Of course, Chloe can’t sleep. She wants to hide under the pillow.
She tries really hard. It’s not that Ash is uncomfortable; he’s warm and his arms feel strong and safe around her. She’s not cold. She doesn’t need to spread out or switch sides.
She doesn’t have her bear.
Chloe never sleeps without her bear.
Oh well, she’ll just stay awake and deal. But Ash notices. “Chloe, honey? Why can’t you sleep?”
Oh, dammit. She doesn’t want to lie to him. But whatever. “I never sleep without my bear.” She reddens in the dark.
“Oh. That’s easy. One second.” Ash flips on the lamp. He’s beautiful in the yellow half-light of the bedroom as he stands and walks naked to the closet. His ass is perfect, muscled, a smooth curve from his back to his thighs. Oh my god, please, please, please don’t kick her out in the morning and never speak to her again. He pulls open the folding doors, takes something from a top shelf, and comes back to bed.
“Will my bear work? His name — if you laugh you never ever get to work on that turtle again — is Twinkle. I got him when I was a baby. You can sleep with him if you want.”
Chloe takes Ash’s battered bear. “He’s perfect. Thank you.”
His smile is so sweet. “You’re welcome.” Ash climbs back into bed with her, where she snuggles into his arms. Now this is perfect. She doesn’t remember falling asleep before he’s waking her.
“Come on, honey. Here, put your clothes back on and I’ll take you over to your place to get some new ones so you don’t freeze, okay?”
Chloe yawns and yawns. Thank god this hairstyle doesn’t require maintenance and she has makeup with her. Ash doesn’t seem like he’d wait for her to do it. So she drinks her coffee and starts putting on foundation in the car: his battered Suburban with the back seats ripped out, a far cry from last night’s sleek blue Jaguar.
“What on god’s green earth are you doing?” Their breath steams in the dark.
“You don’t need that.”
“I only wear a little bit.”
“You still don’t need it.”
“I look twelve without it. Would you rather appear like you have a fighting chance of being in bed with me, or a human trafficking situation?”
Ash makes a face. “Put your damn makeup on.”
“I was teasing.”
She directs him to her dorm. “I will seriously take like five minutes. I’m just going to change into a hoodie and jeans and actual shoes.”
“Get a hat. It’s cold. And wear two or three layers under that hoodie.”
When she returns, Ash has the car light on and is reading a book about fossil identification. He slips it in the glove compartment and opens the door for her. “God, I feel like a total creeper.” Ash starts the car. “It’s dark and I’m sitting outside a fucking freshman dorm waiting for a girl to come out. Father fuck me, this looks bad.”
Chloe blushes. “Sorry.”
“Not your fault you’re a baby. But I reserve the right to bitch about the general unfairness of the universe.”
“I was just glad you didn’t take the chance to run. I was sort of afraid you would.”
“Seriously?” Ash turns and looks at her. “I showed you my fossils, let you work on my turtle, hooked up with you, let you sleep in my bed and then gave you my bear to borrow. Do I seem like the type who does that sort of thing?”
“I don’t think so. But stranger things have happened.”
“Then let me explain.” Ash glances from the road to her and back. “I’m not. That’s my twin’s department. He’s the one that does dumb impetuous shit. I’m the one who stands back and tells him to cool down and then cleans up his messes. I am not the one who even goes out with girls, let alone — Jesus, I can’t tell you the last time I let someone in my house who wasn’t Thatcher or the maid.”
The Suburban cruises towards the interstate and Chloe watches the empty city pass around them. No one’s awake, and the city’s beautiful in its quiet. Charleston never seems to sleep and when it does, it dreams: wind in the live oaks, traffic lights that signal empty streets, dark buildings full of ghosts.
“I’m glad you’re not going to kick me out.”
“That’s good.” Ash seems much more sarcastic out of bed, or maybe it’s the lack of sleep and the early morning.
“It’s so pretty out here.” She smiles. “You can tell why the whole city believes in ghosts.”
“You think this is pretty?” Ash smiles. “Wait until you see the sun rise over the ocean, sweetheart. You want some biscuits? I’m starving.”
“There’s a Biscuit House on the way to Folly. We can stop.”
“I’ve never seen the sunrise over the ocean. I bet it’s beautiful.”
