Chapter Three – Joy

 

What was I thinking, signing up for this? That it’d bring back childhood memories? How? I was six last time I was in Greece, and it wasn’t on this island. It wasn’t on any island. And my foster parents’ home may have been lovely, but it was a far cry from a retreat.

“Good morning, Joy. Need help with that?” Thanasis, the owner’s nephew, points at the beach bag, hat, and laptop case I’m balancing in my arms.

Because of course I’m lugging all three to the beach. Pretending I at least mean to write a page or two, and not only sunbathe, helps assuage the guilt that comes with my writer’s block. But honestly, with my complexion, this may be the only time I can get a hint of color without burning to a crisp. I shouldn’t have to feel guilty about wanting to take advantage of that, just because it wasn’t the reason I took this trip.

“No. I’m good,” I say. A lie, but he’s chatty, and I don’t want company. 

Same reason I didn’t engage with the super-tall guy with the lovely, deep voice, who almost dropped me on my ass before. I barely stole a glance at him, and his blue eyes took my breath away. Can’t afford that distraction. I want to stretch out on a sunbed and figure out why my asshole of a vampire won’t submit to my will and fix things with his ballerina. The plot was clear in my head when I mapped out the story, but now it feels like I’m playing on clichés.

I step on the sand, and my bare feet sink inside it. It’s still early enough that the sun hasn’t driven away the chill from last night. Raised a New Yorker, I’m used to low temperatures in mid-October, but the weather is still warm in Paros. On land, that is. The water is freezing. It’s always extra cold in Alyki beach, according to my research, but that may snap my lethargic brain out of its haze. Not that it worked yesterday. I haven’t written a word in the two days I’m here, and the whole reason I came to the island was to get the creative juices flowing.

No more thinking of my failures. I’ll relax a couple hours in the sun before the rest of the group comes down, then write a little, have lunch, and write some more.

I choose two sunbeds third or fourth row from the edge of the water, place my stuff on one of them, then take my oversize towel out of my bag and drape it over the other. The beach is empty, so it’s not like I’m stealing someone’s seat by occupying both of them. Should I go for a swim first, try to make some notes on my outline, or…

No. A swim first, work and crippling anxiety later. I take off my hat and undo the tie of my cover-up. Leaving them both with my bag, I cross the distance to the water. A gentle wave laps at my toes. And yup, it’s cold. Well, not ocean cold. Paros cold. I brave a step. And another. I keep going. If I stop to think about it, I’ll talk myself back to the safety of the beach. As the chilly water circles my calves, my knees, and then up to mid-thigh, I will it to wash away the tension and the fear and the worry. 

I’m not a one-trick pony.

I’m not a fraud.

Taking an unpaid sabbatical from my hard-earned job, and risking redundancy to come here and work on my book, was the right choice.

Hitting the USA Today bestseller list wasn’t a fluke.

I’m just overwhelmed by my sudden success and getting signed by a big publishing house—that expects three more books in the Night’s Immortals series within the next twenty-four months.

But no worries. The stories are in me.

The water caresses the undersides of my breasts. Goosebumps have broken across my skin, and my nipples are painfully hard against my bikini top. I could take it off; there’s no one else out here. Being naked in the sea is supposed to be a unique experience.

But someone may see from a balcony or a boat, and I’m too chicken-shit to risk it. Too chicken-shit to do anything my parents wouldn’t approve of. I still feel bad for coming here, though they said it’s all right. I saw in their eyes that it wasn’t, and what worried them had nothing to do with what memories returning to my birthplace might dredge up. No, it was that I’m wasting time and funds on what they believe should be a hobby, not a job. 

Unless writing starts making me money on a regular basis, I’ll have to admit my parents are right.

God, don’t let them be right.

It was bad enough that I turned my back to the promising career that came with my degree—a degree for which my parents helped me pay off the student loans. I hear about how thoughtless that was at every family dinner. Usually followed by a whispered version of, “At least she has a backup plan, for when the writing thing falls through.” When, not if.

