“Baby, you’re home,” he said against her cheek.
Hearing the words, she felt the truth in them. She was home.
He grabbed her bags, eyes only on her, oblivious of the glances they were gathering, mostly from young girls and older women with smiles on their faces.
The drive from the airport in Blake’s pickup was filled with catch-up conversation, questions fired and answered, mixed with laughter. Outside, the day was dreary. Rain whipped the windshield while the wipers clicked like metronomes. They crept along Coleman Boulevard, past shops lit up like night, though it was barely one o’clock in the afternoon. Blake kept a firm grip on her hand, releasing it briefly only to shift gears, then clasping it again, as though afraid the bird would fly off again. As they left the mainland and headed over the wetlands, she looked out to see that the tide was so high only the tips of grass were visible, like some great green lawn seemingly ready to overflow with the rain. She knew that in twelve hours the powerful tides would turn and the water would recede again, exposing mounds of mudflats with glistening black, sharp-tipped oyster shells, an army of fiddler crabs, and, if the storm was over, regal snowy egrets. These, she thought, were the seaside sentinels welcoming her home to the lowcountry.
They went directly to Blake’s apartment on Sullivan’s Island. Once a military barracks, the long, white wood building had been converted to apartments. The history of a military presence on the island went back to the Revolutionary War. Passing Fort Moultrie, Stella Maris Church, her hand went to the window, as though to caress these touchstones. If she turned here toward the back of the island, she’d head toward Sea Breeze, she thought. But Blake drove straight down Middle Street.
They held hands as they climbed the stairs to Blake’s apartment, then paused at the door and smiled. They both knew what awaited them on the other side. Once the key entered the lock, Hobbs began his deep-throated huff of warning. They heard the dog’s nails clicking on the hardwood, then the exploratory deep sniffs at the door.
“Are you ready for your welcome?” Blake asked, turning the key.
Carson smiled and nodded, bracing herself. When the door opened, the giant golden Labrador licked Blake’s hand, then immediately went to sniff the new person—Carson’s boots, her jeans, her extended hand. Then, with a high yelp of recognition, Hobbs began barking and whining with excitement, his tail waving back and forth. Carson couldn’t have asked for a warmer homecoming. She bent low to scratch behind his ears and pet his fur.
After Blake settled his dog and they entered the small two-bedroom apartment, a moment of tension came between them, the first since she’d seen him. The air around them felt charged with energy and want.
“I’ll put the flowers in water,” Blake said, taking the roses from her.
She brought them to her nose, inhaling their heady scent once more before relinquishing them to Blake. He was watching her, his pupils pulsing. He stood motionless for a second, then in a sweep tossed the roses to the nearby sofa and stepped forward to place his long hands on her cheeks and draw her lips to his.
He drank from her lips like a man parched. His tongue probed, separating her lips and plunging into the moisture he’d not tasted for months. She welcomed him, clasping herself tighter to him with a soft moan in her throat. It was always like this with them. A kiss was like spontaneous combustion. Neither of them could stop now, nor would they want to. Outside, lightning flashed, and seconds later, thunder rumbled close, loud. The lights flickered. Hobbs whined and curled up in his bed.
Blake pulled back from Carson’s lips, let his hands slide down her arms to her hands, and said, “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
He took her hand and, without another word spoken, led her to his room and to his bed. The cold front gusted at the windows, rattling the frames as rain sluiced through the air. But inside, the small apartment welcomed the lovers and protected them from the storm.
“It’s still raining,” Carson said.
She lay on her back, her long dark hair spilling over the pillows, one arm flung over her forehead. Her breathing had calmed, and spent, she felt suddenly tired, as if she could sleep for hours listening to the rain pattering outdoors. Lovemaking often had this effect on her. Unwinding like a tight coil, the passion gave her a great release.
“It’s supposed to rain all day, then move on tonight. Tomorrow should be sunny.” Blake rolled to his side and propped his head on his palm. He reached out to shift the sheet up over her naked breasts. “You must have jet lag. Rest.”
“I am tired.”
“It was a good idea to stop here first, before going to Sea Breeze. Give you time to decompress. Besides, I want my time first, before I have to share you with everyone else.”
Carson lifted her arm to gently slide her hand along the side of his head. “True, though I miss them. Especially Mamaw. But, yes, we need this time alone. To talk.”
“And sleep. It’s a good day for sleep.”
“Yes.” Her lids blinked slowly, listening to the patter of rain on the roof. She felt safe here, with Blake, protected from whatever ill winds blew outside this apartment.
“Oh, Blake,” she said in a choked whisper. “I’d forgotten what it was like here with you.”
He smiled. “Then don’t go away again.”
He gathered her closer to him so she could rest her head on his shoulder. They lay entwined in each other’s arms, listening to the softer roll of thunder compete with Hobbs’s snores.
Carson’s fingers played with the hairs on his chest. Furrowing her brows in consternation, she sighed heavily.
“What?” he asked, alert to her shift in mood.
“Oh, I’ve been wondering. . . .” She looked at Blake and saw his alert expression. Like a man waiting for the other shoe to drop. She paused. Carson had hurt him before. She couldn’t hurt him again. She tried to couch her words.
“While I was away, the work was hard, yes. Demanding. Frustrating. That cyclone that hit really slowed down production. I’ve lived through Category One hurricanes here on the island before, but this cyclone was worse. There were moments I wasn’t sure we’d make it. We were all pretty scared.” She snorted. “I don’t know if Kowalski was more afraid of the storm or the cost of the delay.”
Blake waited without speaking, his hand stroking her bare arm.