I’ve had some incredible times on beaches. Parties that I will remember for the rest of my life. Concerts for more kinds of music than I knew existed. Bonfires, and singing, and dancing, and laughing. And sometimes I’ve walked up and down a boardwalk with a girl. It’s hard to say which times are more amazing. They’re different, and I love them all.
Jack watched Alpha Centauri A slip below the horizon, leaving only Cen B’s pale orange light hanging low above the horizon. A binary star system generated some really interesting sunslight. Another red dot flared into existence in the sky for a few seconds and two words appeared on Jack’s contacts. Proxima Centauri. The red dwarf orbiting the Alpha Centauri binary star system had a tendency of flaring every hour or so according to his hyperspace navigation classes. It was a Bad Thing to be too close to it when that happened, but it looked amazing from the safety of a planet.
Jack turned away from the orange twilight, shaking his head in wonder, and scanned the beach next to him. Ocean waves washed onto the beach with a dull roar. Men, women, and children laughed and played in the surf and the sand. Some still lay on the beach, enjoying the remaining twilight. Others began to pack up and leave. Sunbathing time was over. Jack scanned the bikini-clad bodies and smiled. He really loved beaches.
A throat cleared itself next to him and he turned to look at Betty. She wore her favorite yellow sundress and white sandals. It made her look completely at home on the beach. It was a good look for her. The dress fluttered in the salty warm breeze coming off the ocean, and he aimed an innocent smile her way.
She arched an eyebrow. “Don’t give me that look,” she said in a stern tone. “I know you too well.”
Jack held the smile. “What? No jury would convict me.”
Betty’s face twisted into a sweet smile. “But Samantha might.”
Jack’s hands reached for the scarf hanging around his neck reflexively. “We don’t even know each other yet,” he returned, trying hard not to sound guilty.
“But you’re here to meet her,” Betty rejoined with a smile that suggested she heard the guilt despite his efforts. “Ogling other girls is not a way to make a good impression.” Her amused smile vanished and she cleared her throat. “Well, I suppose I should leave you now. Good luck, Jack,” she said and faded away.
Jack swallowed, slipped a hand into his pants pocket, and pulled in a deep breath. He held his head high and looked out over the beach, watching more sunbathers and swimmers packing up to go home. He breathed in and out in time to the waves, didn’t stare too much at any one young lady, and waited.
A fresh set of footsteps on the boardwalk approached his position and he felt electricity in the air. He smiled and continued to scan the oncoming waves, waiting. The footsteps stopped behind him. With a deep breath to puff his chest out, he turned around to see flaming red hair and twinkling emerald eyes lit by the orange sun. Jack pulled the white cowboy hat from his head with his free hand and bowed.
“My lady.” He stood tall again and placed the cowboy hat back on his head as he studied her. A loose white blouse and black skirt fluttered in the breeze, shrouding her lithe body. A scarf that matched his hung around her neck and she peered back at him with an inquisitive intelligence that told him she was going to be a seriously wild ride.
She glanced up and down his Dress Whites with an amused smile. “I think someone’s trying to impress me.”
Jack placed his free hand on his belt and held his smile. “Is it working?”
Samantha clicked her tongue. “Maybe.” She looked out at the beach and nodded slowly. “Enjoying the scenery?”
Jack chuckled and aimed a charming smile at her. “That which lies upon yonder beach pales in comparison to the Dulcinea who called me here.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “And where would this girl be?” she demanded, a twinkle in her eyes.
Jack smiled in pure pleasure, pulled in a deep breath, and released a long sigh. “I do believe she is waiting for her knight in white armor to save her from a dull and dreary existence,” he said and pulled his Dress Whites tight with a wry smile.
Samantha smiled and examined the scarf hanging from his neck with an appraising air. “And what is this then?”
“A favor, a boon,” Jack said and waved his free hand in the air like a magician. “A charm of great luck bestowed on me by my Dulcinea,” he finished with a raised finger.
She arched an eyebrow. “Your Dulcinea?”
Jack smiled and lowered his hand to hold the scarf. “Well, every brave knight needs a reason to ride off to battle with the dark and horrible enemy.” He held her gaze and felt his hand squeezing the scarf a little too tightly. “And to return,” he added without thinking.
Samantha’s eyes opened wide and he mentally cursed himself for letting his composure slip. Confident, confident, he must be confident.
