A week had passed since Mandy spoke to Sally. The last contact she had with her friend was when she called her to ask if she could find the daughter she had chosen to give away. That was her choice and it wasn't up to Sally to fix it for her.
How could she have been so selfish? She was taking advantage of her friend's position and it could have cost her everything.
She was too scared to dial her number. She was ashamed and embarrassed. Sally wasn't mad that night, more bewildered and confused. Who could blame her? Mandy apologised over and over again when she had finally realised what she asked of her friend.
Mandy just wanted peace. She needed to know that her baby girl was safe and happy. Her dreams haunted her each night. Waking with her heart pounding and her mouth dry from screaming. Garry often suggested she speak to someone; a professional someone, but talking about it just made it feel worse. It hurt so much that she wanted to rip her heart out of her chest. She wanted to be able to breathe again but her dreams wouldn't let her. Those dreams were the reminder of everything she lost.
She set her bags down in her room and stretched away the stiffness her body felt from the journey back to her apartment. Being home for a week was great but when little bickers between her mother she began it was time to leave. She was back to college in two weeks. Mandy hoped that it would bring some normality back into her life.
She may have been tired but it was still only five in the afternoon. She knew the sun would be setting soon so the only place she wanted to be was next to the ocean. To watch the sun set behind the clouds and feel the cool breeze whip past her skin. And she knew not many people would be there. At this time of the year, the beach was usually a little too cold for some.
When she arrived, she slipped off her shoes and let her feet sink into the sand. It did not bother her that it was cold. In fact, she enjoyed it. It made her feel everything besides the pain of her memories.
She walked for five minutes before she stopped. Josh was sitting there, his mind deep in thought, his eyes lost to the sea. Had he come here for the same reason she had?
He looked so connected, she feared saying hello would ruin it. Did he even want to see her? Had he finally accepted that she was damaged goods and he could do without the fuss?
Maybe so, but she hadn't seen him in a week and her heart confessed she missed him. She missed how he made her laugh, how his smile brought her joy and how his lips could melt her.
Just go over there and say hi, she demanded to herself.
"Hey," she greeted, smiling down at him.
Jerking slightly, he turned his head to meet her, his eyes squinting as he looked up. "Mandy? Hey you. I didn't know you were back. I would have called."
"I just got back today," she smiled, her heart doing a dance. He would have called? That honestly made her want to giggle.
"Sit with me?" he offered and once again she couldn't resist his smouldering eyes.
Taking a seat next to him in the sand, she brushed her caramel locks from her face.
"You look beautiful," he stared at her without an ounce of doubt it what he had just said. It amazed her that he thought that considering she was in sweats and a t-shirt, and the make-up from that morning had worn away.
A slight blush crept to her cheeks. "Thank you."
He just stared at her, his eyes locking with hers like an electric surge.
"I'm going to kiss you now, Mandy."
And he did. His lips kissed her gently, so gently they hardly touched. He stayed that way for a moment, lingering on her lips before deepening the passion and heat she could feel radiating from them both.
How was it that she missed his kiss so painfully when she had only spent one night in his arms? He made her forget but made her feel something completely new.
Drawing back for air, he caressed his thumb over her cheek, removing the strands of hair that had settled there.
"This is an extremely non-manly and mushy thing to saw but I'm glad your back. You were only gone for a week and I have to admit that I missed you."
Her lips edged up and her she was sure her heart did too. "I missed you too," she breathed, unsure whether or not to say it louder. He heard her loud and clear.
But behind his smile she saw sadness in his eyes. Unfortunately, she had a knack at seeing pain in a person's face. It was a troubled skill that she gained from years of experience.
"Are you OK? You seemed pretty lost in thought before I came along."
His eyes faltered from hers where they rested on the crashing waves again.
"I got some bad new yesterday. My sister has cancer."
Like a reflex her hand reached out and grabbed his, intertwining their fingers together. She didn't know what to say, so she didn't say anything at all. She didn't want to say sorry because she knew there would come a time when everyone would be sorry and in the end he would be so sick of the word that it would boil his blood. Sorry for what exactly? Mandy never knew.