I close my eyes behind my sunglasses and duck my head in. The cold soothes and prickles at the same time. I open my eyes and look at my toes. They look funny, plump, and blueish. Like they’re not a part of me. The salt stings my eyes, but not so much that it’s unpleasant. A school of tiny fish—what are they called?—swarms around my feet, unbothered by or maybe curious about the intruder in their area.

I let my breath come out in bubbles that rise to where my red hair is splayed on the surface above me like a wide-brim hat. I feel weightless. I could stay here forever.

Lack of oxygen makes forever last a moment longer, and then I raise my face to the sun and suck in precious air. The sea won’t make my troubles go away. I’m thirty. It’s time to figure out how to make my dream come true, or give up on it and go bad to Applied Economics. Make Mom and Dad happy.

The bitterness that accompanies the thought is unfair. They never pressured me to do what they wanted; they’ve just always been super clear about their hopes for me. Which usually have nothing to do with my aspirations, but what can you do? All parents want a secure, stable, boring future for their offspring, right?

Meh.

I dunk my head again. Maybe this time I can stay under a little longer. 

No. Get out. Dry up. Write. Make the most of my time here. I’m supposed to be working. Plotting. Brain-storming. Networking.

But my plotting is stuck on how the hell Periandros will admit to Iokaste that he’s been around forever, and brain-storming and networking require me to actually talk to other human beings, which isn’t my strong suit. Last night, the fifteen of us here, overwhelmingly romance authors, were split in groups of three and told to critique the first couple pages of each other’s current manuscript.

The two ladies I was paired with were lovely. They started talking about how interesting and full their lives are, and it hit me how very little I have to contribute. One of them used to be an air-force pilot, for fuck’s sake, and she writes one bestselling military romance after the other, while I can’t give my dashing vampire a compelling coming-out-as-eternal speech. So I mumbled something about being very new at this and sat out the crit session. Next one will be in front of the whole group, though, and I need to have something to present.

I drag my feet out of the water and to where I left my stuff, sulking all the way. The breeze has a bite, but I refuse to wrap a towel around me. It took me years to reconcile with the extra padding around my belly and thighs, and this is the first two-piece I’ve bought since middle school. I plan to get my money’s worth in sunshine, even if it is a bit chilly.

Should I hit the shower? Saltwater isn’t good for the hair, but I love the bounce it gives my usually boringly straight tresses. No shower. I stretch out on the sunbed and mentally revisit the last scene I wrote on Immortal Pirouettes. Working title. Don’t judge.

So Periandros is watching Iokaste practice. She doesn’t see him, where he’s sitting in the center of the darkened orchestra seats, but he notices every minute flex of her muscles. She reminds him of the only woman he ever loved—Niobe. 

No. He’s like two-thousand-years old. He only loved one woman? He certainly must have slept with more than one woman. Or was he celibate for centuries? 

Will readers like that?

Will readers like that? A question I didn’t ask myself with Immortal Waves. No wonder that book was so easy to write; it came with no expectations. I didn’t think people would notice it, among the hundreds of awesome paranormal romances out there. But they did. And they apparently loved it. And it raised the fucking bar, so now this book has to be better.

And it won’t be.

I can’t even see Periandros in my head, for heaven’s sake. I never had that issue before. My characters are usually vivid in my mind. I spend months getting to know them and telling their stories the way they need to be told. Periandros and Iokaste, however, are just the vehicles I put together, to push forward the plot I believe readers will like.

Ugh.

I suck, and this book will suck, and the world will know I’m a fraud, and I’ll spend the rest of my life as a budget analyst.

Might as well get back in the water, and this time remain beneath the surface.

My laptop case mocks me, from where I left it on the seat beside me. “Open me if you dare,” it says. 

I dare. I can do it.

Fake it till you make it.

I use as much of the towel I’m sitting on as possible to pat my thighs and belly dry. Then I take out my laptop, lie back, and position it in my lap, careful not to let it touch my swimsuit. It’s heavy. I considered bringing my notebook computer instead, but thought other authors would take me more seriously if I made a sacrifice for my art. Because maybe I don’t belong among them, and if I’m not careful, they’ll know it.

I tilt the screen so the reflected sun doesn’t blind me. I still have my glasses on. Must look unprofessional and possibly a little off, but I don’t care. Nobody around here knows me in my real life.

