THREE – MORNING RITUAL
“Tony? Hey, Tiger, wake up,” said a voice Tony recognized as Jenni’s. “What in God’s name are you doing sleeping way out here on the beach?”
Tony opened his eyes. The bright morning sun flooded in, making his head hurt. He put his hand in front of his face.
“Now if that wasn’t a goofy thing to do,” said Jenni, putting her hands under his right arm and helping Tony to his feet. “Whatever possessed you to come out into the storm? You’re lucky you weren’t killed.”
Tony looked at her smiling face. He knew Jenni was concerned, but she did a good job hiding it.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I came outside to think. The storm was pretty much over by then.”
She put her arms around him and gave him a hug, steering him back toward the A-frame. “You should have done your thinking before coming out,” she said. “Then maybe you’d have spent the night on a cuddly woman rather than wet sand.”
Tony looked around frantically, but saw no sign of her.
“Tony, what’s wrong?” Jenni asked, a look of concern playing across her pretty face.
“Where is she? Where did she go?”
Jenni looked more puzzled. “Where’s who? You weren’t two-timing me out here, were you?” He could hear the worry in her voice, though she kept her tone light.
“The woman on the beach. She washed up from a boat or something. She said her name was Glory.”
Jenni put her arm around his waist. “Tone, hon, I think you must have had a very vivid dream.”
Tony shook his head. “No. I swear.”
She herded him in the direction of the A-frame. “Come back to the house,” she said. “I’ll make breakfast.”
She hugged him as they walked. “But next time you come out to the beach to have strange dreams,” she said, “promise you’ll dream only of me.”
Tony sat by the fire as Jenni puttered in the kitchen. They’d moved the canvases and cleared a space for him on the couch. Jenni had pressed a warm cup of coffee into his hands, but Tony had hardly drunk any. Instead, he stared at the white steam rising into the cool morning air.
“I was really worried about you for a few minutes there,” she called to him as she stirred scrambled eggs. “When I woke up alone, I thought you must be in the shower. When you didn’t come out after a while, I figured you must have gone down to the studio. I got up and checked but didn’t find you. Then I thought maybe you’d gone to the basement. When you weren’t there I almost panicked.
“Then I remembered you sometimes like to take an early walk. I gotta tell you, though, Tone, the middle of the night is a bit too early. And falling asleep on the sand…! We didn’t have that much to drink last night. Good thing I found you. I wouldn’t have, if you had wandered much farther away. I only spotted you because of those endearing navy-blue sweats. Silly man! You could have caught your death.”
She wandered into the room carrying two steaming plates topped with eggs, bacon, and toast. She smiled at him. “Okay, okay. I know. Enough bitching. I go on like this and you’ll think we’re married.”
She set the plates down before them on the coffee table. “One cholesterol special, courtesy Chef Jenni Malone. Maybe I should quit my cashier’s job at the Piggly Wiggly and become a cook. Think I might have a future in a kitchen?”
Tony didn’t say anything.
She sat down next to him and looked at his blank face. “Hon? You okay? Say something.”
Tony smiled weakly at her. “Sorry if I worried you.”
“Shit. Is that all you can say?” she asked, handing him his plate and a fork.
“I love you.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Well, that’s better. It’s a start anyway.”
“I’m sorry, Jenni.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what? I didn’t worry myself to death, and you didn’t catch pneumonia. All in all, I’d say things worked out okay. Now eat your breakfast.”
Tony did as she asked. The warm food brought some strength back to his limbs.
She ate quickly, bussed their dishes into the kitchen, rinsed them, and popped the lot into the dishwasher. Then she came back, sat on his lap, and hugged him.
“Feel better now?” she asked.
“Mm. Yes. Much.” He returned her hug and kissed her on the lips. She kissed back.
When they broke their clench, she leaned back and looked into his violet eyes. “Ivy says you have the nicest eyes in the family. Is it true?”
Tony smiled. “You be the judge.”
“I would, but I haven’t met many of your relatives, remember?”
“You will, soon, I promise.”
She tousled his hair and started to get up. Then she stopped and pushed his chin to one side with her hand.