Ash looks at her. “Part me of thinks it sucks that you’re so young, because it looks weird to other people. Shit, it’s gonna look weird to my parents. The other part of me loves it — it’s like you’re seeing everything new and you don’t take it for granted yet. Like last night. That never would have been enough for most women I’ve been with. It would have been all “fuck me, Ash,” and “like this, Ash,” and “no, this way,” and whatever. They wouldn’t have noticed — oh, I don’t know. Forget it. It’s stupid.” He looks back at the road in front of them.
“They wouldn’t have noticed what?”
“You felt like you could have laid there with me all night, and we could have done nothing but touch each other, and you would have loved every second.”
Chloe considers it. “I would have gotten really, really turned on, but yeah, probably. You feel good, Ash. All that muscle, oh my God. I could have run my hands over you all night and just made out. It helps that you’re an amazing kisser.”
“Don’t say things like that while I’m driving. It’s supremely distracting, Chloe. Do you have any idea what that’s like? How fucking — I don’t know. People don’t notice things, is all. You do. Or at least you care. Maybe it’s the same thing.” He pulls into Biscuit House. “What do you want?”
“Coffee, sweet tea, and two regular biscuits with a ton of butter.” She starts digging in her purse.
“Um, I think it’s traditional that I buy you breakfast the morning after.” The watery yellow light shows Ash’s half-grin. “Least I can do.”
“What do you mean, ‘least I can do’?”
“Honey, that was the best I’ve had in years.”
He leaves that hanging while he orders. She decides, in that short interval, she doesn’t want to touch it by picking it apart; she just wants to enjoy it, when Ash speaks suddenly. “Hey. Are you busy today?”
“Not really. No rehearsal for anything. Rent rehearsals are off this weekend and Midsummer is winding down. Sundays tend to be good. Why?”
He side-eyes her. “You’re doing Rent?”
“Yeah.” Oh God, she wants to hide. The questions will come next.
“Who are you playing?” He hands her a coffee and a tea. She downs the tea almost immediately, she’s so thirsty, then sips at the coffee.
“You’ll have to come to the play and see.”
He scrutinizes her. “Dark hair, dark eyes, and if you sing as well as you act and you don’t want to say it, you’re playing Mimi, aren’t you?” He names the female lead.
“They let me out of voice lessons to do it. They said I’d get enough experience on the mainstage with it.”
“You’re that good, aren’t you?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.” Chloe’s turned beet-red and looks out the window, away from him.
“You just finished playing Puck and now you’re Mimi in Rent. You get to sing Light My Candle, which is one of my favorite songs in the history of musicals.”
“So explain to me how we’re going to find fossils on a beach.” Chloe wants to end this conversation.
Ash launches into a detailed explanation about Cenozoic seabeds and sharks and things washing up, having to get there right at low tide and pick through the debris. He tells her what to look for. They get to Folly Beach just before sunrise. He takes out a thermos of coffee and climbs to the top of a low dune. “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to bring someone here with me. You really, really don’t.” It’s as if he’s telling her a secret, something precious and rare and shining. Ash sits, pulls her into his lap, and wraps around her. She ties her hair up so it doesn’t whip into his face.
“Watch.” He speaks right into her ear, so quietly.
First, the sky grays subtly. The stars blink out. The gray lightens, blurs, blues. Suddenly gold breaks over the horizon: but not a shimmering disk, a wide and wonderful smear blazing the sky up to pinks and oranges. The clouds turn to wisps of red-rose; the sky is gold fire. They watch it in silence as seabirds begin their dive and swoop, as the sea grates against the land. When the last of the sun crosses the horizon, Chloe turns in Ash’s lap and kisses him in the soft glow of the morning. “That was … I don’t even know what. Thank you.”
“It was perfect. And it’s a miracle, every single time. I’ve wanted to show someone for so long. But I didn’t know anyone who would say anything more than ‘what a pretty sunrise.’”
Ash takes her onto the beach. Chloe isn’t sure quite what to look for, but she’s content to walk in silence with him, near the toss and swirl of the ocean, the cry of gulls. Shells crunch under her feet. Ash periodically leans and plucks teeth from the mess of pebble and shell. She picks up an enormous moon snail, the beautiful whirl of it, the perfect spiral. Then she sees the sharp triangular shine and seizes it, as if it might disappear: a sharp, menacing tooth, all lean needle and smooth, deadly curve. It is, in that moment, the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. “Ash,” she calls over the ebb and rasp of the waves, “Ash, I found one.”
