Page 45 of The Perfect Couple

“Hi,” he says. He grins. “Benji called to say you needed looking after.”

“I don’t,” she snaps. She refuses to flirt with him. She refuses to be complicit in this. It’s as though Benji is trying to lose her, handing her off to Shooter once again. “You should have stayed in Saratoga.”

“You’re sexy when you’re stern,” Shooter says. “And I was happy to come, I wanted to come. All I’ve wanted since I left the last time was to see you again.”

“Shooter,” she says.

“You must think I’m a real bastard,” he says. “Going after my best friend’s girl. People write songs about this very scenario, Celeste—Rick Springfield, the Cars. And do you know why? Because it happens. It happens all the time.”

“But why me?” Celeste says. It’s amazing enough that she won the devotion of Benjamin Winbury, but to have Shooter’s attention too seems so inconceivable that she wonders if it’s a trick or a joke. Men like Benji and Shooter should be chasing after women like Merritt. Merritt is an influencer; she has power, clout, and she knows everyone. She is connected, savvy, witty, a social genius. Celeste, meanwhile, writes e-mails to other zoo administrators about improving the orangutan habitat.

“Because you’re real,” Shooter says. “You’re so normal and down-to-earth that you’re exotic. There is no pretense with you, Celeste. Any idea how rare that is these days? And I had such a good time with you here. I haven’t enjoyed a woman’s company that much ever before in my life. It’s like you cast a spell on me. When Benji asked me to come, I didn’t think twice.”

“Benji is my boyfriend,” Celeste says. “Nothing is going to happen between you and me.”

Shooter gives her a laser stare with his sapphire-blue eyes. “Hearing you say that makes me like you even more. Benji is the better choice.”

Benji is the better choice! Celeste thinks. She wonders if Shooter is motivated by envy. He wants what Benji has—his parents, his pedigree, and now his girlfriend. Probably that’s it. Celeste turns her eyes back to her book, hoping Mrs. Fletcher can save her.

“Put your shorts and flip-flops on,” Shooter says. “I’m taking you somewhere.”

“Where?” Celeste says.

“I’ll meet you out front,” he says.

Shooter has rented a silver Jeep. He tells Celeste he asked for the exact same one they had before, and when Celeste sits in the passenger seat, she does indeed feel a strong sense of familiarity, like this is their car, like they belong in it.

Shooter drives out to the Surfside Beach Shack. “I was wrong about the tomato sandwich,” he says. He climbs out of the Jeep and returns a few moments later with a cardboard box that holds two sandwiches wrapped in foil and two drinks. “These are the best sandwiches on the island, possibly the world.” They proceed all the way to the end of Madaket Road, cross a small wooden bridge, and enter what looks like a seaside village from another era. The houses are teensy-tiny beach shacks with funky architectural details: a suspended deck that joins two roof-lines, a slant-roofed tower, a row of round porthole windows. These are nothing like the elegant castles out in Monomoy. These are like beach cottages for elves, and they all have funny names: Duck Inn, It’ll Do, Breaking Away.

“They’re so small,” Celeste says. “How do people actually live in them?”

“The best living is done outside,” Shooter says. “And look at the location—they’re right on the water.”

Celeste nearly points out that the Winburys’ house is right on the water, but she understands the inherent charm of these homes. There are brightly striped towels draped over railings and hibachi grills on the decks; the “front yards” are sand and a tangle of Rosa rugosa bushes. How idyllic life would be out here. You spent all day at the beach, rinsed off under the outdoor shower, grilled a striped bass that you had caught yourself surf-casting a hundred yards away. At night, your neighbors wandered over to share an ice-cold beer or a gin and tonic while you all gazed up at the stars and listened to the pounding surf. Rainy days would mean cards, board games, or a good paperback mystery read in a comfortable old chair.

Shooter crouches down to let some of the air out of the Jeep’s tires; Celeste watches him from her perch in the passenger seat. She studies the back of his neck, the shape of his ears. When he works on the back tires she trains her eyes on him in her side-view mirror. He looks up, catches her, blows her a kiss. She wants to scowl, but instead, she smiles.

Celeste and Shooter drive up over the dunes. The stark natural beauty of Smith’s Point is staggering. There’s a long stretch of pristine beach in front of them with the ocean to the left and dunes carpeted in eelgrass to the right. Beyond those dunes is the flat blue surface of Nantucket Sound.

Shooter is taking it slow—five miles an hour—so he can easily reach over to the glove compartment, grazing Celeste’s knee with the back of his hand as he does so. He pulls out a guide to eastern shorebirds.

“For my zoologist,” he says.

Celeste wants to correct him—she isn’t his anything—but she becomes instantly enthralled by the guidebook. She has always loved ornithology, although it requires more patience than she has been naturally gifted with to pursue as a specialty. Still, she loves to visit the World of Birds and talk to Vern, their resident ornithologist. Vern has sighted over seven thousand of the world’s ten thousand bird species, a life list that puts him in a very elite category of bird-watcher. Vern’s best stories often aren’t about the birds themselves but rather about the travels he has undertaken in order to see them. When he was only eighteen, he hitchhiked from Oxford, Mississippi, to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica to see the resplendent quetzal. He has been to Gambia to see the African gray hornbill and to Antarctica to see the Adélie penguin.

Right away, Celeste points out the sandpiper and the American oystercatcher with its signature orange beak. Shooter laughs and says, “You delight me.” He drives out to the tip of Smith’s Point—Celeste sees the much smaller island of Tuckernuck across a narrow channel—and then he curves around to the far side of the point. He sets up a camp—a chair for each of them, an umbrella for shade, towels, and a small table, where he lays out their lunch. He shucks off his polo shirt. Celeste tries not to notice the muscles of his back.

“Watch this,” he says. He wades out into the water a few feet and then he must drop off a ledge or a shelf because suddenly he is in up to his chest. He lifts his hands in the air, and the water whooshes him down the shore. “Yee-haw!” he cries out. About forty yards down, he climbs out of the water and jogs back to Celeste. “It’s a natural water slide,” he says. “You have to try it.”

Celeste can’t resist. Her parents took her to Great Wolf Lodge every summer of her growing up; she has never met a water slide she didn’t love. She wades in, her feet feeling for the edge of the shelf. Then she jumps in and the current carries her down the coastline.

It’s exhilarating! It’s hilarious! Celeste hasn’t laughed or enjoyed herself this much since she was a child with her father, going down Coyote Canyon.

“How did you know this was here?” she asks Shooter, breathless.

Shooter says, “It’s my business to know the secrets of every universe.”

“I want to go again,” Celeste says.

The film montage starts once more: Here are Celeste and Shooter riding the current down the beach again and again and again, whooping like rodeo cowboys. Celeste can’t get enough; the water is swift, powerful, alive. Shooter gives up first, and finally Celeste declares she is going only one more time. Here are Shooter and Celeste eating their sandwiches—a crab, shrimp, and scallop “burger,” topped with avocado, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a creamy dill and smoked-pepper aioli. And to drink they have fresh watermelon limeades. It’s the most delicious lunch Celeste has ever eaten. Is this hyperbole? She doesn’t think so, though she realizes the sandwich and the drink are only part of it. The swimming is also part of it, the sand, the view… and Shooter. Celeste is so exhausted after eating that she spreads out a towel and lies facedown. Shooter follows suit, and when Celeste wakes up, his leg is touching hers. Celeste doesn’t want to move, but move she must.

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