The name registered with Tony’s frazzled brain.
With a fair amount of difficulty, he yanked his gaze away from where Talia was now tumbling off her paddleboard for the thirty-third time, and turned to face Mickey. The smartass was sitting there in his chair with a picnic basket in his lap, grinning up at him with that smug expression that could only mean he’d gotten the best of him. Again.
“Are you trying to be funny, Mick?”
Chuckling, Mickey ran a hand over his stubble. “I’d say I was being funny. Between you and your lovesick brother, I don’t think there’s a clear brain among the Davies men these days—you know what I’m saying?”
This assessment did nothing to sweeten Tony’s mood. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m thinking of just ignoring it.”
“And to think they put your sorry ass on the front in charge of a bunch of men,” Mickey said sadly, shaking his head. “What’s the army come to?”
“Yeah. Okay.” Tony did a lunge or two, trying to look as though he’d been engrossed in his prejog stretches. “I’m doing my run. I leave you here to your nonsense. Maybe the seagulls need a laugh.”
“Actually, Cap, I have a better idea. Why don’t you take this basket on down to the beach and have lunch with Talia? Since you’ll be thinking about her anyway, you might as well give her a little face-to-face action.”
This proposal did have some appeal. He could run his ass up and down the beach until he dropped from exhaustion, or he could eat some of Mickey’s excellent cooking—he’d recently taken some professional cooking classes and had taken over cooking duties at the house—in front of sparkling waves with his favorite person in the world.
Hmm. Tough choice.
And Mickey had given him the perfect excuse to break his rule about giving Talia space, hadn’t he?
Tony shrugged, trying to look indifferent. “If you insist.”
“Oh, I insist.” Mickey handed the basket over. “I definitely insist.”
Tony continued down the boardwalk, breathing in the salt air until it saturated his lungs. On days like this, he could almost forget that he’d ever left home. That he’d ever been to Afghanistan. That there’d ever been—and still was—a war.
Although, to be fair, was it the ocean setting that did it for him, or Talia?
Hitting the sand’s edge, he toed off his running shoes and socks and slipped his feet into its giving warmth.
Something about her was brighter than other people. More intense, maybe. And it came across in person, but also in her letters. Maybe that was why he was so hung up on her. She was so…exuberant. So energetic and engaged.
Splashing around with Chesley now, she seemed infused with the sunlight, as though it came from inside her rather than from without. She and the barking dog were having fun, splashing, kicking up water, and Talia was laughing at nothing in particular. Even her silver toe ring shimmered against the bright water, and her bracelets, which she apparently never took off, tinkled like a thousand little bells.
He wanted…that. The weightlessness. The joy.
It seemed unlikely that he’d ever feel that kind of joy again, though; maybe the war had amputated it. Hell, the way he was wired these days, it was much more likely that the sunlight would hit him and immediately be sucked into a hole of black nothingness, never to return.
But he was working on it.
Wasn’t knowing you had a problem and wanting to do better half the battle? God, he sure hoped so.
He’d reached Talia’s umbrella and the pair of Adirondack chairs underneath, so he set the basket down and took a couple of steps toward her. She hadn’t seen him yet, but was squealing with delight and turning away as Chesley did one of those crazy dog shakes, throwing water in every direction.
Raising a hand, he called to Talia. “Mickey sent me down here to—”
He froze, knowing something was wrong even before it happened.
Talia, still a good twenty or thirty feet away, grimaced, putting a hand to her chest and then moving it to her throat. She gasped in a breath, then another, but it didn’t look as though she was getting enough air. His first wild thought was that she had choked on something, but she hadn’t been eating—