At the sound of laughter and teasing voices, she glanced up from the book she was reading and brushed her auburn bangs out of her piercing green eyes. She watched the culprits of the interruption shove and push each other while they walked to the counter of the coffee shop with their backs to her. They continued behaving like twelve year olds while they placed their orders and moved off to the side to wait for their coffees. The playful insults they lobbed at each other made her smile wistfully and reminded her of siblings hiding their closeness and love for one another behind arm punches and silly name-calling. Not that she had any kind of idea what it was like to have a sibling. Or family, period. Watching their interaction surprised her by making her long for something she had no business wanting. There was nothing about her fellow male college students that ever held her interest. They were immature and annoying, and so far the ones she met only cared about who was buying the keg for the upcoming party or how quickly they could get to third base. She had too much at stake and too much invested in her future to waste time with people like that.
Feeling entirely too vulnerable where these strangers were concerned and the emotions they unwittingly forced into her heart, she pushed her long, wavy hair off of one shoulder and started to put her head back down to finish reading the night's Photojournalism assignment when one of the guys turned around. Her eyes locked with his and she felt her heart speed up. He was the type of man that made you sit up straight and pray to God your make-up still looked good after six hours of classes. He made you blush and want to look over your shoulder to see if he was really looking at you or a prettier girl behind you.
He wore faded jeans that hung low on his hips and a long-sleeved grey Abercrombie and Fitch shirt. Regardless of his obvious college student status, he was all man. He easily reached six feet, and while he wasn't your typical, muscled jock, she could see the strength in his arms as he flexed to heft his backpack higher on one shoulder. The defined muscles of his chest stretched across the cotton fabric of his fitted shirt and made her hands itch with the need to smooth her palms against him or trace the word "Abercrombie" with the tips of her fingers just to feel the heat from his skin. He absently nodded his head at something his friend said, never taking his bright blue eyes off of her as he ran his long fingers through his short, midnight black hair.
She willed him to come over to her table and talk to her. She wanted to hear his voice and know if it would affect her even half as much as his stare did. Just the sound of his laughter, deep and unreserved, forced a tingle down her spine and shocked her again when she realized it sounded nothing like that of a college boy. There were so many things about him that made her instantly forget who she was, what she'd been through, and the choices she made as a consequence. Aside from the way his eyes seemed to pierce right through to her soul, and how he wouldn't tear his gaze away from her even when outside forces tried get his attention, in just a few short minutes, she knew by his actions that he was a genuine person: the way he let a woman and her little girl go in front of him in line and then gave his friend a stern look when he complained, or the tip he stuck into the jar on the counter when no one was looking instead of waiting for all eyes to be on him to see his kindness like most would do. With just one look and a few charitable actions, she wanted to throw her beliefs out the window and lose herself in him. She wanted to forget about the fact that she didn't need or want anyone in her life and ignore the voice in her head reminding her that sharing a piece of yourself with others only led to disappointment and a shattered heart.
She forced herself to break the eye contact before she did something completely out of character like get up and approach him or press her lips to the side of his neck so she could taste his skin. With a mental smack to her libido, she turned her attention to the friend standing next to him. He was just as good looking but a few inches shorter. His presence didn't seem to command the room like Blue Eyes, but his smile lit up his entire face and oddly enough, put her at ease. A smile that held no secrets and would tell her no lies, like the ones she was used to lately. She glanced back and forth between them and smiled shyly, thinking about how she was never lucky enough to have one, let alone two good looking guys pay attention to her.
Her smile grew as they both made their way over to her table.
She'd always think back to that moment over the coming years and wonder what would have happened if things had been different, if only one of the boys had come into the coffee shop that day or if she had just listened to her brain instead of her heart and said no to that first date.
Her life was forever changed as soon as those boys sat down next to her, and she needed to remind herself over and over that it happened exactly how it was meant to.
She would never give up having those two men in her life no matter what happened or how much she had to compromise her feelings or lock her thoughts away in a secret compartment in her heart. They were her life, her best friends, and her family.
But if you were given the chance to go back, to tell the truth instead of lie to save someone's life and their feelings...would you?
"It's a beautiful lie. It's the perfect denial.
Such a beautiful lie to believe in."
-30 Seconds to Mars, "A Beautiful Lie"
Eight years later
Garrett McCarthy hustled down the rickety wooden steps nestled between the wild grass and glanced quickly at his watch, nervously running his fingers through is close-cropped black hair. He squinted his blue eyes at the setting sun as he quickened his pace.
He made dinner reservations at Parker's favorite Italian restaurant for eight o'clock. When he knocked on her door at seven-thirty and didn't get an answer, he knew exactly where he'd find her.
As he walked off the bottom step and his casual, brown lace-up Doc Martins sunk into the sand, he smiled when he saw her.
She was flat on her stomach right by the water's edge with her elbows propped up, holding the camera by her eye. Each gentle wave that lapped up onto the shore inched its way around her body before sliding away and rushing back out to sea.
When she was working on a project, she lost all sense of time. Her current assignment was photographing sand crabs: a freelance piece for National Geographic. Probably not very exciting to some, but it was everything to her. She loved the peacefulness of nature, and having a camera in her hand no matter where she was excited her beyond belief. Holding that small piece of metal in her hand transported her to another time and another place. It made all of her cares disappear so her only concern or worry was for the subject on the other end of her lens. It didn't matter to her that she wasn't rushing off to war zones or following news vans. This was who she was. Being a photojournalist was her life's dream, and she worked her ass off to make sure she achieved it by doing whatever it took to get herself through college all on her own. And it made him respect her even more.
