Breathe Me Page 10

Cranking my head as I watched him paddle near me, I make the fatal mistake of inching too close to the edge. I should’ve known better than to let him pull up, sit on the side of the pool, disarm me with his chiseled shoulders and rippling stomach muscles. He then ever-so-suavely grabbed me and catapulted me into the pool.

The shock of the cold water made me kick furiously to find which way was up. The mass of bubbles disorientated me, but I finally popped up and over the surface, sputtering like an old engine. My feet barely touched the bottom, and I tiptoed toward the shallow end, my heart hammering in my ears.

Sasha was chuckling a bit, but the moment I caught sight of his smirk, I jolted toward him and pummeled his chest with my fists. “That wasn’t funny!” Coughing, I shoved him and headed toward the edge of the pool, where it was shallower, and I could sit on the steps. I continued to cough and attempted to shove back the matted mess that had been my smooth hair moments before.

Sasha waded in behind me and watched me as I sat there and regained my composure. My lips quivered from the shock of the water, and it made me wonder why the heck he didn’t heat it up, even just a bit. It was downright frigid.

“I’m sorry.”

“I can’t swim.”

“You did fine, you know.”

I huffed, but didn’t move from my step. The water flowed over my chest, where my tank hung heavily over my br**sts, exposing my cl**vage a bit more as the water pulled at the material. I was sure I looked like a drowned rat.

“No, I didn’t. I think I swallowed half your pool water.” I coughed some more and hugged my arms around myself. There was no point in completely getting out, the air conditioner would just add to the cold. “Do you have a towel?”

He approached and sat back on his knees, the water barely reaching his chest. The way it left droplets which clung to his skin as his gaze burned into me was too much to bear, and I had to glance away, back toward the bar, where the multitude of liquor bottles glistened in the soft streaming sunlight. I couldn’t look back at him because I’d drown. Maybe not in the literal sense, but metaphorically, it was a certainty.

“Piper, I wasn’t aware you didn’t know how to swim. I’m really sorry.”

I shrugged, not looking at him so I wouldn’t lose control of my feelings. I was torn between pummeling him again with my fists and crying. He never knew why I didn’t know how to swim. In the short time we’d spent together, it had never come up, and I’d never told him.

“My sister drowned, when I was six. She was only three.”

His hands encircled my thighs and he rubbed his thumbs back and forth over my goosebumps. Stifling the cold with his warmth. It felt nice but cautious.

“Want to tell me about it?”

“Maybe one day.” I shook my head, still shaking off the dread of that long ago tragedy. My family never spoke of it afterwards. It’d become a silent horror that clung to us no matter what, best left covered up in the dusty backrooms of our hearts.

“I can teach you how to swim, I’m very patient.” He inched forward again, his hand reaching up through the rippling surface as he touched my cheek. I had to look at him now; his fingers blocked the view of the bar enough to make me shift my gaze back to his eyes, looking almost green against blue water.

“I don’t want to learn.”

“Why?”

“Why do I need to learn to swim? I’ll never swim in a pool, especially yours—we’ll break up before I get to learn how. I don’t ever fly in airplanes, so crashing into an ocean won’t ever happen to me, so don’t even think that’s a risk. I don’t ride on boats or yachts. There isn’t a lake nearby worth treading into, and I don’t count Lake Mead as one. It’s disgusting and full of putrid nastiness.” I sighed and closed my eyes. The chlorine was already beginning to sting them. “No reason to learn to swim.”

“Learning something doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily use it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never use it either.” The soft caress of his fingers made me shiver even more. “Just like you can’t predict the future of us.”

I watched the waves lap against his chest and wanted him to pull me toward him, wanted to melt into him. He was right about predicting the future, but did he know how badly I wanted to also stand straight up, turn and run out of the house, into the sun and away from here? One way or the other, I needed some warmth.

Sasha made the choice for me as he circled his arms around my waist and pulled me toward him. I realized too late that he was taking me deeper into the water, and I ended up straddling his waist as he continued to move. Grasping his shoulders, my eyes widened as I scanned the expanse of the water.