Writing should be my real life.

Did I say ugh?

I switch on the computer and bring up my current manuscript file. Is it me, or does it take forever to load? I throw my head back and look straight at the sun. Filtered through my dark lenses, it doesn’t seem as bright. Is this how Periandros and Iokaste will seem to readers? Filtered? Muted?

Do I care, as long as the book sells?

I do, damn it. I put a piece of my soul in every single thing I write, and this book feels soulless.

Maybe if he didn’t watch from the shadows, like a creep? Maybe if he approached her with the truth, the moment he first saw her? Would that work?

I return my attention to the screen. Rereading the last couple pages I wrote a whole week ago might kick-start the muse. Maybe?

And was this thing so cringey when I wrote it? The pallor of her neck invited him to throw caution to the wind and taste her liquid life-force. Triple ugh.

A shadow falls over me. Huh? It was supposed to be clear all week. I snap my gaze up to the sky again.

No, not the sky. Though his eyes are the same blue.

The tallest, hottest man in the entire world—the man I ran into at the lobby—is looking down at me. Thick eyelashes, high cheekbones, full lips… He’s exquisite. When he pulls the elastic off his ponytail and shakes his head, golden curls cascade down to his shoulders. I bet they feel like silk.

Shit. I’m staring.

I drop my gaze to his sculpted chest. His pecs bunch and his abs tighten, as if he feels me looking. Can he see my eyes through my shades? 

Look elsewhere.

Not at his shorts. Not at how well his legs are defined. Not at how what’s between them stretches the fabric.

Look higher. 

Face again. His eyes are dazzling. Silver flecks that seem to dance speckle the baby blue. I was right before—he’s one hell of a distraction.

He says something. In Greek. Other than thank you and please, I remember little from the lessons my parents got me in grammar school, and nothing really from the first six years of my life in Greece. Can’t say I’d understand what he’s saying if he spoke English, because my brain seems to be misfiring, and the timbre of his voice is to blame. The way it glides down my spine, like warm honey, makes me shiver.

“Can you repeat that a little more slowly?” I ask in English.

His smile widens, and he switches to barely accented English. “Ah, American. Should have known you’re not Greek, with your coloring. Are you here for the retreat?”

Should I tell him the exotic part of my coloring, my red hair, came from a bottle and the rest is Greek? Better not. I’m not here to make friends with the locals; I’m here to learn and write. Still, no reason to be rude. 

“I am.” I sit up and return his smile. “You?”

“Same. So you’re a writer?”

I nod. “I write erotic romance.” And I need to learn how not to sound defensive when I say that, but I’m sick of people either implying they know all romance authors are freaks in bed, or giving me the so-you-couldn’t-make-it-as-a-real-writer sad eyes. 

Gorgeous Guy nods. “I’m in awe. I can’t write a two-sentence text to save my life. You have my utmost respect.”

I swallow the knot that’s formed in my throat. He sounds sincere. Fuck, I shouldn’t feel so validated by a complete stranger. A fleeting thought brushes the outskirts of my conscious, but I can’t grasp it. Don’t bother to try much, either.

I summon a smile. Not that hard, when I’m looking at such a fine male specimen. “Thank you,” I say. “My name is Joy.”

He holds out his hand, and when I clasp it, turns my palm downward and leans in so he can brush his perfect lips across my knuckles. “Pleasure meeting you, Joy.”

“You too.” It comes out a little too breathless. Possibly because his ghost of a kiss sends sparks dancing up my arm, to make my nipples harden.

He straightens and licks his lips. “Well, Joy, I’ll be seeing you.”

I love how my name falls from his lips. 

I watch him turn and pad slowly toward the sea. Even the soles of his feet are gorgeous. He pauses when he reaches the water. Flexes? His back ripples with muscle that begs me to dig my nails in it.

He wades in the water slowly but steadily, unfazed by the cold. When he’s in waist deep, he dives under. I hold my breath until he breaks the surface and tosses his head back. His wet mane sends droplets flying in an arch. I want to lick his bronzed skin that glimmers in the sun.

That’s definitely not what I’m here to do.

I’m here to write, damn it.

But why is he here, if he’s not a writer?

 

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