Mari stared at the blue digits of her clock. 1:42. She would have sworn when she crawled into bed she would sleep like the dead. Every time she closed her eyes for too long the memories came rushing back though. She couldn’t forget the hard unyielding arm around her waist as she was dragged farther and farther from Reese or the fear of not knowing what horrible things the man intended to do to her.
She rolled onto her back, rubbing at her eyes. Sand could have been in them as gritty as they felt.
She jolted upright to find Reese in the doorway of her bedroom.
“There’s no trouble,” he said immediately.
Her shoulders slumped as she dragged a hand down her face.
She wasn’t getting to sleep any time soon. Even if there was a chance, her tiredness was no match for the curiosity for what he had planned. She tossed the covers back and got out of bed. The TV cast a soft glow over the living room. The light spilling over from the kitchen gave away Reese’s location. The sound of kernels popping made her smile.
Moments later the kitchen light cut off and Reese reappeared with a bowl of popcorn and drinks in hand.
“We just watched a movie,” she heard herself say even though she didn’t mind.
“You haven’t been still for more than 10 minutes since you went to bed so we’re watching another one.”
She didn’t have a rebuttal for that. She sat down onto the couch. He set their drinks on the coffee table and joined her.
“Blake’s just as bad as you,” he grumbled. “If I get another message from him, I’m just going to send you to him and be done with it.”
She grinned. She should probably feel guilty, but she liked knowing Blake cared enough to be worried. Reese’s mock annoyance amused her.
“You guys get along really well. I never did hear how you met.”
He arched a brow. “I’m a nice guy so how did I get caught up in all of this?”
She shrugged and tried to stifle her laughter as she scooped popcorn from the bowl. “Basically.”
“Someone I used to work for knew Blake. He pointed me in his direction when I needed more work.”
Mari leaned forward as she reached for her bottle.
“My mom had me young.”
It was a fight not to jerk around to face him. It was the most personal thing she ever heard him say. She made herself casually sit back and pop the top off the bottle.
“Her parents weren’t the supportive kind so she made her own way. My father was around for a while. He got himself killed when I was eight and it was just the two of us after that.”
She blinked at the hardness in his voice. “That sucks.”
“It did since we lost what bit of income he was bringing in. He wasn’t a bad father, but he wasn’t a good one either. His death wasn’t much of a loss outside of what we lost in money. I started doing little things here and there to make a couple of dollars, kept doing it as I got older. By the time I met Blake, I’d picked up a lot of different skills. He had a job I could do and he paid well so I took it.”
He snagged his bottle and took a long draw from it. “He taught me a lot and he did it without making it hard. There came a time when I had to choose if I wanted something different or if I wanted to stay. In the end, I chose to stay. Blake always made that worth it.”
She heard what he didn’t say. Blake became a father to him. She and Blake were bridging the gap now, but they would never get those years back. She should have resented Reese, but she couldn’t dredge up the bitterness. They…fit.
“I’m glad you had him.”
His gaze shot to her at the soft-spoken honesty. She tossed a handful of popcorn into her mouth with a smile. The soft sounds of the TV drew her attention and she snuggled into the couch.
“He changed my life,” Reese admitted a few moments later.
She tipped her head up and found his eyes on the screen.
“I’d have made it. I knew a lot of about survival by then and I had my mama to think about. I’d have been a different man though. I wouldn’t have liked becoming that man.”
If she thought about it, she would have hesitated. Since she didn’t, her hand covered his and squeezed.
“Then I’m really glad you had him and you got to become a man you like. My friends and I like that man too.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “You guys like everybody.”
She scoffed. “Definitely not true. We’re nice to everybody, but that doesn’t mean we like everybody. And you know Jules.”
He chuckled. “True.”
“So just accept the compliment,” she said rolling her eyes before giving her attention back to the TV.
“For what it’s worth, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt as comfortable as I’ve felt here.”
She beamed and squeezed his hand again. No more words were needed and they let the storyline of the movie they’d barely noticed draw them in.
Mari stirred and opened her eyes. She didn’t remember closing them. Through half-opened lids, she could make out Reese’s blurry features. They were moving. She only half registered his arms around her, holding her to his chest.
“Go back to sleep,” he encouraged quietly.
She was going to protest for the sake of protesting, but her eyes were so heavy. She dropped her head back down and sank into sleep once more.
Mari dragged the pillow from over her head, telling herself she needed to get going. The girls’ night had lasted well into the morning. All she wanted to do was sleep in. She was scheduled to work, though, and her sassy words to Reese about not slowing her down in the morning were coming back to haunt her.
With a groan, she tossed the pillow onto the other side of the bed and got up, snagging her clothes as she went. Reese was already dressed and sitting on the couch when she walked into the living room. She eyed him grumpily.
“You look awake. Really awake. Are you one of those early morning people?”
He glanced at his watch. “This question is coming from the woman who told me I needed to be ready to leave by five am?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Point taken. And just so you know, there’s no Allie breakfast on work mornings. It’s granola bars all the way. Sorry if you’ve gotten spoiled.”
She resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him. Instead she closed herself in the bathroom and tried to turn into a fully functioning human. By the time she finished showering and tamed her hair, she felt halfway there.
She swung into the kitchen to toss a handful of granola bars into the open bag on the counter before she added two bottles of water. She spun around to lay eyes on her boots just inside the doorway. She stuck her feet into them, reaching down to get them on all the way. The guilt hit.
“Did you want something to eat?” she asked her boots. “Like real food?”
“The granola buffet will do.”
That startled a laugh out of her as she straightened to retrieve the bag. “Granola buffet. I’ll have to use that. We’ll get a really good lunch from Kojo’s. Best BBQ anywhere in the world. Don’t tell Allie I fed you granola bars for breakfast.”
He didn’t say anything and she chose to take that as she had his silence. She grinned and swung the bag over her shoulder. “Alright, let’s get going. Keon will cry for an hour if I’m late.”
He beat her to the door, stepping out before her and taking what seemed to be a casual look around. Just that quickly his true reason for being there came rushing back. She shook out her hands before she turned to lock the door. By the time she moved toward the truck, she’d wrestled the nerves back under control. It was all precautionary. There was nothing to worry about.
They drove to the beach in silence. Mari liked that he didn’t intrude on her morning routine, asking her to play music or trying to fill the silence with unnecessary small talk. She enjoyed the sounds of the island slowly waking up and then the gentle sounds of the waves as they got close.
She parked on the side of the shop and hopped out. She reached back in for her bag, but Reese was already shouldering it. With quick thanks, she led the way up the sidewalk to the shop. Country music reached her ears before she opened the door.
“Would you turn that noise off?” she called over the music.
“You still don’t appreciate good music,” Keon shot back without missing a beat. “You’re almost late.”
“Almost isn’t late. You’re going to make my friend’s ears bleed.”
Keon turned from the display he was working on and the frown that had started to form eased up. “That’s not Tyler.”
“You’re the most observant person I know,” Mari said, rolling her eyes. “Keon, this is Reese. He’s a friend of the family. Reese, this is Keon.”
“The one who rescued you from what would have been a very painful drowning death,” Reese recollected.
Keon’s laughter filled the room and Mari shot Reese a glare. He stared innocently at her, but she saw the twitch of his lips.
“Nice to meet you, Reese,” Keon said warmly as he came across the room to offer his hand. “It’s nice to have someone around who appreciates my efforts.”
“You know what? Why don’t the two of you just hang out together today?”
“C’mon Mari, is that any way to treat the man who saved your life?” Keon asked.
He looped an arm around her and yanked her playfully into him.
“You are such a little menace,” she grumbled with a playful punch to his gut.
He let go of her, dramatically clutching his stomach and groaning.
“See how they treat heroes around here? Don’t let her mistreat you.”
“I’ll be on my guard,” Reese promised solemnly.
“You’re a riot. Really.” Mari rounded the counter to the register.
“You’re hanging with Mari for the day?” Keon asked.
“Yeah, I’m tagging along.”
“Jeez, Mari, you got a friend in town and you couldn’t take off a day?”
“Reese bores easily. I have to keep him entertained somehow so I figured I’d bring him to the biggest clown I know.”
“Ha. Ha. Ha. Hilarious,” Keon drawled.
“I know, aren’t I?” Mari beamed at him. “Now, let’s get to work.”
The morning passed quickly enough with the three of them working to change out the displays and reorganize the store. When Keon left for a tour, Reese helped around the store and even assisted some of the customers who wandered in.
Keon had playfully warned him about being mobbed at Kojo’s, but he’d insisted on going. She snuck a look over at Reese sitting in the driver’s seat now. The way he’d interacted with Keon and the customers surprised her. Sure, he was supposed to be a family friend, so he couldn’t very well walk around looking like a bodyguard. She still hadn’t anticipated him fitting in so easily. Keon was already more at ease with Reese than he ever was with Tyler when they left to pick up lunch.
Mari blinked and realized she’d been caught staring. “Nothing. I was just thinking.”
He didn’t call her on it, which she was grateful for.
“Keon was teasing, but you really might want to brace yourself. The island is pretty open and friendly. Everyone is going to want to introduce themselves.”
“I can handle it.”
After the way he’d handled Keon, she was inclined to believe him. He pulled into a spot at the far end of the parking lot. The lot itself was packed as was expected. They strolled up toward the restaurant. She waved to a couple coming out while Reese caught the door and held it open. Multiple greetings hit her at once when she walked in. She returned them with ease.
“Who’s Handsome?” an older woman called out with a flirtatious bat of her eyes.
Mari laughed. “This is Reese. He’s a family friend.”
“Where’s Tyler? He might want to keep an eye on this one. Of course, I can take him off your hands and Tyler won’t need to worry at all.”
