Ash turns the shower on scalding for her and leads her in. The water pounds down on her, and the red swirls away. He washes her hair, conditions it — where did he learn to condition hair? Then he turns his back, washing his own hair, so she has the chance to clean the blood off herself. He steps out first, wrapping her in a fluffy towel when she gets out.
“How do you feel?” Ash’s voice is gentle.
“A little sore.”
“I’m sorry. For everything.”
Chloe blinks at him. “What?”
“I never should have touched you in the first place. I was just so excited that there was this girl who was actually interested in the same shit I was, who didn’t care that I was an unrepentant weirdo, and then you went and watched the sun rise with me and you actually saw it —” Ash is so close to tears. “But I just ruined everything.”
“How? How did you ruin a goddamn thing, Ashton?”
“I didn’t want it to be like this.”
“I wanted it to be more special!”
“I don’t know.” Chloe puts her hands on her hips. “Don’t you think losing your virginity with your boyfriend is pretty fucking special?”
Ash opens his mouth and then shuts it again.
“And you know why I wanted to? Why I asked? Because I’m in love with you. And you know why I didn’t answer you when you asked me before? Because you clearly fucking regretted it, which means you aren’t in love with me. Because if you were you wouldn’t regret doing it. So I’m going back to my dorm to chalk this up to a stupid-ass freshman mistake.” She starts collecting her clothes.
“What?” Her voice is a snap, an accusation.
“Don’t leave, please?”
“Look, you fucked me and you’re not in love with me. Mistake. Let’s move on.” She turns her back, drops her towel, and starts dressing.
Ash take a deep breath behind her. Then another, then another. “I love you, Chloe.”
“You said you’ve never been in love.”
“I said I love you, Chloe.” His voice is stronger this time.
She turns around, jeans buttoned, bra on. “Seriously, Ash?” She’s snapping as she turns, and when she sees his face he looks broken somehow. “Ash?” Chloe puts her hand on his face. “Ash, are you okay?”
“Chloe, I’m sorry I just screwed up so bad. I keep fucking up everything.” He seems like he wants to say something, like he’s struggling to put it into words and he just can’t manage to explain what he means.
“Can you stop saying that, please? Can you look at it the way I saw it for a second? Can you try?”
Ash still looks like he’s breaking.
“I asked someone I love to make love to me. He said yes. And he did it. He was very careful and very gentle and very slow. He held me the whole time and made sure it didn’t hurt, even though he’s really big and I’m small. He held me and helped me not make a total idiot of myself —” she sort of laughs “— and then he actually got me off and the whole time it felt really good. And then he cuddled me after. And when we came we were staring into each other’s eyes. So yeah. I’d call that pretty successful, wouldn’t you?”
“It sounds like it.” Ash doesn’t look at her. “Except that I was totally turned on that you were a virgin and I wanted you so bad and I think I wanted you even more because of it. And when you asked you wore down my last shred of self-control and I’m not sure I didn’t like it more because you were a virgin and I was the one taking it away from you. That’s so fucked up, Chloe.”
She puts her hand on his face. “Ash, honey, you told me before that was hot. And you said then you shouldn’t be telling me that. I knew you thought that before we went into this. Don’t feel guilty over something you feel. Feel guilty over the way you act. Are you going to go out and find a ton of virgins and fuck them now?”
“No.” Ash still won’t look at her.
“Then why feel bad? You wanted to have sex with me and we did. My virginity is truthfully kind of irrelevant. Do you want to go back to bed or go to Folly?”
“I haven’t slept in late in months.”
So they go back to bed. Chloe cuddles into him. “Say it one more time, Ash. Please? I know it’s stupid to ask but I want to hear it.”
She can tell it’s still hard to say, like taking out some part of himself and setting it in front of her. “I love you, Chloe.”
“I love you too.” She turns over, into his neck, lips against him, and must fall asleep.