“Or so the stories say,” he added with a wry smile.
She cocked her head to the side and examined him with a concerned look in her eyes. “And here I thought you were a Cowboy,” she said and raised a hand to tap his cowboy hat’s brim.
Jack chuckled at her, spreading his arms out wide. “I am. Don Quixote, the errant Cowboy, at your service.” He whipped the scarf from around his neck with a smooth motion and held it out to her. “You ordered me to return this boon tonight, my lady, and I have…returned.”
She turned away to look at the beach, but he sensed the corner of her eyes on him so held his stance. Something was reserved about her. She was thinking about something that wasn’t here. He didn’t know what it was, but warning bells clanged in his mind. Their meeting was entering new territory, and he didn’t know what the rules were.
Of course, that part was usual with girls.
She finally broke the silence with a single word. “Why?”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “Hmm?”
Samantha turned to face him again and he saw determination in her eyes. “Why did you kiss me last night?”
Jack frowned, flicked the scarf back to drape over one shoulder, and tried a stalling tactic to give him time to think. “Why did you kiss me first?”
She raised an eyebrow at him and gave him a long look before shrugging. “Okay. Fine.”
Jack shivered. He knew girls, and he knew that those two words uttered together were never either okay or fine.
“I’ll bite,” she said in a sweet tone that sent more shivers down his spine. “I was partying, I was enjoying the New Years celebration, I was dancing, and I was having fun. And the ball came down and people started kissing and I decided I wanted to do that too. So I found some random handsome guy who wasn’t kissing anyone and I glomped onto him.” Her mouth pulled down in something near a frown.
“You think I’m handsome?” Jack said with a smile, trying to shift the conversation to his advantage.
Her eyes narrowed and she brought one finger up to touch her lips. She let out a long breath and extended the finger to push against his chest. “And then he kissed me back,” she said, jabbing him with each syllable. “Why did he kiss me back?”
Jack blinked for a moment. He really didn’t like being just a random kiss, but it hadn’t been one in the end. He quickly dove back into a charming smile aimed at her. “Well, you are an amazing young lady who should be kissed well and often.”
Samantha smiled. “That may be true.” Her expression turned more serious. “But is that really why you kissed me?”
Jack spread his arms out wide and the scarf fluttered in the wind. “Why does anybody kiss? Sparks. Electricity. You’re a good kisser. There’s a lot of reasons we kiss each other. To me it all comes down to whether or not we enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it.” He looked at the scarf in his hand for a second before meeting her gaze. “You did too. Has that changed?”
Samantha shook her head. “I don’t know. I did…at the time.” She shifted her hand over to brush the scarf and smiled before shaking her head.
Jack realized she was of two minds on last night. She liked it, and was troubled by it. The question was why. He could try to charm her into using just the parts of her that liked it, but that wouldn’t fix the issue really, just delay it. He needed to understand the other mind before he could figure out what to do. Assuming he ever could understand of course.
He aimed an understanding smile at her and let out a long breath. “What troubles you, my lady?” he asked and waved his hand in a chivalrous manner.
She shook her head but he detected the barest smile in it. “You make it hard to be angry with you.”
Jack wrapped the scarf around his neck with a flick of the wrist and smiled at her. This really was dangerous territory if she was trying to be angry with him. He had to know how dangerous. “Why do you wanna be?”
“I don’t!” Samantha spat out, and shook her head. “But I’ve been thinking.” She raised her eyes to meet his again and he saw turmoil in them. “I wanted a short, fun, no commitment kiss. Happy New Year and goodbye honey all in one. Then you grab me, knock me off balance and kiss me like…wow…” Her eyes went slack in memory and she paused for a couple seconds. She shook her head to clear it and her expression turned hard again. “But I made it clear I didn’t want it. I protested. I struggled.” She poked him in the chest, hard. “You kept kissing me anyways. And no matter how much I liked the kiss, I don’t like that,” she finished with a grim look.
Jack licked his lips and looked down, a chill going down his spine as he really understood. He could see her point of view.
She pulled his chin back up and looked him in the eyes. He saw the determination to do whatever needed doing in them. “Jack, part of me’s screaming at me right now for saying this, but I will walk and you will never see me again if I can’t trust you. If you keep playing this ridiculous little game of yours, I’m gone. Or you can talk. Your call.”
