Sunset Beach was nothing short of paradise.
In this hideaway along the sunny coast of California, forests splash across the mountains like haphazard paint, blending into beautiful golden coasts that have been featured in more than one getaway brochure. In a cluster of mansions, movie stars, former beauty queens, and inner-peace seekers flocked and gathered whenever the winter ended, the temperature rising to a constant, comfortable seventy degrees.
Derick Fischer’s mom had always said he was the only person in the world who could be miserable in paradise. But he was a realist. He didn’t live in Sunset Beach with stars in his eyes and a Rolex on his wrist.
The night was warm, a gentle breeze coming in from the happy-lapping waves that licked and teased at the edge of the beach. A sandcastle, built during the day by a child, was beginning to erode. Footprints traced across the sand like a greeting card.
There was a bonfire, perfectly constructed in the way of Sunset shore parties. Seasoned veterans of the winter months had been posting flyers for the first party of the season, and people ranging from teenagers to their thirties had begun to gather. Every party brought a cooler, and one group had brought a grill, filling the air with the scent of burgers and vegetable skewers.
He lounged on a deck chair he’d brought from his front porch, a beer in one hand, the other idly tugging at the fraying edges of the cup holder. He wore a polo shirt and board shorts, his flip flops tucked safely beneath his chair, toes dug into the cool, clumping sand.
“Derick!” He lifted his head as he heard his name and saw his younger brother Jake running to him, skidding to a halt in a spray of sand. In the orange light of the fire, Jake’s black chest tattoo looked like a hole in his heart. His grin was wide, cheeks red from running around. Someone had hooked up a speaker system, thumping generic, pulsing house music around the gathered party. “Come on, man, don’t just sit there like a wallflower. Get up and dance!”
“With you?” Derick replied, brow arching. He took another sip of his beer. It was cheap and tasted more like water, slow to hit and barely able to give him more than a light buzz, but it was enough to take the edge off, He was three into the six-pack he’d brought for himself and Jake. Jake had a habit of leeching off others, and he was much more of a lightweight, so Derick wasn’t surprised to see him already stumbling over his own bare feet, in that way drunkards did when they were having a great time.
Jake laughed and waved him off with a dismissive hand gesture. “Fine, be that way,” he said with a roll of his eyes, too caught up in the high of the first good party of the season to let Derick bring him down. Derick had always admired that about him; their mother said Derick was the only one miserable in paradise, but Jake was the kind of guy who would be happy in the darkest pit of Hell.
Jake disappeared into the crowd again, and Derick’s lips pursed. He liked people watching more than actually engaging with strangers. His gaze took in the close-pressed bodies of men and women, grinding together to the pulsing music, laughing loudly, sharing drinks and blunts between them. Some had brought tents, which were already erected and forming a miniature semi-circle around the back of the bonfire, far enough away that even when the tide came in, they would remain dry.
He tilted his head as a shadow came to a halt at his side, lifting his gaze to see a woman standing next to his chair, her arms folded and her lips pursed in a considering frown. She was wearing a loose-fitting t-shirt that fell to the tops of her thighs, tucked in the front of her high-wasted shorts that were so small the back of her shirt fell farther than the hem did. His gaze slid almost helplessly down her bare legs, noting the tiny ring of ivy tattooed around her left ankle.
He cleared his throat and she turned to look at him, her hair falling like a mane around her shoulders, obscuring half of her face, the other half hidden from the firelight, so all he could really see of her was the tip of her nose and her askew smile. He lifted his drink in offering.
Her head tilted, and she tucked her hair behind her ear, letting Derick take in a single, dark, arched brow, a fine cheekbone, a little crease of shadow at the corner of her smile.
“Got a sealed one?” she asked.
Derick grinned and bent down to pull an unopened bottle from his stash beneath his chair. He handed it to her and watched, huffing an impressed laugh, as she pulled a little stag-shaped bottle opener from her pocket and expertly opened the bottle, tossing the cap into the fire.
She tipped the beer back, drinking half of it down before coming up for air, and gave Derick an unimpressed look, nose wrinkled in charming dislike. “You have terrible taste,” she told him.
“No, my brother does,” Derick replied, gesturing to where Jake was clinging tight to a girl near the fire, his face buried in her neck and her fingers digging tight into his back as they swayed to the music. The girl’s lips pursed again, and she gave him a considering look.
“Heather,” she replied and playfully kicked some sand Derick’s way. “So, what’s your poison of choice?”