They wake up late and by the time Chloe eats and dresses, she has to scramble to make it to rehearsal at two. Ash actually hangs out and studies, and afterwards, offers to take her to dinner. “You haven’t had a decent meal all day.”
“I’m sorry we missed Folly this morning.”
“There’s another low tide around dusk. If you wanted.”
“I wish we could stay on Folly. I always wanted to sleep where I could hear the ocean.”
Ash looks at her strangely. “You know the dunes we climb are ours, right? Did I never tell you that? The Folly house is always open. We can stay there whenever you want.”
They’re walking out of the theater. Chloe almost drops his hand. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a beach house?”
“I guess it just didn’t cross my mind to mention the house?”
Forgetting to mention that you have a beach house has to be one of the most ridiculous things Chloe has ever heard, but she lets it ride. She can’t imagine having so much money you fucking forget to tell your girlfriend you have a beachhouse.
They brought the Jag to the theater. He opens the door for her. “Don’t your parents wonder why you aren’t eating at their house every night now?” Chloe’s been worried about this.
“Um. Yes. I’ve been telling them I’m really busy. But it’s me, so they aren’t that concerned.” He sounds angry. “Now, if Thatcher doesn’t show his face every three days he’s clearly dead in a ditch somewhere.” He pauses. “Do you want to stay at Folly tonight?”
He smiles a little bit. Ash has been quieter than usual today. “Of course we can. We’ll stop and get your stuff.”
An hour later they’re walking the beach, picking up fossils. They get take-out from one of the few open restaurants. Then he asks if she minds them building a bonfire. “It’s one of my favorite things to do on the beach. My brothers and I used to build these enormous fires out of driftwood and sneak Daddy’s beer down here. He totally knew, but he just bought more. This, even when Thatcher and I were like, twelve.”
Chloe laughs. She helps Ash drag over plenty of driftwood and dig a giant hole, then runs up for two blankets and beers while he lights it. In a few minutes they’re cuddled in front of a roaring fire, the call and response of the waves grating, the fire crackling its warmth against the chilly beach wind. Ash pops them both beers with the bottle-opener on his Leatherman.
“This is so good.” She leans against him. “This is perfect, Ash.”
“Yeah. Except mama’s gonna beat my ass for getting sand on her quilts.”
“Oh, we’ll wash them in the morning. I wanted one to sit on and one to cuddle under. See?” They’re wrapped up under one of the quilts, have it tucked so only their arms stick out, for beer-drinking purposes. “Now tell me a secret.”
“Tell me a secret. Truth or dare but no dares. And you get to pick the truths.”
Ash looks out over the ocean. “I might fail the bar on purpose.”
“I would recommend a more permanent solution to the problem.” Chloe snuggles closer to him.
“Okay. Your turn.”
“You have to ask me something. I don’t have any good secrets.”
“Do you get turned on when I teach you how to do things in bed?”
She takes a long drink of her beer. “Yes, and that’s not a fucking secret, Ash. You can ask me another one. That was just to prop up your self esteem.”
“All right.” Ash pauses. “Why me?”
She laughs at him. “Because of your turtle, Ashton. Because you’re so in love with the world it hurts you. Because I can’t help thinking that if you just learned to stop hating yourself for three goddamn seconds, you’d stop hurting.”
He doesn’t say anything for a very long time. “Your turn. Ask me something, I can’t think of anything interesting.”
“Why do you and Thatcher look so much alike, and what do you really want to look like?”
Ash cringes. “Because Thatcher wants to. And it was useful before but now — especially now — I don’t know. Thatcher likes it and I love Thatcher. So. There you go.” He takes a long drink. “I want to grow my hair to my chin and wear T-shirts and jeans and Doc Martens everywhere. And get new goddamn glasses. Your fucking turn.” There’s a twist of bitterness in his voice.
“I want to make love to you again. Right here. Where we can hear the ocean and feel the bonfire. I want to do it slow and I want you to tell me you love me and I want it to be perfect. And I know it will be. That’s my secret. That it will be, if we do it.”