Jack smiled and sucked in a deep breath. She had a truly amazing mind, and the stubbornness to stick to her guns no matter what. She was amazing. He felt something in him shift and knew, whether she walked or stayed in the next moments, he would be proud of her for doing it. And she was worth going all the way to make her stay.
“It’s not really a game,” he said in a calm, clear voice. “Oh, I’ve kissed a lot of girls in my time.” He chuckled. “More than one father chased me off at gunpoint.” He shook his head but held her gaze so she could know he was telling the truth. “I liked them. I enjoyed spending time with them.” He chuckled again and rubbed his jaw. “I think the only time I ever did homework was with…them. If I had a penny for every time a father barged into bedrooms to find books scattered over the bed….” Jack gave a low whistle. “Saved my bacon, let me tell you.” He chuckled for a moment, then chewed his lip for another, and brought one finger up to hold it between them. “They were friends, people I trusted and liked. I’ve never kissed a stranger before.”
Samantha stepped back and her eyes shifted from side to side as she considered his words. He waited for her to look back at him before continuing. She needed to know he was truthful.
“You didn’t know me from Adam,” Jack said with a wave towards the people on the beach. “I could have been any of them. I could have been none of them. You weren’t kissing me. You would have forgotten all about me. And my pride just couldn’t stand that. So I decided to give you a kissing you wouldn’t forget,” he finished with a calm look. He spread both arms out wide. “Wrong or right, that was it. That was why. And after that I stepped back and waited for your next move.” He took a very small step back to show his intentions, grabbed the scarf and whipped it off his shoulder to hold it between them once more. “I don’t want you to walk right now. I really don’t.” He swallowed, but now was not the time for half measures. “But I will never stop you from walking if that is your choice. Not today, not tomorrow, not ten years from now. Never.” He gave her a calm smile and waited for her next move. Again.
Samantha remained still, studying him, for what seemed like an eternity. Finally she bit her lip, nodded, and sighed. She stepped close, grabbed the scarf, and very firmly placed it back on his shoulders. He swallowed as an electric shiver ran through his body.
“I believe you,” she whispered and patted the scarf, sending another jolt through him. She turned away from him and gave a slight nod.
Motion caught Jack’s attention and he focused on a man by a car in the distance. The man nodded back, opened the car door, and slipped into it. The car lifted off the ground a few moments later and flew away. A chill went down his spine as the fact that she’d expected to walk away settled in.
She turned back to him and smiled. “I’m afraid I didn’t plan very well. Do you have any plans?”
Jack sucked in a deep breath, gave her his best charming smile, and crooked his arm out next to him. He looked down the boardwalk, at the vendors shutting their shops, at the sunbathers going home, and sighed. “Would my lady like to walk down the boardwalk?”
She slipped her arm into his with a smile of her own. “I would love to,” she answered and they began to walk. She leaned in close and whispered. “I’m glad I kissed a stranger last night.”
Jack let out a long breath and smiled. “Just to be clear, we’re talking about me, right?” he asked.
Samantha slapped him with her free arm. “And just how many strangers do you think I kissed last night?”
Jack sucked in a deep breath. “Well, you were moving pretty quick…”
“Jack?” she said and gripped his arm tight.
“Yes, Ma’am?” he asked.
“You can shut up now.”
She gave him a satisfied smile. “Good.” She leaned against him as they walked.
Jack looked down at the scarf that was a match for the one she’d given him. Hers hung around her neck and draped over impressive breasts. He reached his free hand over to grab the scarf and ran his thumb over it. “What is this?”
“A scarf,” she answered, not taking her head away from his arm.
Jack raised an eyebrow at the top of her head. “I’ve seen a lot of these walking around town. All different colors and patterns. And I see that some of them are more prestigious than others.” He lifted her scarf off her breast and waved it in the general direction of a particularly snooty group of young men and women walking off the beach. They wore a scarf of some other design.
She smiled and pulled her scarf out of his hands. She waved it in his face. “They’re school scarves.”
“Ahhh,” Jack whispered, projecting a tone of total understanding. “So they come from a rival high school?”
Her body stiffened and she slapped his arm in a playful manner. “College actually.”
“No,” Jack said, projecting shock as best he could. “That can’t be.” He cocked his head to the side and examined her smiling face. “Unless you’re one of those honors students of course. Getting ahead of the pack and all that.”
