"Can you see the mainland from here?" I ask instead.
Carter moves closer to me, putting his hand lightly on my shoulder so that I turn as he points. "That's Kittatiny Hill, right there," he says, indicating the small swell on the horizon. "That's all you can see on a day like today. Suits me just fine, honestly."
"Does it?" I've learned that when I feel off balance, it's best to redirect the conversation to the other person. It buys me time, plus people like talking about themselves.
"It doesn't suit you?" He turns and looks at me with those blue, blue eyes and I am forced to look away. Carter is not playing by the rules. He's not supposed to be asking questions in return.
"I wouldn't know either way," I laugh. "This is the first time I've ever been on a private island."
"Well then," he says lightly, "let me show you around."
He puts his hand at my elbow, a little guiding hand, nothing more, but his touch makes me jump like he grazed me with a live wire. I dart forward, out of his reach and summon my professional cool. "I will need to see the layout of the space," I tell him as I cross the deck. "How many guests can you accommodate? Are you expecting them to provide their own transport? How far is it to come via boat? Perhaps we could arrange a ferry the day of, do you have a port anywhere?"
I take a breath, waiting for him to respond. It isn't until a moment goes by without an answer by that I realize he is no longer at my side.
Carter is still back at the railing. He is looking out over the water, a far away look in his eyes. There is peace there, but also an incredible sadness. The kind of sadness that makes me take an inadvertent step forward. Like I can comfort him somehow.
He turns a little, affording me a glimpse of his strong profile. It's a profile I recognize from my "research," but he even more gorgeous in person, model perfect with a kind of coolness about him that almost seems studied. Like he takes lessons on how to be laid back.
The sadness leaves his eyes, making me wonder if I imagined it. "Slow down," he says. There is still that ease in his voice, but authority too. Like he is used to giving orders. "Take it easy, okay?"
I stammer for a moment. He's not taking this seriously at all.
"Check it out," he grins. "Dolphins. See that fin?"
He's not answering me and he doesn't seem in the mood to talk business. Reluctantly, I step back to him. He takes my elbow again, steering me so that I am looking out over the glinting water.
A dorsal fin breaks the surface. Then another. Then another. I feel my face stretching into a grin in spite of myself. "Wow," I breathe.
Carter looks at me, his wide grin showing perfect white teeth. But the delight on his face isn't studied at all. "They swing by here around this time of year. I was afraid I was going to miss them."
I look back out. The fins are receding, disappearing around the curve of the island. When they finally slip completely from view, I dare sneak a look back at Carter.
"I need to show you something," he says.
"Okay," I say, clenching my teeth a little.
"Give me your hand, these stairs can be a little slippery," he says.
When his hand slips into mine, all the plans, all the questions I have for him leave my brain in a rush. I have no other thoughts but how his skin feels; warm and dry, a slight, unexpected callous, his fingers strong and supple in mine as he leads me down the steps to the beach.
I stop short. I am in heels, but Carter seems to have thought of that already. "Lift your foot," he says in that easy, authoritative voice.
She's even better up close.
Sanniyah is studying her surroundings like she has everything already figured out, her chin lifted to show off the graceful swoop of her neck. In the waning light of sunset, I first assumed her perfect skin was a smooth shade of caramel, but as I move closer, I can see the different colors under the surface; the ebonies, the siennas, the dark chocolates. I am staring at her, I can feel it. I have to look away.
She doesn't know how hard this is for me. She can't possibly know that the very act of allowing someone I don't know into my sanctuary is tearing me apart internally. It's not her fault that she is gorgeous and unnerving and I am already so on edge I feel like I might snap at any moment. So I keep conversation to a minimum, though it is clear she is unhappy with how I am avoiding talking about the wedding. She doesn't know that the just allowing her near me is the biggest step.
But she seems unnerved too. When I steel my resolve and make to touch her, she goes stiff and jumpy. I wonder if she can sense the damage inside of me. I wonder if she knows I am not right inside.
This bothers me.
"Come down here," I tell her. I am being too abrupt, ordering her around. I expect her to tell me to shove off, but instead she follows me, to my immense surprise. "I want to show you something."
She hesitates at the bottom step, wavering. "Oh, I got that," I say, reaching out to help her unbuckle her sexy, spindly heels. It's a problem I can easily solve, unlike my inability to handle a normal conversation.
She lifts her foot. The instant my hand circles her ankle, I feel it again. That bolt of possessiveness. That want. A fiery need I haven't felt in...forever perhaps?
I used to feel things. Hunger, drive. Ideas would come to me like bolts out of the blue. Inspiration would take hold of me and shake me like I am shaking right now. I am shaking so hard I can barely get her buckle undone.
My hand looks like it belongs there, wrapped possessively around her. Claiming her as my own. I know she is what I need. I know that she will make me whole again. I don't question it, just like I never questioned any of the ideas that led me to my incredible fortune. I just acted.
Her bare feet wiggle in the sand, and I feel another jolt. A different kind of jolt.
This one goes straight a very different part of my anatomy...
She's standing on the half-buried last step, which means our eyes are level with each other. "I'm glad you're here, Sanniyah," I say. And I mean it.
She looks startled for a minute. I can see a million different expressions flash across her face until she finally settles on one.
Her eyes open wide; shocked and pleased. Her beautiful, kissably plump lips curve into a megawatt smile. Her face is so utterly transformed in that moment that I make a solemn promise to myself right now.
I want to delight her. Again and again. I will spend the rest of my life trying to make her smile the way she is right now.
"I'm pretty glad too," she laughs. Her voice is softer. "It's gorgeous here."
I look down at the shoreline. The waves are gentle, sighing into the sand. It's low tide. "Sometimes shells wash up," I tell her. "Over here."
They wash up everywhere, but I am using this as an excuse to take her hand. It slips into mine like it belongs there. "Okay," she says, her voice barely above a whisper. I'm not sure if she's saying it to me or to herself.
Darkness is gathering in the trees. "What was that?" she asks, startled by a sharp cry from the branches.
"Migratory birds," I tell her, picking my way carefully along the waterline. "This is a stop for a lot of them. Someday I'm going to learn all of their names, but right now I just think of them as happy surprises. This place is protected, you know. A bird sanctuary." I pause. "My sanctuary.”
Sanniyah stops, forcing me to look back. Her head is tilted to one side, exposing the curve of her throat to me. I eye it hungrily until her words catch me by surprise. "So why share it?"
I shouldn't have just blurted it out like that. His face is completely stricken. I can see how pale he is, even in the low light. "I'm...sorry, that was rude," I start to stammer.
"No." He sighs heavily. "It's a valid question. One I've been trying to come up with a good answer for, myself." He gives a rueful chuckle and runs his hands through his hair, tugging slightly. I have
the urge to smooth the rumpled tangles away. To smooth the worry lines off his face.
Carter Easton turns away from me, striding up the beach to sit heavily on a piece of driftwood far above the waterline. I hesitate. He seems like he wants to be alone. But he also seems like he wants to answer me. So I move towards him, shifting a little as I sit so that our bodies aren't touching. I am acutely aware of the heat in the air between us.