He turns, his smile dazzling. “Let me see.” He takes it from her. “Sand tiger shark. Big one, too.”
“I never found a fossil before.”
“Now you have.” He drops it in her pocket. “I see you got a moon snail, too.”
“It’s a perfect Fibonnaci spiral,” she says, referring to the mathematical curve.
He fairly glows. “It is. I love them for that.”
They walk and walk, and finally, turn around. Ash has almost a handful of teeth he’s been carrying in a sandwich bag. “We already looked here. So can we hold hands now?” He seems shy about it. She doesn’t answer, she just takes his hand in hers. His is big and rough for someone who doesn’t work with his hands. She remembers it inside her and shivers a little.
“Then what was that?” Ash is so goddamn observant.
She sighs. He’s going to drag it out of her. “I was thinking.”
His eyebrows knit. “Everything okay?”
She smiles a little bit. Her shoes and the hems of her jeans are caked in sand. “Yeah. More than okay.”
“Then what was it?”
“What about it?”
Chloe feels herself blush in the morning light. “What you were doing with it. Last night.”
“Oh, honey.” Ash picks up her hand and kisses it. “I can take you home and do more of that, if you want.”
The sand crunches underfoot. Chloe never goes to the beach. She doesn’t want to tell him she’s only been a very few times. “I would really, really like that.”
Back at his house, he hands her the bag. “It’s yours. I have too many shark teeth.”
“I can’t —”
“Yours.” Ash’s voice is firm.. “And I’m cold. Do you — I mean, would you mind — if we took a shower? We can do it separate if you want. And make sure your hair doesn’t get wet.”
“It’ll be fine. It just dries like this, as long as I don’t put anything in it.”
“Do you want to get in with me?” He seems tentative.
“Yes or no, Chloe. You always have to say yes or no.”
“Why?” She rolls her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“I need to know exactly what you mean. It’s a consent thing. You are younger and I need to be 100% sure you aren’t going along with things because you feel pressured into it.”
She rolls her eyes again.
“No.” Ash lifts her chin so Chloe has to look at him. “This is serious. It’s not a game and it’s not an eyeroll. This is very, very important. You should never feel like you have to do something just because I ask for it. This is one of those times where our age difference really does matter. It might be easy for you to go along with me because you think I know better than you. Do you understand?”
He kisses her on the head. “I’m sorry I had to say it like that. It sucks. But there it is. Do you want to get in the shower now?”
Ash takes her into his enormous bathroom, at least by Chloe’s standards, a huge room with a deep garden tub, a double vanity, and a walk-in shower. “Do you like it hotter or cooler?”
“Really, really hot.”
“Oh thank god.” Ash jacks the shower up almost all the way and touches the zipper on her hoodie. “Can I?”
“I would like that a lot.” Chloe’s never had a guy do more than pull her shirt over her head. But Ash unzips her hoodie and pushes it over her shoulders. He yanks her close by her waistband, then unbuttons her jeans and gently pulls them down. Chloe steps out of them. “I like these,” he says, touching the fabric of her black satin panties. Chloe doesn’t drop cash on much, but she loves cute underwear. When he takes her thermal shirt off over her head, then her T-shirt, he touches her black satin bra. “You dressed for me. That is so unbearably sweet.” Ash turns off the water. “Fuck the shower. Come to bed?”
Ash laughs. “You’d do it all night, wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve never gotten tired of it and wanted to stop, if that’s what you mean.”
“Oh, Lord. You know a few years makes a difference with that, right? I need some time in between. So you’re going to have to learn some patience in that department.”
She smiles. “Bet I can make you go quicker.”
Ash laughs. “No, honey, you can’t. But right now …” He’s pulling off his jeans and shirts, leaving a pair of black briefs. Chloe can clearly see his hard-on outlined underneath them. She can’t help it: she strokes his cock and massages. Ash groans, then bats her hand away. “I don’t want a handjob in the bathroom.” He smacks her on the ass. “Get in bed, you little savage."