Mari looked up at Reese speculatively. He shot her a warning look that made her laugh and shake her head. “I can’t give him away, but I’m sure he appreciates the offer.”
They joined the line and the couple ahead of them turned with welcoming smiles.
“Good to meet ya. The name’s Yuri,” the man said. “This is my wife, Giana. How long are ya here for?”
“For a while. I’m taking it easy and enjoying the island. Mari has a lot to show off.”
“You’ve got that right and she’s the best one to show ya. Mari, we should do a party for Reese here. Show him some island hospitality.”
“That’s a great idea!” His wife was ecstatic at the thought. “Tonight?”
“Tomorrow night!” Someone else shouted. “I’ll bring the punch.”
“I’ll get wood for the fire.”
“Somebody tell the boys and we’ll get the music going.”
In mere minutes the entire thing was planned. Mari peeked at Reese to see how he was taking it. There was a small smile on his face when his eyes came to her. “I told you,” she mouthed.
Several more people drew Reese into conversation as the line continued to move. It was busy, but Kojo ran a smooth operation. Before too long, she stepped up to the counter.
“Your usual?” Kojo’s son asked.
“Yeah.” She reached in her back pocket for her wallet. “Throw in a rack of ribs and extra fries. Add Keon’s usual order too.”
Before she could pull out the cash, Reese was already handing over bills.
“It was supposed to be my treat,” she told him as they shifted off to the side.
Reese let himself be engaged in more conversation rather than respond to her protest. Mari took the opportunity to watch him. Even with his focus on the conversation with Giana, Yuri, and Petina, she knew he was still aware of her. He had the same easiness with them he’d shown with Keon throughout the day. It was entertaining to watch.
“Hey there, Little Girl.”
Mari broke into a huge grin at the sound of that voice and lost her interest in Reese. Kojo came walking around the counter with his arms open for her. She went into them without hesitation, resting against his solid bulk.
“Who’s your friend?”
“Family friend visiting for a while. I would’ve been tossed in the ocean if I didn’t bring him to the best BBQ on the island.”
Kojo’s mustache curved with his smile. “You always were a little flatterer. I’ve got a cake coming out-”
“We’ll take it.”
Reese laughed as he joined her side. “If she’s so excited she didn’t even have to hear what cake, I’m looking forward to tasting it.”
“Just don’t let Keon get to it first or between the two of them, you’ll never get a bite.”
His laugh deepened. “I appreciate the tip.”
“I might be persuaded to share a tiny sliver with you. Just so you understand why you couldn’t get a whole slice.”
“Generous, ain’t she?” Kojo teased.
“It’s more than the granola buffet we had for breakfast.”
Mari gaped at him. “You weren’t supposed to tell anybody about that!”
“You said don’t tell Allie, not don’t tell anybody,” he countered innocently.
“Men!” She scoffed. “For that, I’m not sharing the cake!
Kojo’s laughter shook his body and filled the restaurant space. “Some things never change.” He accepted the bags one of his workers brought up to the counter and passed them to Mari. “You might not be any use the rest of the day, but your taste buds and your stomach will thank you.”
Mari reached into one of the bags to snag a fry. “Thanks, Kojo. See you tomorrow?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Welcome to Sakina, Reese.”
“Thanks, Kojo. It was good to meet you.” He smiled around the restaurant. “It was good to meet you all. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
A chorus of goodbyes met his statement and followed them out the door. Once they were back in the truck, Mari cranked it up and put it in reverse.
“I tried to warn you. You handled yourself though. It’s like one huge family here. It always has been. It made it really hard to get into too much trouble when I was younger. Someone was on the phone with Raoul before I even made it home.”
“I’ll bet. What was that like?”
“Frustrating.” She laughed as she pulled onto the road. “But I never once felt unloved. After losing my mama, it was exactly what I needed. I belonged to everybody.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “I can see how that would’ve filled a void in a way. Not her void, but it would’ve eased the sting.”
“Exactly. The whole ‘it takes a village’ thing is real here. When they claim you, they claim you.”
“How would they react if someone were to come around asking questions about you?”
“They wouldn’t give away anything and they’d be on the phone with Raoul or me as soon as they could be. Tourism is a big part of our way of life here, but outsiders are still outsiders. I don’t think there’s any place safer for me than right here.”
He gave a short nod as if he’d expected the answer.
They arrived back at the shop a few minutes later and made their way inside. Mari set the bags on the table in the side room. Keon was right behind Reese, rubbing his hands in anticipation.
“Island shindig tomorrow night,” Mari told him as she pushed him away from the second bag to rescue the cake.
“For Reese?” he asked as he made a grab for it before digging back into the bag. “That didn’t take long.”
“I’m pretty sure his head’s still spinning at how quickly it was planned.”
“Maybe a little,” Reese admitted with a rueful shrug.
Keon clapped his back as he came away with his container. “They’ll suck you in, man. Just let it happen.”
As they ate their lunch and Reese praised the cooking, Mari wondered if maybe just a touch of what made the island special would rub off on Reese.