“Don’t be afraid, I won’t let you go,” he whispered, sending another shiver down my spine as he turned and moved farther into the water. I only gripped onto him more tightly, hoping he wasn’t joking this time. The water felt like a weight pushing and tugging at me as I let him carry me farther and farther into the pool. Relieved it wasn’t some body of water out in the wild where the currents could be unpredictable, I cherished the controlled calm of this place, where only his heart beating against my chest filled the atmosphere, and the heat radiating off him kept the chill at bay.

He stopped when the water reached the top of his shoulders. He balanced me precariously in his arms and smiled. Water dripped off the dangling ends of his dark blond strands and some droplets clung to the edges of his eyelashes. It was mesmerizing, and the blue of the pool amplified the color in his irises as they morphed from blue to green to turquoise in one blink. I couldn’t look away. Even if I had wanted to, I was afraid I wouldn’t be brave enough to do so. The water reminded me where I was, but the look on his face made me forget how terrifying it was to be neck deep in water.

I’d never wanted to learn to swim, not after my sister had drowned. We’d been so small and I’d been the one to watch her little head sink under the surface of the water at a neighbor’s party. It had gotten late, and half the adults were stumbling drunk. No one saw her but me, still so small, without an idea of what it meant when she slipped into the inky pool water and didn’t bob back up. Minutes had gone by as I waited for her to surface. Finally, snapping out of my frozen trance, I had begun having what would end up being the first of many anxiety attacks. If I hadn’t screamed and hyperventilated, no one would’ve noticed until several minutes later that Lindsey was missing, swallowed by the mass of water before me.

Even though I couldn’t muster words to express what was happening, so small and unable to speak as my lungs burned and my heart pounded, I was able to point in terror at the water just as I was on the brink of passing out after screaming over and over. I remember the shrieks when the realization that my sister was in the pool came over the adults. I remember my father’s frantic plunge into the cold pool water, for it was February and no one was swimming in the cold waters yet.

Watching my father emerge from the dark, black waters under the moonless night with my sister folded in his arms finally calmed me. But it had been a disturbing calm, like watching a silent film, as I watched them place her on the deck and pump on her chest, screaming for her to wake up. Her long dark hair snaked about her head like a crown of seaweed while her lips remained the grey-blue of a winter sky at dusk. Her brown eyes were staring off into space, fixed on some faraway, celestial body, never to look at us with happy, bright eyes again. She was gone, and no matter how much chaos had ensued afterward, she had never come back.

All those memories crashed into me, like something I had hidden so deep inside that I had almost forgotten her face and her voice. I had nearly forgotten the way she laughed and giggled when we played hide and seek. I’d almost let my memories slip away when I had built my wall to protect myself from things like the fear of swimming and loving those who never stayed, attempting to live a life half way.

Maybe that’s why I was so afraid of Sasha’s love. With him came the remembering part that I was so good at forgetting.

“You okay?” I could hear him breathing harder as he worked to tread water and hold me up at the same time.

“Yes.” I liked the feel of him, my legs wrapped tightly around his waist and my fingers locked around his neck and shoulders. I let him take me where he wanted, knowing I’d be safe, trusting him more than anyone except for Joss. He finally motioned for me to loosen my legs and let them float out underneath. I did, knowing he wouldn’t let me go. The feel of the cold where the heat of his body had once been made me shiver again, and my lips began to quiver from the drop in temperature. Sasha pulled me closer again, and the return of his warmth made me smile. “Thank you.”

“Anytime. You should come over more often. It takes time to learn, but I can show you how to swim so well, the sharks won’t be able to get you.”

With that I laughed, accidentally sputtering some water into his face. I gasped, waiting for him to dunk me, but he didn’t. He blinked the drops away, squinted and smiled. That notorious dimple in his cheek returned to tease me once more.

“Are you sure?” I said. “I might take you down with me.” My face went serious again, and I hoped he hadn’t changed his mind.