Ash laughs at her. “You want to have sex on the beach?”
“Yes.” Chloe finishes her beer and tosses the bottle off where they can easily grab it on their way back.
“You will not believe the places sand will end up, sweetheart.”
“Ash. Make love to me. At least toss your beer and lay down with me.”
He sighs, and they lie together, feet pointed toward the ocean. Chloe strokes his cheeks. “I want to try again but I’m so scared you’ll freak out.”
“That’s fair.” Ash’s voice is sad. “Can I have another chance? I’m scared too.”
They’re quiet for a second, listening to the ocean’s roar, the fling and ebb of pebbles on pebbles in water. It’s so warm pressed against Ash, under the blanket, with the bonfire.
“What are you scared of?”
“I’m scared I’ll do something wrong and hurt you or make you feel bad.” They’re turned towards each other, close, hands on each other’s faces. “Can we start from the beginning? And know we’re going to end up there instead of deciding it in the middle?” He takes a deep breath. She knows what he’s about to say and can see how scary it is for him to say it. “I love you and I want to try again.”
“Why’s it so hard to say that?”
“Because I never said it before and it scares me. Because if I love you then what does that mean about you, and about me, and about what’s going to happen to both of us? Chloe, I’ve slept with plenty of people, but I’ve never been in love with any of them before. So saying it scares me. Why doesn’t it scare you?”
“Because you’re easy to love.”
He laughs at her.
“Are you kidding?! You’re gorgeous and sweet and kind. You absolutely fawn over me. You’re quiet when I need quiet. You’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. You’re in love with the world so much it hurts you and you’re so gentle. I bet dogs and small children adore you. They do, don’t they?”
Ash sort of smiles. “Guilty.”
“Of course I’m in love with you. Idiot.”
“Be careful who you hand your heart to.”
She pets his cheek so he looks in her eyes. “Ash, make love to me again. We can listen to the ocean this time.”
His cock rises against her thigh. “We could try again from the beginning. Do you want to do that?”
“Mmm-hmm. I really, really want to try again.” She presses closer to him and he gasps as she unzips her hoodie and there’s nothing but a bra underneath. Her feet are already bare; she wiggles out of her jeans. She starts on Ash’s belt buckle.
“Aren’t you worried we’ll get caught?”
“Off-season.” Chloe shrugs. “Douse the fire if you’re worried about it.” He gets up and tosses sand over it; the smell of smoke mixes with the clean ocean salt-scent. Now it’s perfect, velvet dark, moon on the water. Ash slips his clothes off and curls under the blanket with her.
His chest is bare against her own, and her nipples draw up against him. Ash finds her mouth and plays with her lips while he strokes his thumb down to pet them. Chloe runs her hands all over him, half for his pleasure, half for hers. She loves touching Ash: all those long planes of strong muscle, the flex and release of his biceps, the clench of his ass. Chloe wants to touch everything. And as she touches him the sea flings itself against the shore again and again. The temperature is dropping but she’s so warm.
Ash strokes her nipples into peaks, then his mouth drops from hers and he begins sucking. Lazily, Ash lies on top of her and sucks her breast for what seems like an age, flicking and fluttering his tongue the way Chloe likes while her fingers tangle in his hair. He switches and sucks on the other. She bucks and twists and whimpers under him and he smiles against her. “I love when you do that.” He whispers it hot in her ear. “I love when you get so turned on you move your hips like that.”
Ash lies down next to her, forehead to forehead. She closes her eyes and listens to the ocean as his fingers find her. Chloe takes his cock in her hand and he’s so hard; she teases him but not much else. He strokes her pussy carefully, circling it, dipping the smallest bit inside until she’s wet and open. Once he’s gotten her there, his thumb circles her clit. She hums and spreads her legs for him. He slides a finger into her, and while she arches up to his thumb, begins to gently stretch her out. “Tell me if I hurt you. Tell me if you’re sore.”