She bumped her hip against his leg playfully. “And just how young do you think I am?” she asked.
Jack pulled in a long breath, enjoying the moment and really not wanting to break it. “Well…” he said through pursed lips, considering his words carefully. He smiled as something came to mind. “I think you’re old enough to know your father wouldn’t approve of me, and young enough that you’re willing to risk it.”
Samantha chuckled. “And what makes you think my Daddy has any say in who I date?”
Jack sighed and patted her arm with his free hand. “If you call him Daddy, you will always be his little girl and he will always have something to say about who you date. Whether you like it or not. And it will often be through the megaphone of a shotgun aimed at the lad he has words for,” he finished with a wry smile.
Samantha chewed her lip for several seconds before shaking her head and patting his arm. “Good answer.”
“You succeed,” she corrected.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Jack smiled at the young lady on his arm, enjoying every second of it. “So what school do you go to?”
“New Churchill College. Business major. What about you?”
Jack chuckled. “Bemidji State. And if I’m being honest, I majored in music, drinking, and girls, and not necessarily in that order.”
Samantha laughed. “Do you play?”
Jack gave her a very large grin. “I’m told I play very well.”
Samantha slapped his arm. “Music.”
Jack chuckled. “Oh…right. That.” Jack made a production of a regretful sigh. “Yes, I play the guitar, I pluck a good fiddle, and I can do a mean harmonica too. Do you play?”
Samantha gave him a slow smile. “Yes,” she finally whispered.
Jack pulled in a deep breath in admiration. She truly was a lively one. “Are you going to tell me?” he finally asked.
She pursed her lips and cocked her head to the side. “Do you think you can guess?”
“What do I get if I guess right?” he asked.
She smiled at him playfully. “A walk on the beach?”
He looked over at the beach. “We’re already doing that, aren’t we?”
Her smile grew. “A longer walk on the beach.”
“Okay. I’m in,” he said with a satisfied smile. Jack examined her right hand closely. “Well, no calluses, so you don’t play a guitar. Unless you’re left handed or use a pick.”
Samantha shook her head with an approving smile.
“Right. So I’m guessing no harmonica?”
Samantha chuckled. “Cold.”
“Right.” Jack pursed his lips in thought and scanned her body. She had better posture than most young ladies, suggesting she either had someone who taught her to walk properly, or she played something that required it, or both. He watched her breath for several seconds, recognizing the smooth and controlled tempo of it. “Well, you certainly have healthy lungs,” he said with a smile.
Samantha raised a warning eyebrow at him.
“I’m serious,” he answered with a chuckle. “You control your breathing like you were trained to.”
She pursed her lips, examined him carefully, and finally nodded.
Jack pondered for a moment, and smiled again. “You’ve got good lips too. Flute?”
Samantha smiled and patted his arm before shaking her head.
“Ah…darn.” Jack shrugged and scratched his chin with his free hand. “Well, you don’t have the lips of a brass lass, so no tuba for you.”
She gave him a surprised look for a moment, then shook her head and shuddered theatrically, forcing him to chuckle. It was actually a very good theatrical shrug. He frowned and studied her again. She had impressive control of her gait, very graceful, with each step landing exactly where she meant it. He’d seen that before.
“You have nice legs too.”
She aimed another raised eyebrow at him.
He gave her an innocent smile. “I mean you have good posture and have very good control of where you walk. You do stage work.”
Samantha smiled. “Getting warmer,” she whispered.
Jack smiled back and licked his lips. The theatrical control of her body suggested training. “Acting?”
Samantha sighed and walked on.
“Not exactly,” Jack whispered and considered more. Back in the club on New Years she had slipped through the crowd without bumping into anybody. “You know your way through a crowd and have an excellent sense of timing with the music. So you perform in a crowd. I’m going to say no to opera though.”
She looked at him for a long moment with a curious gaze. “Why?”
Jack smiled at her. “I’ve known opera girls. They wouldn’t have been caught dead in that club on New Years. They would be at their family’s Holiday Ball hobnobbing with all the other members of ‘real society’ and all that bunk.”
Samantha nodded in approval. “You may continue.”
“I’m going to say no to ballet as well.” At her questioning look, he smiled. “Ballet companies prefer stick figure girls. You, my lady, are no stick figure girl,” he said with an admiring look.
