”
“What?” She frowned and seemed not to understand, so he turned his head and pointed at the scars. He saw the shock register in her eyes as she understood what he was asking.
“God, no! Not you; I hadn’t even noticed,” she assured him, explaining quickly, “It’s me; I didn’t realize it was a soldier hangout, or I would have never gone in. All the memorabilia, the photos… It was unexpected, and I panicked.”
“Something against the military?” he asked, not even attempting to censor his critical tone.
“I love our armed forces. I’m a patriot. I just—” She closed her eyes and shook her head. She covered her grimace with her hand as tears slid down her face, leaving him suddenly feeling like an ass.
He asked softly, “Were you a soldier?”
She shook her head. “My husband…was… He was killed in a raid.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe whispered, lightly touching her arm. She seemed older than he’d expect for an enlisted man’s wife, and he hadn’t heard of any officers being killed recently.
Before he could ask, she supplied, “I never really dealt with it. You know? It hurts, and the pain is there every day, but life goes on and gets busy. I had kids to raise, a career to build, and I kept putting off feeling anything because there wasn’t time.
“Even though I cried from loneliness every night, there wasn’t acceptance. Then the kids were suddenly old enough for sleepovers, and I would try to face the loss, the anger, but I’d end up getting really drunk and just wallow in the misery of isolation. I’ve been putting off facing my husband’s death for ten years that way.
“I should have realized with Camp Lejeune so close, there was bound to be a time I might bump into someone in uniform.” She opened her eyes and met his gaze. “I just sold the house we shared, left the town he was supposed to come home to—the town he grew up in. His parents lived just a few miles from our house—and I had to stop pretending he was going to walk through the front door. God, why am I telling you any of this? I swear I’m not usually so—”
“Ten years is a long time to wait for a ghost to return.”
She exhaled, nodding. “Yes, it is.”
She wiped her face, her cheeks red. “I’ve never cried in front of people and lately I’m all waterworks. Sorry. To say I’m tragically embarrassed is an understatement.”
“Sometimes a good cry on someone’s shoulder is what it takes to move on.”
“What if I start and don’t stop?”
“You’ll stop eventually, and that’s when you can move on.” He smiled, trying to hold on to her emerald gaze, the tears and redness making them suddenly seem more aquamarine. “Tell me about him.”
Her face crumpled, and she shook her head hard. “I can’t.”
Joe pulled her into his arms and let her sob. He’d been to a lot of funerals over the years, held too many sobbing widows at gravesides, and none of them had affected him the way the woman he was holding now was. He wanted to shield her and protect her from ever being hurt again. She’d obviously loved her husband very deeply. Ten years, holding in this much sadness, he wondered how she’d ever survived it.
When she finally stopped crying, he asked, “Better?”
It took her a moment to meet his gaze again. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel like there are no tears left.”
“That’s a good start. Want to try to come in again? You can meet the regulars, tell me about yourself, maybe drink a beer?”
“Would the regulars be the old guys lined up in the window?”
“That would be the ones, but don’t call them old within hearing distance. They’re all delusional timeworn farts. They’re nosy as hell and gossip like a bunch of old women. When they aren’t at the bar, they’re out on their boats, trying to entice a fish or two, and the fish stories get more elaborate with each telling though mostly they just tell their war stories to each other again and again just like Vietnam happened yesterday.”
“Yesterday isn’t so far away,” she whispered.
He closed his eyes for only a moment, long enough to call himself about a dozen different names and none of them good. “Come inside. The shock won’t be so great the second time around. I promise.”
“Maybe another time.”
“Any time you like is good.” He offered his hand. “Josef DeVries, but everyone just calls me Joe.”
“So not Captain Jack?” she asked teasingly. She took hold of his hand and shook it firmly. “I’m Jessica Williams.”
“Nice to meet you, Jessica, and no, not Captain Jack; he’s my brother.”
She smiled, ducking her head. “It was nice to meet you. I’m gonna go now before I embarrass myself further.”
“Come by for that beer anytime, and if you still want to apply for the job, I can guarantee it will be yours.”
“You haven’t even seen my résumé.”
“I don’t need to see your résumé. I’ve seen you
, and I’m a pretty good judge of people. I believe you’re a good person.”
She bit her lip. “What are the hours?”
“Ten a.m. to two p.m., Monday to Friday, any weekend you can pitch in all day would be great, but I know you said you had kids, so I won’t hold it against you if you can’t work any weekends at all. Although the tips are definitely better on the weekends.”
“You don’t have to confer with Captain Jack about hiring me?”
“No. I’m the sole proprietor. I should have explained better before. Jax is my kid brother and has been MIA since 2002. Afghanistan. The government listed him as Killed-in-Action-Body-Not-Recovered; makes the paperwork easier and allows his wife and kids to collect death benefits, so I get the fact a decision was necessary. Just seems odd to me because all the bodies from the rest of his team were found and brought home.”
“God, I’m so sorry.” She shook her head and reached up to stroke his cheek. Her hand brushed over the scars like they weren’t even there, and his breath caught in his chest as her fingertips lingered. “I wish there was more I could say. I’m sorry is never enough.”
She pulled her hand away. “Sorry. I’m—sorry. Touching an almost-employer improperly is definitely an HR violation. I’d understand if you withdrew the job offer.”
He burst out laughing. “I don’t know who your last employer was, lady, but there’s definitely no HR here. Can you start tomorrow?”
She kicked a small stone. They both watched it skitter across the parking space. Joe worried she’d say no and he’d never see her again. The thought alone was devastating. When she finally said yes, it was all he could do to hold himself back from giving her a hug that would lift her off the ground.
“Awesome!” He smiled wider than he’d smiled in a long time, and his heart thrilled a little when she smiled at him in return.
What am I doing? This is gonna be so bad. This is playing with fire.
“What should I wear to work?”
“I’ll have a logo polo shirt for you, so typically shorts and rubber-soled shoes. The outside decks can be pretty slippery when wet, and pop-up showers rarely discourage outside dining for long enough for the painted planks to dry. The only time we don’t wear shorts and polos is when the temperature drops below fifty degrees, so have a pair of khaki-color capris or slacks ready for those days, and I’ll have a Captain Jack’s hoodie in your size.”
She frowned. “Days
as in there aren’t many days less than fifty degrees?”
He chuckled. “Few and thankfully far between, although we have been caught with our guard down and had snow or ice storms hit that pretty much closed down the entire island. No one out here can drive in those conditions, so it gets pretty wild.”