She watched him exhale a large breath, squeezing her hand a little bit tighter before edging his body closer to hers. Sometimes a simple touch comforted a heart-wrenching pain with more grace than any amount of words could.
"Is there anything they can do for her?" she finally found it fitting to ask.
"It's too advanced. The only thing they can do for her know is make sure she enjoyed every moment she has left which apparently is six months."
Mandy wanted to cry for him. She had known Josh long enough to realise that he wouldn't cry. He would be the strong one for everyone else.
Maybe that was why she felt so privileged to in his company then because she knew he was letting her in on a side of him that very few ever saw. He may not have been crying but he was showing her his pain, his need for reassurance.
"It has been a shock to us all. I come from a big family; I have two brothers and four sisters so losing one is going to be a major blow."
"That's why you should cherish every moment you have with her."
He turned to face her and smiled softly. "I will but right now your here and I want to cherish that. Which leads me to my next point. You and I need to go on a date."
She laughed under her breath, excitement momentarily overshadowing the pain for his sister.
"And something else." Now he looked guilty. "I kind of told my family about you and they want to meet you."
"Oh shit," she blurted, swallowing the fear-soaked lump in her throat.
His shocked chuckle made her even more nervous.
"But first things first. In order to meet my family you must be my girlfriend."
"I must?" she smirked. Her heart was racing now. The hammering beats made her hands tremble.
"So Mandy Parker, will you be my girlfriend?" He seemed so confident in his asking. So sure of what he wanted.
She filled her lungs and bit down on her lip. For the second time in her life she was about to become someone's girlfriend. What would Nick say? Something in the back of her mind told her he would be screaming "get in there". He wanted her to be happy and she needed to make a step in the right direction.
"Mandy, I'm not asking you to marry me," Josh laughed at her waiting response.
She threw daggered eyes towards him. "Yes, I would love to be your girlfriend."
Once again, he crushed her lips with his; smiling against the kiss, she couldn't help her heart from doing flips.
"About meeting the family? They're having a barbecue tomorrow and they wanted to know if I would bring you along?"
"Tomorrow?" Her shoulders sank with disappointment. She wasn't too sure if it was because she couldn't make it, or because she would have to tell him the reason why. "I'm so sorry. This is going to be a little awkward." Her stomach churned something awful.
"What is it, babe?"
"I've told you about Nick before. Well, it's his anniversary tomorrow and my friends and I usually do something stupid for it. When I say stupid I mean eat lots of ice-cream and what not. I had plans with Garry. But I can get out of them."
"No, no, no. Don't you dare. You are going to have plenty of opportunities to meet my family, Mandy. I'm not going anywhere. And Nick was a major part of your life. I respect that. I wouldn't expect you to be anywhere else tomorrow but with your friends."
"Could you possibly get any better," she swooned, gazing up at him before steeling a kiss from his soft lips.
He smiled that smile she loved so darn much.
"We will do something Sunday night. Just you and me. We can go out, or stay in. Whichever you like. And just to let you know, I make a mean lasagne."
Her grin was so wide she was sure her jaws would lock. "Thank you."
"No problem, sweetheart. What else are boyfriends for?"
She didn't know but if this was it, it's exactly where she belonged. Her boyfriend? That sounded completely foreign to her.
"Mandy, can you wait here a few minutes? I just need to go and do something."
She was confused, but agreed anyway. Where was he going to leave her on the beach alone? It seemed a bit odd to her. But minutes later he arrived back as promised, a plastic bag hanging from his hand.
"I decided," he started, "why not have our first date right here and now? I went to the shop across the way. I bought beer, because every first date needs some courage, and I bought some junk food. We are going to have a unconventional picnic on the beach".
"Wow. That is unbelievably romantic of you." She couldn't close her mouth or keep her eyes from widening. "But it's getting dark."
"Who ever said you can't have a picnic in the dark?"
Had he really done all of this just for her? She felt unbelievably under-dressed for their first date.
"The only thing that is missing is you sitting right here." In one big swoop he had her cradled between his legs with her back against his torso.
"Comfortable?" he asked.
"Very," she assured him, smiling on the inside and on the outside.
Kissing the top of her head he handed her a cold beer before placing kisses down her neck. Her head fell back against him as currents of heat raced through her.
