“You’ve seen my tattoo on my back?” Daniel asked finally.
“Yeah. I can’t really miss it.”
“Do you see what it’s covering up?”
“You mean your back?”
“No. The scars.” He turned away from her, so his tattooed shoulder and back angled toward her.
Whoever had given him his tattoos had done a very good job. The ink was thick and black, and it wasn’t until she looked closely that she saw the branches weren’t shadowed to look gnarled and twisted. They had been drawn that way, along the lines of several lengthy scars.
Not all the branches covered scars, and the long, thick trunk that followed his spine didn’t appear to have scarring underneath. But there were enough to show he’d been through something.
“And right here.” He turned his head to the side and moved his hair. An inch or so into his hair, buried underneath his shaggy haircut, was a thick pink scar.
“Oh, my gosh,” Harper gasped. “What happened?”
“When I was fifteen, my older brother John was twenty.” Daniel moved so he was sitting normally on the bed again, and he stared out the window. “He was wild and reckless, never looking before he jumped. He would just drive right into everything.
“And I’d follow him. At first because I thought he was cooler and bold and brave. But then, the older I got, I was following him so I could catch him.
“My grandfather had a lot of boats, this being one of them.” He motioned around them. “He loved the water and thought kids should be free to roam about it. So anytime we wanted to, we were allowed to take the boats out.
“The night I got these”—Daniel gestured to his scars—“John had gone to a party, and I’d tagged along. He got drunk, I mean totally shitfaced drunk. That wasn’t unusual, because John was almost always drunk.
“There were a couple girls at the party he was trying to impress, and he got it in his head that if he took them out on a boat, that would do it. I went with because he was so drunk I knew he couldn’t drive. If I was there, I could take control. That would make everything okay.
“So it was John, these two girls, and me on a little speedboat.” He sighed and shook his head. “John kept going faster. I told him to slow down. The girls were screaming, and I tried to get the controls from him.” He swallowed. “He drove right into the rocks at the end of the bay.
“The boat flipped. I don’t know what happened exactly, but I was under the boat, and the propeller got me.” He gestured to his scars again. “John got knocked unconscious, and I couldn’t find him…”
“I’m sorry,” Harper said quietly.
“Both of the girls survived, but John…” Daniel shook his head. “It was over a week before they found his body washed up on shore two miles down.
“And no, I’m not happy that he died. I never will be. I loved my brother.” He looked at Harper then, his eyes deadly serious. “But nothing I did that night stopped him from drinking or getting on that boat. None of my begging or pleading or fighting with him saved him. All it did was nearly get me killed.”
“Gemma’s not like that.” Harper looked away from him. “She’s going through something, and she needs my help.”
“I’m not saying give up on her or stop loving her. I’d never even suggest that, especially not for Gemma. She seems like a good kid.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“It took me years to accept the fact that it wasn’t my fault that John died.” His shoulders slacked. “I don’t know if I’ll ever truly forgive myself for what happened. But that doesn’t mean you should feel the same way.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that you can’t live somebody else’s life for them. They have to make their own choices, and sometimes all we can do is learn to live with them.”
“Hmm.” Harper let out a long breath. “When I stopped by today, I didn’t realize I’d get such a profound life lesson.”
“Sorry.” Daniel looked embarrassed and laughed a little. “I didn’t mean to like go all … dark on you.”
“No, it’s good.” She scratched her head and smiled at him. “I think … I think I needed to hear that.”
“Good. Glad I could help,” he said. “So, what did you stop by for anyway?”
“I…” She briefly considered lying, but after he’d been so honest with her, she couldn’t. “I don’t really know.”
“You just wanted to see me?” Daniel asked with a small smirk.
“I guess so.”
“Are you hungry?” Daniel got up before she could answer.
There wasn’t much of a walkway in the boat, so just the act of standing up brought Daniel disconcertingly close. He moved closer so he stood right in front of her, mere inches from touching her.
“You want anything?” Daniel asked as she stared up at him.
“What?” Harper asked, and she had no idea what he’d even asked her. She found herself strangely mesmerized by the flecks of blue in his hazel eyes.
To open his fridge, he had to bend over and lean to the side, and he brushed up against her as he did. Even when he opened the door, he kept his eyes on Harper as he pulled out a couple of cans of soda.
“You want something to drink or eat?” He straightened up, holding out a can to her.
She took it, smiling thinly at him. “Thanks.”
Daniel didn’t move, though, instead staying right in front of her. When a boat sped by, causing a wave to rock his boat, he fell forward a bit. He caught himself by putting a hand on either side of Harper. As he pressed up against her, she could feel the warmth of his bare chest through the thin fabric of her shirt.
“Sorry,” Daniel said, his voice low, but he still didn’t move away from her.
His face hovered right above hers, and Harper could feel him leaning in to her, as if she were pulling him into her orbit. His eyes searched hers, and she didn’t know how she’d never noticed how beautiful his eyes were before.
He smelled of tanning lotion and shampoo. Somewhere in the back of her mind she’d been expecting him to smell sweatier and muskier. Instead, it was strangely sweet.
Through her shirt, she could feel the smooth muscles of his chest and stomach, and suddenly an intense urge to throw her arms around him took hold of her.