The push and pull of the water and the click of her camera echoed along the beach as he made his way across the sand to her
. When he was a few feet away, he stood with his hands in his pockets, not wanting to disturb her. He liked watching her work. Every time he saw her with that camera in her hands, his heart swelled with pride at how talented she was. And as each wave of water washed over her body, he refused to dwell on the other parts of him that swelled at that moment. Or ever.
She was one of the best freelance photographers in the country, and over the years she had her photographs featured in hundreds of magazines in the U.S. and was well on her way to becoming the next Ansel Adams. None of those accomplishments were what endeared Parker to him, however. Even without the notoriety and with more talent than that of a hundred photographers, she would still be the same generous, intelligent, sweet, and loving person that he'd always known. She didn't need prestigious awards or featured photos to tell him all of these things. He'd known it since the first moment he laid eyes on her.
Parker's latest endeavor: publishing her fourth coffee table book of photos from around the world. Actually, "Anna Parks" had just published her fourth book. He never understood why she insisted on using an alias in print instead of her real name, Annabelle Parker. He was proud of her and thought she should be shouting her accomplishments from the rooftops.
"You're blocking my light," she spoke softly as she turned dials and adjusted the settings on her Nikon F2 35mm camera. That camera was as old as she was, but it was her mother's and she refused to use anything else. Where most photographers went with the times and switched to digital, she stayed true to herself and continued to use a film camera and develop the pictures herself. It made her a huge commodity in the photography world because she was able to play with her photos and make them into masterpieces in her dark room instead of sending them off to a lab and entrusting her work to strangers. She was proud that her pictures were one hundred percent her creations, and it showed in each and every amazing image she captured. Whenever anyone would try to convince her that digital was better, she would remind them that it didn't matter if you owned the most expensive, most advanced camera that was on the market. If you didn't have the talent or the heart, your pictures would still turn out crappy no matter how much money you spent or how many rave reviews your camera got. Being able to take your photos through every part of the process, from conception to watching them come to life in the trays of chemicals under the haze of the red safe light, forced you to look at your work under a microscope, literally, and learn how to best tell a story without words.
"And you're going to make us late for dinner. Again," he reminded her dryly.
She clicked a few more pictures and then lifted the camera above her head so he could take it from her. Once it was secured in his hands, she placed both of hers in the wet sand and pushed herself up just as another small wave washed up around her feet.
She brushed her hands together a few times to get some of the sand off and then looked up into his face. She could tell he was irritated with her. One of his eyebrows was raised as if he were waiting for an explanation.
"Don't start with me, McCarthy. You knew I had to finish these photos before we went to dinner. I don't even know why we're doing this. You know I don't like to make a big fuss," she complained as she tried in vain to wipe off the sand from her bare stomach. All she managed to do was spread it around.
He just stood there staring at her. If he spoke right now it would probably come out as a squeak or mumbled nonsense. As soon as she had stood up, all of the blood rushed from his head right to his dick.
She was wearing a pale blue bandeau bikini top that tied around her neck and matching bottoms. He only knew they matched because the white wrap-around skirt she wore was wet and see-through as it clung to every inch of her hips and thighs, grazing just above her knees. He watched her brush her hands against her small, firm stomach and it was starting to irritate him. His hands itched to reach out and do it for her, to touch her skin and feel her warmth.
Dangerous territory. He had no business thinking those things. She was his friend and she deserved better than his habitual dirty thoughts.
"Quit your bitching, Parker. It's your birthday. What kind of a friend would I be if I didn't take you out to celebrate?"
"Oh, I don't know. How about a good one? I hate my birthday. You know that. All that fuss just to be one day closer to death. It's idiotic." She huffed as she finally gave up on removing the offending sand from her skin.
Garrett sent up a silent prayer for that until she untied the flimsy, wet scrap of material from around her waist and started to wring it out into the sand.
He didn't know what was worse, staring at her bikini bottoms and skin through the haze of wet material or having her stand in front of him practically in her underwear with all that bare, golden skin showing, talking to him like it was no big deal.
Because it was no big deal, he reminded himself. It wasn't like he had never seen her in her bathing suit before...or her underwear for that matter. But that was a mistake. It was over a year ago, she was drunk, and really, it could have happened to anyone.
"You know why we're doing this," Garrett said softly, cocking his head to the side as he forced himself to look at her eyes and not any lower.
She hated when he looked at her like that, with those bright blue eyes the same color as the ocean that made her melt. How many times over the years had she needed to force herself not to run her hands down the side of his face when he had looked at her like that? Too many to count, that was for sure. Sometimes she wondered if he knew the power he had over her and did things like that just to see if he could get a reaction out of her.
Parker pictured herself cupping his cheek in her hand and smoothing away the sadness. As quickly as the image appeared, her chest constricted with guilt when his words broke through her errant thoughts.
"He took you out to dinner on your birthday every year, even if he had to do it with you kicking and screaming," Garrett said with a smile to soften the blow he was sure his words brought. "It's my duty as your friend and his to carry on that tradition, especially this year."
Especially this year, especially this year... The words repeated on a loop in her head.
It still didn't seem real; the first birthday in eight years spent without him. He'd been gone for six months, and she still woke up every day expecting to hear him walk through the door, laugh outrageously loud at something stupid, or get snippy with her when she asked him where he'd been all night.
She wasn't going to let those dark thoughts mess with her mind. Not right now. And definitely not tonight. She'd spent too much time already lately wondering "What if?" and thinking about all of the things she could have done differently. Her guilt that most of those feelings revolved around the man standing next to her than on the one she'd given her heart to took up too much residence in her mind and her heart as it was.