“Oh, I’m positive, Piper. Any chance to get you to hold onto me like this, I’ll take it.”

That was the best thing I’d ever heard, and holding onto him as he led me into the shallows again was the one affirmation I needed to stop fighting it.

Chapter Eleven

Piper

STIRRING THE ICED tea, I watched the throngs of people pass by. Sitting outside in hundred-degree weather was a favorite thing of mine. It helped that there were misters running; otherwise I’d have had to move inside the coffee shop so I wouldn’t pass out from heat stroke.

I was on the patio of one of Sasha’s coffee shops. I’d been able to leave work early, something about there not being enough for me to do, so I’d gotten flexed out and needed a pick-me-up. Feeling tired but still not wanting to go home, I watched the street vendors, tourists and families hurry by, doing their best to avoid the searing sun. A lot of them were reddened, flushed from the warmth and sweating under their crisp white “Vegas” T-shirts and straw hats. Some were really burnt lobster red after spending a long day at the hotel pool. The sun was intense in Vegas, more so than any other place I’d ever been. Sunscreen was an absolute must, but most of these strangers didn’t know that and were now suffering the consequences.

Why was I there? Sasha hadn’t yet invited me there, and he wasn’t working that day—to my utter disappointment—so why was I there? Maybe he just wasn’t working at this one, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know why I was there and couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe, in some small way, I wanted to see him. I probably should’ve just caved in and called him. After the long day of listening to complaints from patients about not getting what they needed now that they were home, I was mentally drained and needed a distraction. He was a mighty fine one for that, and I couldn’t stop thinking about making love to him or clinging to him in the pool.

So there I was, sitting by myself, listening to music on my iPhone and people watching. It was the weirdest form of therapy, but it was already helping numb up my head. The cool mist landed on my face, immediately evaporating before it could soak in. I tapped on the table, worrying about life and things the way they were. Why didn’t I just call Joss and give her an earful? But that wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t know what I needed, and that was the most frustrating thing ever. Why didn’t I know? I was almost twenty-five, I should’ve known by now. I had a college degree, my own place, a good job. What more?

I sipped the cold beverage; it felt like a blizzard running down my throat, somewhat relieving the unrelenting heat rising from the asphalt after a day spent absorbing the sun’s warmth. It would remain this way all night long until morning. Only then would the sidewalks be cooled enough to sit on once more.

“Piper?” Sasha’s voice echoed past the soft music in my ears. I pulled out my earphones and followed it, finding him looking curiously at me. “Wow, I didn’t know you’d be here. Why didn’t you text me? I could’ve met up with you.”

“I, um… I didn’t know I’d be coming here. I just dropped by after work.” I cleared my throat, straightening in my chair. Oh yay, I thought. Caught red-handed. “What are you doing here?”

“This is my coffee shop, remember? The Cup O’ Dream Coffee Shoppe? I own it.”

I turned to read the sign, acting unconvincingly like I hadn’t remembered. “Really? Oh… I guess I forgot.” Yep, totally busted. I sucked in a breath and threw him a goofy smile. Maybe I could throw him off my trail if I just acted oblivious.

He looked doubtful but went ahead and pulled out the chair across from me, plopping down, looking even more tired.

“There’s some problem with one of the machines. Guess it’s not heating up the water hot enough or something crazy like that. I’m supposed to meet the technician any minute now.” Tilting his head, he studied me, his looks darkening as he followed my gaze toward the crowd. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“People watching. I sit here a lot just watching them walk by. It’s hypnotizing, like you could sit here forever and no one would know anything about you. An anonymous watcher, like a statue or gargoyle.”

I sipped the last of my iced tea, frowning that it was empty. “Yeah, it’s relaxing in a way. Makes you wonder if all those people walking by are happy or just about as miserable or in worse shape than you’re in. Sometimes I think that and I feel better, like my life isn’t so bad at all compared to some. It could be downright dreadful.” I smiled, hoping the heat covered for my rosy cheeks.

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