The appearance of attempted perfection irritated her beyond reason. It always had. People should own their imperfections, wearing signs announcing their greatest sins and top three weaknesses. It would make life so much easier. Discovering the positive would be like receiving unexpected gifts throughout the year, slowly unwrapping them one at a time. The delight of untying the ribbon when an opportunity to shine arose. Then, the peeling back of the tape—seeing the potential for what lie inside. Finally, the grand reveal of what the paper hid. Delight would ensue. Eyes wide open, one could truly appreciate the prize knowing the flaws up front.
But to be sidelined and eventually pummeled by the discovery of deception, addiction, and infidelity. Unacceptable. And predictable. Truth be told, the predictability mocked loudest of all. The dramatic sigh that escaped red-ruby lips gave away her exhaustion. Life could be so—complicated. But it didn’t have to be—it really didn’t.
All she wanted to do was sit solo at her table for two, sip a glass of red wine, stare at the storm brewing over the Atlantic, and contemplate the disaster of the last three decades.
And there he was–a stranger—gorgeous, groomed to perfection, and gazing at her as if she were from another planet.
Granted, her disheveled appearance raised more than one eyebrow as she ran up the steep wooden stairs to the second level of the BlueWater Grille on St. Simons Island, plopped in a chair, and quickly ordered her drink, waving away the waiter and the menu as if they were both a nuisance.
To sip and to watch.
That’s all she wanted. Human contact was not desired or necessary. Ironic conviction filled her spirit. Yet, she came here, a place filled with chattering, happy people. Whereas her semi-private oceanfront cottage sat less than a mile away, stocked with bottles of expensive red wine. She crumpled the napkin in her hand until her fingernails cut into her palm. Let him stare. Damn, let them all stare. She didn't care. Not about him, not about anything anymore. Humiliation and shame had worked their way inside her gut, poisoning every cell, every drop of blood. She bit her bottom lip, stifling a sob that threatened to provoke everyone in earshot to dial 911. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—do this, not now.
She was a mess. Anyone with eyes and a willingness to see outside of their bubble could ascertain that the woman sitting in the corner, eyes glued to the violent waves of the unpredictable sea was distressed. In fact, if his observation was accurate, she knew he’d been watching her and she didn’t appreciate it—at all. If he had to guess, she was in her early to mid-thirties, a timeless beauty accented by polish only achieved with the flipping of pages on a calendar. But her cerulean blue eyes betrayed a jaded bitterness that only came with school-of-hard-knocks experience.
For the past three hours, the ominous storm clouds that had been hovering the majority of the day had erupted with jarring thunder and bolts of awe-inspiring lightning. Buckets poured from the heavens, soaking anyone who dared to venture out of doors. He suspected the sleek, black designer raincoat tied securely at the waist covered the worst of the damage, but water droplets fell from her collapsing up-do and evidence of inky black mascara connected the splash of freckles covering her cheekbones and led a path to the dimpled chin she cupped in her palm. She’d been crying, but the hardness in her gaze suggested the tears were more from anger than sadness. Finally, she turned. Not much startled him, but the defiant expression on her face caused him to shift uncomfortably in his seat at the bar.
“Is there something that you want?” Aimed knives hurled at his person couldn’t have communicated her resentment at his intrusion more efficiently.
Slowly, he reached for his wallet, laid a twenty on the bar, and signaled the bartender he wanted to cover both their tabs. He grabbed his ice-filled glass, slid from his seat and walked to her table. But now, her gaze had shifted back toward the tumultuous view, making him think he imagined her accusatory question.
He cleared his throat.
“May I?” He would have motioned to the opposite chair, but she wasn’t looking at him. Nevertheless, he took the slight lift of a black-clad shoulder as permission and took a seat.
“I’m Liam. And your name?”
Seconds passed as five, six, seven blinks and a slight turn of the head signaled she heard him or even acknowledged his existence. Finally, she straightened her posture, and he watched in amazement as the distressed woman transformed into the picture of poised sophistication.
Her arm reached across the table where, to his surprise, a firm, smooth grip squeezed his hand. “Zoe. My name is Zoe.”
He didn’t let go but leaned forward holding her gaze. “Thank you for telling me your name.”
One dark eyebrow rose as her head cocked to the side and arms crossed her chest. “May I ask why you’ve been staring at me for the last hour, Liam?” She took a moment to examine him carefully before continuing, “You look like you’ve seen a few birthdays. Surely a woman scorned is not a new sight.”