“Ooh,” she said. “I must have been rougher on your neck than I thought. That’s quite a hickey.”
He smiled again, starting to feel the warmth seep back into his frame. “You give good hickey, among other things.”
She got up and patted him lightly on the cheek. “Keep saying that and I’ll think you’re serious.” She headed for the stairs. “Well, I’m for a shower. Care to join me?”
Tony grinned and followed her upstairs.
Around noon they got out of bed again, this time together.
“Are we working today?” she asked.
“I think so,” he said. “If you’re up to it.”
“And why wouldn’t I be? I’ve had a good night’s sleep and some fabulous sex. Nothing I’d like better than to lounge around all day in the nude.”
Tony nodded. “Okay. Go downstairs and assume the position. I gotta piss.”
After relieving himself, Tony gazed at his reflection in the mirror. He looked pale and wan. The night on the beach hadn’t done him any good, that was for sure. He rolled his head and felt his vertebrae crack. Jenni had been right about his neck. He sported a beautiful, blotchy purple spot on one side. He wondered briefly if that’s why his neck felt so stiff.
Jenni’s voice called up to him from downstairs. “Come on, Rembrandt. I’m getting cold down here all alone.”
He jogged down the short, winding stairway. “Then I shall warm you with my penetrating artist’s gaze,” he said.
She smiled knowingly at him. “Less talk about penetrating, please, or we won’t get anything done today.”
Tony decided to work on something new today, rather than finishing any of the work they’d started previously. He loosened up with a few quick sketches before taking up his pallet and brushes. They tried a variety of poses before Tony settled on one of Jenni sitting backwards on a wooden chair. They worked together for most of the day, taking frequent breaks so Jenni’s limbs wouldn’t cramp or fall asleep.
During the breaks they kept things businesslike, though it proved difficult to do so. A brief glance from her blue-green eyes was enough to bring a stirring to his loins; the sight of his tongue sticking through his lips as he concentrated on the work brought a sigh that told him she felt warm inside.
They shared a late lunch in the middle of the afternoon. Still, by supper time, Tony’s eyes had begun to droop.
“Hey, Tiger,” Jenni said, breaking from her pose and giving him a hug around the neck. “What’s the matter? Aren’t I exciting enough for you?”
Tony shook his head. “Sorry, hon. I’m having a bit of trouble staying awake here.” He laid down his brushes and pallet and sat on his work stool.
She plopped herself down on his lap and tousled his hair. “You must be, if a naked lady on your lap can’t get a rise out of you.”
He smiled and kissed her on the lips. Then he yawned.
She smiled sympathetically. “I’m not surprised. With your little stunt on the beach last night. Cold sand can’t make for a good rest.”
“Maybe you’ve just sucked the life out of me.”
Jenni chuckled. “Not yet. Maybe tomorrow, though—if you’re lucky.”
He put his hands around her waist and hugged her. “Why not tonight?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, love, but I think you need sleep more than the sex.” She got up off his lap, fetched her clothes, and began to dress. “Besides,” she continued, “I’ll lose my lease if I don’t go back to my apartment every once in a while.”
You could stay here if you want, he thought. I wouldn’t mind. Stay forever, if you like. But he said, “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
“I’m working the morning shift at the Pig. But I’ll drop in later if you want,” she told him, throwing her handbag over her shoulder. She tossed her blond hair to give it some body and smiled at him.
“Please do,” he replied. “I miss you when you’re gone.”
She planted a brief kiss on his lips. “Careful. I might think you mean it,” she said turning toward the door. “Sleep tight.”
He nodded. She closed the door behind her and a minute later he heard her Subaru kicking up the gravel of his driveway.
Tony took a deep breath.
Why didn’t you ask her? he wondered. Knowing he didn’t have a satisfactory answer, he trudged upstairs and collapsed on his bed.
But sleep didn’t come quickly for Tony Frost. When he finally did doze, dreams disturbed his rest. He awoke just after sunset to find himself covered in sweat, a woman’s face dancing before his eyes.
Not Jenni. Glory. The woman from the beach.
A sudden compulsion to see her again seized him. He pulled on some clothes and threw on a jacket against the evening chill.
Then he stepped outside into the darkness.