I stopped breathing a long time ago.
I was taken into a cult when I was ten, married to the leader's son at 20.
I learned to fear independence, so I stayed.
Day after day after day.
Until I couldn't anymore.
So I started running and kept running because he's after me.
Afraid, alone, hungry, but free.
Until a stranger offered me breakfast. And I said yes.
The thing I can do best? Living. Hard and to the fullest.
The world had screamed my name, and I lived it all until I got tired of it.
Bought a surf board, a house in my sandy hometown, and started another great life.
Young, rich, and totally free had been working like a charm.
Until I saw that blue tent on the beach.
And my life changed again.
Crescent Creek, South Florida, May
"Well." Erik Axelsson wiped salty water from his face. “Look what the tide dragged in.”
Nestled in the dunes edging his property, the little blue tent sure hadn’t been there when he’d gone out surfing earlier that morning. With his board under his arm, he walked out of the ocean toward the uninvited guest.
Erik cringed, praying it wasn’t for one of those crappy TV shows like Where Did The Star Go or something. He had worked hard at building a normal life, and it had been years since the press had bothered him. Yet a nostalgic willing to stand the heat for a picture of Ax had shown up before.
“Knock knock,” Erik called out as he reached the tent.
When nothing happened, he drove the surfboard in the hot sand with a forceful swing and a chuckle. Whoever hid inside the camping igloo was too hung-over or too stoned to wake up. Each representing a better reason to be in such crappy shelter, on a Floridian beach, on a late May morning, than poking at his past glory. Must be at least three hundred degrees inside.
He grabbed a tent pole, shook it. The old thing shuddered like a leaf in a hurricane. “Rise and shine,” he sing-songed.
Someone moved. Then came the voice. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“A girl?” he mouthed before shaking his head.
The rock scene waved at him from far, so far behind him. But it had been his life, and back then a drunk–or stoned–chick within the boundaries of his home, wherever that was at the moment, was the norm. Damn, but he had a good run.
Erik brushed his palm over prickling shoulders as the angry sun hit, leaving only salt where ocean drops had been a few minutes before. He revered in that roasting pleasure, in the blues of the sky and water surrounding him. Entertained by his unplanned guest, he pulled his dripping, long hair into a messy bun. A good day for surfing, waves still crashed on the shoreline. The rumble must have hidden the croaky noise of the tent’s zipper because when he looked down at the entrance, he found two huge brown eyes staring at him. An echo of lifetimes ago, distant, feeble, poked at him. The feeling had dwelled into his heart after his parents had died and now lingered on her delicate features. Fear.
The girl took a breath, clenched her teeth, and crawled out. She rose on all of her five feet six or so. “Who–” she cleared her throat. “Who are you?”
Okay. He did not expect the question. The whole world knew Ax and the Hurricanes. He’d spent ten years of his life on everybody’s mouth, eyes and above all, ears. Newspapers. TV. Concerts. And the girl asked who he was. Surprise shadowed the male appreciation of the woman in front of him. For now. He’ll so be back at it.
“I think the question is, who are you?” he retorted, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Well, camper, your tent is on my property, in case you missed that,” he said, pointing at the Private Property notice on the berm not far from her den. The rusty, barely visible, Pisa-tower-bend sign. He should invest some money into a new one. “My house’s back there, anyway.”
She turned around, took those details in. “Oh.”
All right, calculus time. A girl, alone, in an old tent. Add a black bag he’d peeked to with clothes in it, plus that look in her eyes. The result? Trouble. “All right. You hungry?”
He picked up his surfboard and started off. “What?” he asked after he glanced behind his shoulder and saw she hadn't moved.
“I–I don’t know you.” Yeah, okay, back to that. She either had lived on the moon for the past fifteen years, or was bullshitting him. He would give her the benefit of the doubt because she was hot, and keep Sheriff Charlie on speed dial for a while. “I’m Erik Axelsson.”
He waited for his name to dawn on her. Nothing. For real?
“I’m Andrea Smith.”
“All right, Andrea. I’m hungry, covered in sand, and the sun is cooking my brain. I’m going in, you do as you please.”