But she’s not. Not really, and if she is a little, it’s more of a good hurt. His fingers have her soaking his hand. Chloe whimpers a little bit, and even she can barely hear herself over the waves.
“Tell me what you want.” Ash kisses her again.
“I want you inside me.”
Ash kneels between her legs. She’s so slick that he slides into her almost without resistance. She stretches around him and she’s sore, but his cock fills her perfectly. Chloe opens her arms and Ash lies back down on top of her, pulling the blanket around them. They’re quiet in the roar of the sea. She runs her hands over him. “You feel good.” She whispers it right into his ear. They’re so close.
“You feel good, Chloe.”
She nuzzles into him and kisses his neck, the familiar salty-sweet, bitter-chocolate taste of his skin. “Make me feel good again, Ash.”
Ash gathers her up into his arms, angles himself, and moves inside her. She rakes her nails down his back. His forehead rests against hers. She starts to shudder. “That’s it, Chloe.” Ash kisses her again. “Come on my cock for me, love. I want to feel it.” He strokes in and out of her, then goes back to small, precise movements that leave her shaking.
Chloe’s so close; she tenses on him. When she goes, she clutches his cock tighter inside and even that feels good, so the next time he moves in her she explodes, bucking under him and letting out a stream of nonsense mixed with oh Gods and his name. Her climax almost seems to tug on his cock; Ash loses it, holding her tight. There’s a hot spill inside her and it turns her on so much, Ash coming in her pussy. When her climax clutches at him, he shudders; when he shudders, she clutches at him. They go back and forth like this, one and the other, until their peaks recede and finally end.
Ash stays inside her until he slides out, then holds her while they listen to the ocean. They don’t talk for a long time.
“Did I do better this time?” Chloe finally teases.
Ash kisses her. “You did so perfect, baby. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
She shakes her head. “I’m a little sore now. But I wasn’t, not during.”
They’re quiet again. She wants him to say it so much, but he doesn’t say it. Chloe doesn’t want to make him, doesn’t want to push him into it by saying the words herself.
Ash finally speaks. “I still wanted to wait.”
Her stomach sinks.
“But I love you. And I only wanted to wait because of that. I had this idea I would make this perfect —I don’t know. That I would plan it and make it so perfect for you and you would know by how perfect it was how much I cared and how seriously I took it. And I fucked that up and I’m so mad.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too. I just wish you would stop beating yourself up over this. It’s done. You can’t take it back. You have to let it go.”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Ash.” He draws her closer, nestles her head under his chin. “Goddammit. How do you think I feel, that you regret having sex with me? You’re just so fucking guilty, all the time, aren’t you, Ash?”
“No. I don’t regret having sex with you. I regret having sex with you the way I did, when I did. Because I care about you.”
“This is so messed up.”
“No, it’s not. If you’d just —”
“It’s fucked up and I don’t want to talk about it again.” Chloe barely holds back the anger in her voice.
“I feel like I ruined something for you.”
“I feel like you ruin it over and over.”
“Ow.” He whispers it quietly. “That hurts, Chloe.”
“Well if you’d stop doing this, you’d stop ruining it!” She turns away from him and starts putting her clothes on. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Chloe, it’s like, eleven at night.”
“It’s the beach. I’ll be fine.” When she turns back around, Ash is dressed too.
“I’m coming with you.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“I want to.”
“Why, so you can dump more of your guilt on me?”
“I just want to be by myself. Can’t I go be lonely by myself for a while?”
Ash knits his brow. “But you don’t have to be lonely, Chloe. I’m right here.”
“You of all people know how much worse it is to be lonely when you’re with other people.”
“Okay.” Ash takes a deep breath. “So what do you want me to do right now?” he asks. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
“No. Then it’s not real.”
“Chloe!” There’s hurt, and sadness, and anger tangled together in his voice.
“I’ll be on the beach. Just carry the stuff up, if you wouldn’t mind. I’d appreciate it.” Chloe walks off.