He needs to stop. He needs to stop, she repeated to herself, making no attempts to halt his lips from travelling.
"I'm going to stop now, babe," he mentioned, straightening his body. "Because if I don't stop now, I won't be able to at all."
"That's a good idea," she swallowed, blowing out some air.
Taking a large gulp of her drink she worked up the courage to speak without her voice breaking. "Tell me about yourself?"
"What would you like to know?"
"Everything," she answered honestly. She needed to know if his life was anyway messed up because when it came time to tell him her story it was going to shake him in his boots.
"Are you sure you're ready for everything?"
And he told her everything; down to his childhood to his last girlfriend. What school he went to; his year away; which girl broke his heart and which one he got a lucky escape from. He told her his regrets and his mistakes; his achievements and his goals.
And she told, for the first time told him her story. Well, most of it. She was going to tell him about Ellie. Soon she knew she would. But their night together seemed so perfect, she was scared. All of this was taking his mind from his dying sister, she didn't have it in her to drop a bombshell like that. Maybe she was selfish for keeping it from him but the timing wasn't right. She knew she had to tell him, she had no intentions of keeping it from him. Tonight, she couldn't.
Everything else she spilled. She too, told him about her school like; her home life and her love life. Her ups and her downs, and the pain she went through. She also mentioned that Nick was the only one she loved before and the only one to break her heart. There had been nobody else and she could tell that he had tremendous respect for that.
"You can run now if you want. I'll understand. I'm a bit messed up."
"You think a dead boyfriend scares me?" he laughed.
How about an adopted child then? She almost blurted but held her tongue.
As the night drew later and the only colour in the sky was a haunting blue they both could sense it was getting late and time to part. It was extremely difficult to leave the moist breeze and sound of the waves crashing against the shore, leaving pearly while foam in replacement.
"I'm going to walk you home," Josh demanded as he threw the rubbish in the bin.
"You don't have to do that. I'll be OK."
"I have no doubt that you will but I also don't want to chance it. Besides, it's really dark and you've had a few beers."
"That doesn't mean I have to sleep in the same bed as you again," she warned, pointing her finger.
"Awh why not?" He teased, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "Come on, lets get you home. I don't your friends thinking I'm a bad influence on you."
"You are a bad influence on me," she poked.
"I know that, but they don't need to."
They strolled all they way to her apartment, breathing in their night together and every minute they spent with each other. Stopping outside her door, he leaned her against the wall, rubbing the palm of his hand up and down her waist.
"I'll see you Sunday night then," he promised, moving closer to her lips.
She could feel his breath sweep across her cheek. Her own breathing became heavy and body became flustered as she waited impatiently for his lips to meet hers. Every inch he drew closer her heart hammered deep within her chest, resonating behind her ears, until her head began to spin.
Then finally, his moist lips locked with her, moving against each other until she melted against him, her knees wobbling with his very touch. Pinning her harder to that wall, he moved his hand up her along her curves, past her neck where he cupped her face with his hands before leaving her lips for the last time that night.
"I better say goodnight to you now."
She watched him swallow hard, trying his best to relax his stiff body.
"I don't know what you do to me, Mandy but I better leave you before I can't take it."
Involuntarily, her tongue wet her lips and her cheeks burned with desire.
"I agree," her voice stumbled over her shattered breathing. She knew exactly how he felt. "Have a good day tomorrow and apologise to your family for me."
"I will. Goodnight Mandy," he kissed her again, this time quickly, as if afraid he would collapse into the need they both seemed to silently scream.
"Goodnight," she whispered before watching him walk away.
With shaky hands she unlocked her apartment door and stepped inside feeling as though she was on cloud nine. Or maybe that was the three beers she had. Right now, she didn't mind what it was. It felt good. Entering the apartment, she stopped dead in her track as Garry paced up and down in front of her.
"Where the hell were you Mandy, I tried calling you?" He was worried and nervous, she could tell from the tremble in his voice.
"I was with Josh and I left my phone here. What's going on?"
With that, an all too familiar face poked around from the kitchen.
"Sally?" Mandy gasped. "What are you doing here?"
Sally stepped out in front of her, tears swimming in her eyes.
"I found her, Mandy. I found Ellie."