Liam Benedict, known in his circle of influence as a straight shooter, wasn’t intimidated by directness; in fact, he welcomed it. A hater of games and manipulation, he felt an immediate connection to this line of conversation and something—he didn’t know what—compelled him to find out more about this woman.
“Is that what you are—a woman scorned?”
In one swift motion, she rose from her chair, pushed it in, inclined her head towards the bartender who looked at Liam. She barely glanced at him, but said, “Thank you for the drink.”
She started to walk past him, leaving him dumbfounded and disappointed. But then a sensation of pressure on his shoulder caused him to look up into eyes he knew would come to haunt him if he didn’t discover the whole story. “If you want to know, walk with me.”
He followed without comment or question.
Zoe Stone supposed she should be thankful for the shelter from the storm provided by the length of the St. Simons pier that extended over the Sound. As a child, the dock represented a place of hope, where dolphins, whales, and giant cargo ships gave her spectacular contrasts of nature coupled with man’s aptitude for ingenuity. Even in the days of hopelessness, she found an element of childlike whimsy in the view of the lighthouse and the sights and sounds of island life.
Typically chock-full of strolling tourists and fishermen, the inclement weather had chased everyone from the village inside—everyone except her and the curious man that walked by her side. Zoe’s ears were attuned to his footsteps and the pattern of breaths as he stretched his long legs to keep up with her signature fast-paced, determined gait. She sensed his surprise as she turned left, ignoring the benches meant for visiting, and continued walking away from the sheltered part of the pier, obviously enjoying the sensation of the steady rain on her upturned face.
The real danger of the storm had passed. Anyone who lived on the island knew that. The thunder had become a distant roar, and the lightning was scarce. But the rain—the cleansing rain—was steady and strong.
“You can turn back if you like. I’m fine by myself, you know. Isolation was the original idea.”
Apparently, her sarcasm didn’t deter him. “You promised me a story.”
She reached the end of the pier and sat down on the concrete, swinging her legs towards the choppy waves. Closing her eyes, she laid flat on her back, fluttering jet black eyelashes against the drops that continued to flow in gray rivulets down her face. Almost entirely bare of makeup, she bent her neck back sizing him up and replied, “I promised you nothing. I offered you an opportunity, and if you want to hear the abbreviated version of the past year of my life, then have a seat.”
A voice emptied of emotion recounted in a matter of fact tone, “Suit yourself, Liam. Although, it’s not worth your time.” The backs of both hands rested on her forehead as she continued, “You could go to any drugstore and choose a novel from the book rack and read the plot of the last three years of my life.” A bitter laugh rang into the night. “Make that the last three decades, but I’ll spare you the full story. A desperate woman meets a charming man. Charming man deceives desperate woman. Desperate woman chooses to remain blind and ignore all signs of Charming being a bad person. The desperate woman agrees to marry Charming amidst protests of everyone who has ever loved her. She knows best, as she always does—except she doesn’t. Desperate woman catches Charming and best friend making out in the reception hall before the wedding ceremony. A desperate woman leaves a sea of knowing, pitiful looks behind as she gets in her car and drives to the only place she’s ever called home.”
He shifted his shoulders and looked down into her face before saying, “Forgive me, but you don’t strike me as a desperate woman.”
A magnetic force led her hand to caress his eyebrow. The shock on his face at her touch, evident. “Then you’re blind.”
Liam’s heavily lidded brown eyes were glued to the woman beside him as her hand dropped from his face and fell on her flat stomach. Words like broken, damaged, and hurt linked up with a dozen other adjectives to describe her persona—desperate wasn’t among the list. But there was a story, maybe a book, behind the summary she just shared. Was he willing to dig into the pages and engage the main character? Something inside him—he knew not what—told him to persist.
She spoke into the night, “Sorry to have wasted your time, but I have no idea who you are, and if you thought the poor girl at the bar would be an easy score tonight, then you’re wrong. I couldn’t be less interested.”
Deep down that stung. A one night stand or any stand at all wasn’t what he was interested in, but the fact that she called him out on it and rejected any intention—misplaced or not—did throw an arrow into the heart of his male ego. He couldn’t deny it. “I’m not interested in seducing you, Zoe. You’re the one that’s blind if that’s what you think.”
She seemed to consider his words before sitting up. The rain had stopped, and the lighthouse combined with the moonlight cast an eery glow over the ebb and flow of the waves.
Even so, there were few sights as beautiful as the sea after a storm. Was that what she was? An unpredictable entity that he needed to navigate with caution?
“Maybe, but still, I don’t know you. And I need to go home.”
She got up and started walking in the direction of Neptune Park, never once looking back.