Samantha laughed and gave his arm a soft pat. “We’re running out of boardwalk,” she said with a nod.
Jack glanced ahead to see where it ended about a block away. They still had plenty of time. He shrugged and pulled in a deep breath. “I think your performing style is…singing…and some dancing or…choreographed stuff…with a bunch of other people.”
Samantha aimed an admiring smile at him and shifted back and forth on his arm. “Getting hot,” she whispered.
“Yes, you are,” he answered.
She slapped his arm.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he whispered and chewed his lower lip as he watched her move. It was a very enjoyable sight. He laughed as all the hints came together. He could be wrong, but it matched everything he knew so far, so it was worth a guess. “I’m willing to bet a very long walk on the beach, and a short dip in the ocean if you approve, that you are in a glee club.”
She stopped and spun to face him. “How?” Her gaze turned suspicious. “Did your cyber tell you?”
Jack shook his head. “No, Ma’am. Using a cyber like that on you would be spying. I don’t spy. I’d much rather discover who you are in person.” He aimed his best charming smile at her. “And you are worthy of taking time to discover.”
She raised an eyebrow and slapped his arm playfully. “You, Sir, flatter too much,” she whispered.
Jack waggled his eyebrows at her. “Only as much as you deserve.”
She smiled and gave him a thoughtful smile. “Whatever do I do with you?” she finally asked.
Jack shrugged. “I guess that depends on what you want to do with me.” He gave her another charming smile. “Is this a multiple choice question?”
Samantha smiled, pulled his head down, and kissed him on the lips.
Jack pulled back, sucked in a deep breath, and smiled. “Ooh, I like that one. But I think I’d be remiss if I answered before I’d seen any of the other options. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” she answered with a flirtatious smile.
“So what about that swim?” he asked.
She looked up at him, her lips twisted in amusement. “Maybe.”
Jack gave her his best charming smile. “What, oh lady, do I have to do to make you agree?”
She shook her head and turned around to pull him back the way they’d come. “Guess,” she finally said in an amused tone.
Jack felt a smile of confidence enter him and began to throw out option after option in his mind as he searched for just the right tactic. This was a game that was worth playing all the way to the end.
The game went on all night until the rising suns began to chase the night away. That was when the car returned and Samantha turned to leave. Jack pulled her back and stepped in close for another very long kiss. It was a good one, and he liked how she felt when her body melted into his. She stepped away after that eternal kiss that could not have been longer than a second or two. Then she patted his arm and left him alone on the beach.
Well. Not entirely alone. There was of a pair of very attractive joggers coming down the beach.
Jack smiled, shook his head, leaned forward, and began to jog away from the beach. He accelerated into a run after a few moments and enjoyed the feeling of wind in his hair. He pounded through downtown Landing City as fast as an Olympic sprinter on legs that never grew tired. He sucked down massive lungfuls of air and felt the blood rushing through his veins. It felt great to run. It felt even better to run at the end of such an amazing night. He slowed to a jog and then to a walk as he approached his new home with Alpha Centauri A rising behind him to see Charles waiting with a frown.
“You’re late!” Charles snapped.
Jack automatically went to attention, snapping his heels together and deciding that right now was probably the right time to actually channel all the Marine stuff they’d shoved into him back in boot camp. “Sir! I have ten minutes until I report for duty, Sir! I am not late yet, Sir!”
Charles’ frown deepened, his eyes running up and down Jack’s dirty, soggy, and sand-spattered Dress Whites. “What in Hell did you do to your uniform?” he growled.
“Sir! I swam in the ocean, Sir!” Jack said, his voice full of pride.
Charles shook his head and growled. “Why in Hell would you do something so stupid with your Dress Whites?”
Jack’s face broke out in a grand smile. “Sir! There was a girl, Sir!”
Charles lowered his head, brought a hand up to it, and shook his head, mumbling something that sounded like “Why do I bother?” The man looked up, made a show of looking at a watch on his wrist and tapped it. “Nine minutes, Jester! Be bright and shiny! We have a long day today!” he finished with a wicked gleam that said he was not going to give Jack any slack.
Jack smiled back. “Sir! What do I do with the remaining five minutes, Sir!”
“Get out of here!” Charles shouted
“Sir! Yes, Sir!” Jack shouted and broke into a run towards his barracks.