That clock was a liar. It couldn’t be 10 yet, could it? Damn.
Liz Cooper rushed around her apartment collecting everything she should have assembled last night: towels, sunscreen, hat, glasses. She thought she’d have more time this morning. And she would have, if she hadn’t hit the snooze alarm so many times that it shut off for good.
Today she was seeing Kathleen, her best friend since first grade, who had the nerve to marry a great guy who swept her out of Orange County and all the way north to Seattle. While her great guy sweltered at a convention in Atlanta, Kath had taken a bungalow for a week at Huntington Beach. Liz planned to spend all day Saturday with Kath and her three kids. Or what was left of Saturday, after the 30-mile drive to the beach.
Liz glanced around her apartment and quickly confirmed that she was ready to leave. As she slid her half-read novel into the outside pocket of her tote, the phone rang. She grabbed it on the second ring.
“Oh, Liz, you haven’t left yet.” Kath sounded harried. But with three kids under age nine, she always sounded that way.
“Sorry, I’m running late. I’ll be there.”
“No, this is great. My brother called and I need you to pick him up.”
“Pick him up?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you he’s coming to the beach with us today? The kids haven’t seen Uncle Joey in, like, forever.”
“Joey’s coming with us?” She remembered Kathleen’s bratty brother. The thing about kid brothers was that there was no reason to let them live. When Joey wasn’t releasing captured reptiles into Kath’s bedroom while they played, he was invading Barbie and Ken’s wedding with his army of Imperial Storm Troopers.
“Look, if you want to make this just family . . .”
“Don’t be silly. The kids want to see you and they want to see Joey. You haven’t seen him in years! This’ll be fun!” Kath gushed.
Liz doubted she’d find Joey all that fun, but for Kath and the kids’ sake, she agreed to pick him up. She wrote down the directions to his place, packed her gear and took off.
Before she reached Joey’s address, she saw a tall guy in trunks and T-shirt, dark glasses and carrying a gym bag, standing halfway into her lane. Kath must have told him about her car, because he waved her over with a “Hey, Liz!”
This couldn’t be little Joey. How long since she’d seen him? Seven years, at least. The brat had grown over six feet tall, with muscles filling out those scrawny little arms. The perpetually shaggy dark hair was cut somewhere between military short and businessman sleek. She guessed those three years in the Army did him good. But he’s still Kath’s kid brother, and she had a long memory for his disruptive antics.
“Thanks for the lift.” He tossed the gym bag into the back and folded himself into the passenger seat.
Liz answered noncommittally and headed for the freeway.
They were only 30 miles from the beach, but there was no easy route. The freeway gave way to surface streets, and apparently everyone else was driving to the coast today. She kept the radio turned up just loud enough so that they didn’t have to talk much. But after yet another driver cut in front and forced her to brake quickly, Liz let out a colorful description of what that driver could do to himself.
“Hey, relax, Liz,” Joey said. “We don’t have a deadline.”
“I”ve been running late all day.”
“What do you mean?’
Joey laughed. “You were always late. Late to school, late to graduation, late to your own wedding.”
Liz glared at him.
“Oh, I guess that’s something we can’t talk about.” He nonchalantly glanced out the window.
“My wedding? I should have been even later and missed it altogether. Talk about mismatched couples.”
“So it’s over?”
“It’s definitely over. Three years now.”
Joey turned his gaze back to the road. The radio was almost loud enough mask his quick “Good.”
The traffic cleared and Liz hit the gas. The car lurched forward then rattled to a stop as the engine died. She turned the key, and the engine rolled over and over, but didn’t catch.
“Damn.” The honking began a few cars back.
“I think it’s dead,” Liz muttered.
Joey opened his door and hopped out. The honking intensified. “Let’s get off this road.”
With him pushing and her steering, they rolled the lifeless car out of traffic. It glided to a stop on a side street, right in front of an auto shop that looked the least greasy of several lining the road. Liz popped the hood and looked over the engine compartment. She’d hoped she’d find a loose wire or a big switch that said “flip me,” but no such luck.
Liz backed away from the car and crashed into Joey. She whirled around to apologize and found herself just inches away from the guy. He took off his dark glasses and his eyes were oh-so-green. Green like nothing she’d seen in nature. Green like the bottles that hold the most premium beer available. Green and full of mischief, the good kind. The fun and sexy kind. He smiled and ohmigod! he still has dimples. They look so different on his all-grown-up face. So kissable.
Before she could say or do anything that would embarrass her for life, a mechanic came out from the repair shop to see if they needed help. Liz explained the car’s symptoms, got an estimate and handed over the key. The mechanic directed them to a waiting room filled with mismatched plastic chairs, vending machines and a coffeemaker that smelled like it had been heating the same inch of tar-like brew for hours. Joey headed to the soda machine with a handful of change. Liz plopped into a chair and worked to banish her earlier thoughts. Yeah, Joey’s cute, but he’s Kath’s kid brother, and the thing about kid brothers was that they were put on this earth to annoy older sisters and their friends, no matter how hunky they grew up.
Joey handed her a diet soda and took the chair next to her. He popped the tab on his root beer and kept his gaze on her as he drank down the can in one gulp.
Liz popped open her soda. “Sorry. I should have told you the car’s a piece of crap. My alumni association wants my license-plate frame back.”
Joey just smiled.
What does that mean? Liz wondered. She took a deep breath to keep from babbling, as she knew she would given the chance.
“I’ll put in a word for you. I belong to the same alumni association.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing since I got out of the Army?”
Come to think of it, she did remember Kath saying something about Joey going to their alma mater. “What”s your degree?”
“Oh, that’s useful.”
He chucked and hook-shot his empty can into the recycling bin. “Actually, I just got accepted at the sheriff’s academy.”
Liz pictured him in a tan uniform and a shiny badge. A very nice image, indeed. She smiled. “Who could resist a man in uniform?”
Joey leaned closer. “I hope you can’t.” And he kissed her.
Liz started to resist, to explain all the reasons why they shouldn’t do this. And there must be a million reasons why they shouldn’t do this. Starting with …uh… Liz ignored all the objections that popped into her head and kissed him back. They could wait.
Joey eased out of the kiss and pressed his forehead against hers. “Nice.”
“You know,”she said, “I’m old enough to be your …”
“…Older sister. So? You’re not 30 yet, and it’s not like 25 is so young for me. Sounds just about right.
Liz grinned. He was right. The thing about kid brothers is that they grow up.