Derick smiled and lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I just like what I like.” His mother wasn’t exactly known for running a dry house, and he’d had more than his fair share of experiments that could go wrong, or very, very right. Heather nodded like this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say, and Derick gestured to the mound of sand next to him. “Do you want to sit?”
Heather considered him for a moment before her face split into a wide grin, like a cat that had just caught sight of a mouse. “Sure,” she chirped and circled to stand between Derick’s feet. She leaned down, her shirt sagging so that he could see the fabric of her bright blue bathing suit top, and braced her hands on the armrests of Derick’s chair, sliding her beer bottle into the empty holder.
One of her knees came forward, sliding down the outside of Derick’s thigh, finding the open space between armrest and seat, and she straddled his lap with a graceful roll of her hips and a pretty, soft sigh. She pulled her hair to one side, falling down her shoulder, revealing her neck and where the collar of her shirt fell wide around the top of her arm, the swimsuit strap on display like a streak of daylight on golden sand.
Derick blinked up at her, surprised at her forwardness, and Heather laughed. “You looked more comfortable,” she purred, her knees sinking back farther as she slid closer to him. One of her hands rested on his chest, her other elbow settling on Derick’s shoulder, fingers idly playing with the ends of his hair. The fire was at her back, so Derick couldn’t see her face very well, but he could tell she was smiling. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Derick flushed, clearing his throat, and shook his head.
Heather hummed, one of her short-cut, manicured fingernails finding the soft hollow beneath his jaw, thumb at his chin, tilting it up. “Are you drunk?” she asked.
“No,” Derick rasped. She was warm across him, smelled of coconut and sea breeze, a hint of lime that made his mouth go dry. Her thighs clung to the outside of his, her body slim and small enough that she could easily put their foreheads together, shoulders arched up, spine bowed, causing small fissures of warmth to spread through Derick’s chest and down where they were pressed closest. “Are you?”
Heather shook her head and let out a quiet, breathy noise of pleasure – either because she liked that Derick had even asked, or because Derick had lost the fight with himself. Or maybe his hands had finally caught up with his brain, because he shoved his beer into the sand and rested his palms wide on Heather’s hips, fingers splayed out so that he could tease the tips of them beneath the edge of her little shorts.
Heather’s fingers curled in the top of Derick’s hair and tugged until it stung. She bit her lip and dragged her other hand down, measuring the edge of his ribs, the tensed muscles in his flank as he did his best to keep her steady in his lap. Their noses brushed.
She let out another quiet sound, and even though the music was loud and Derick’s pulse roared louder, he heard her in perfect clarity. He cupped the backs of her thighs, shivering at how soft and warm her skin was, a little damp like she had been in the ocean recently. Her hair fell forward, blocking out sight for both of them, like they were the only two people in the world.
Heather bit her lip, moved her hips in a slow, teasing little grind, and Derick groaned through gritted teeth, hands tightening on her. When she tugged on his hair, he eagerly tilted his chin up, baring his neck. Her nails dug into his back as she shoved her way closer, knees pulling up abruptly so she could put all her weight on his hips, and she gripped his chin and kissed him.
Derick’s breath left him all at once, his lungs burning the second their lips met, but she kissed him like she could give him back his air, and his hands spread helplessly up her back, pulling her even nearer until her body lay flat against him, her knees tucked under his arms, body curled up. One of his hands traveled up farther still, found the base of her skull, curled in her thick hair.
Heather pulled back, breathing heavily, her eyes shining without color as the fire lit her from behind, and the party raged on around them. She bit her lower lip and gave him a charming smile, lashes fluttering when Derick pulled her hair up from her neck, coaxing it to fall back into place over one shoulder. His other hand slid down her side.
She sighed, smiling still, dark lashes fluttering as she arched into his petting hand. Then she shook her head. “I have to go,” she told him.
Derick swallowed. Though his entire body felt like she had burned him, his heart was racing, and there was a very loud part of him that had risen up and was demanding immediate attention, he let her go. She took her drink from his cup holder and finished it, handing the bottle back to him with another playfully distasteful grimace.
“Come by the Hummingbird tomorrow,” she told him. “I’ll show you a real drink.”
Derick blinked at her. “How do you know what I like?” he challenged, grinning.
Heather laughed, low and soft with promise. “I think we like the same things,” she replied.
Derick swallowed, watching her pull her hair into a twist and throw it over her shoulder with another sigh.
“Until next time, Derick.” She winked at him, grinning wide and off-kilter, and sauntered away, toward the rise that separated the beach from the boardwalk, and then disappeared out of sight.