Before . . .
I fell in love with Spencer Pierce the day he saved me from the pirates.
The pirates were Seth and Mike, twins from down the street who I occasionally babysat for. They were seven and I was twelve, almost thirteen, but I was small with sharp elbows and bony knees. My long red hair was wild and frizzed around my face in the constant humidity that thickened the air of our tiny shore town.
I should have been suspicious right off. In the past, they’d never wanted me to join in their games. Boredom was my downfall. I’d been on my own for weeks. My best friend, Isabella, moved away over the summer, and my sister was fourteen now, more interested in makeup, shopping, and boys than in playing badminton with me in the backyard or walking down to the corner store for slushies.
Once I agreed to the twins’ game, on the condition they stopped making fun of me and calling me “carrot top,” they declared that I was the maiden in distress as we all traipsed down to the beach together. They wore eye patches and brandished swords made of cardboard and tinfoil. I let them use a rope they’d found by the docks to tie me to the wooden slats of the fence that lined the back border of the dunes. The rough rope scraped my skin, but I never complained. I wanted to be a good sport.
Then they ordered me to call for help so they could swoop in to rescue me. That was exactly what I did once they ran away. I halfheartedly yelled for them in between giggling with embarrassment, watching while they laughed and turned to look at me over their shoulders as they diminished in the distance. When they disappeared around the corner, I kept calling out, wondering when they would turn around and come back. But their voices eventually faded until the rhythm of the waves was all I could hear.
I waited still, no longer calling for them but staying put, not wanting to ruin the game with my impatience. Then I waited some more. They never did come back, and I felt a familiar sinking feeling. You’re too trusting, Sarah, my mother would say, and she was right.
Knowing I’d been tricked and afraid of how much trouble those boys could get into on their own, I started yanking on the ropes. My elbows came out with some effort, but then my wrists caught on a thick knot. No matter how I struggled and twisted, I couldn’t manage to free myself. Those little terrors had actually done a decent job of tying me to the post.
Panic set in. Would they come back? Did they realize I wouldn’t be able to get out of these ropes myself? It wasn’t long before my eyes began to burn with unshed tears as I pulled against the ties. Stupid! I railed against myself, picturing the tight-lipped anger of my father when he discovered what happened, and the disappointment of my mother. I could hear my sister cackling at me. The only ones who might understand were the twins’ parents. They knew what trouble their boys could get into.
After a time, I slumped low on my tired legs, watching the seagulls fly over the foamy waves. If I were to paint a picture of this place today, the light would be muted. The waves would be sharp strokes of deep green, either teal or olive, their edges dipped in white. The sand would be flat and smooth, a mixture of tan and sepia, dotted by rocks half-hidden in the grains. The mood would be solitary, but harsh. Quiet, but loud. That was how the beach felt to me this morning, and despite my predicament, my fingers itched to capture it.
All too soon, gray clouds sealed off the sky, and when the first fat drop of cold rain hit my face, I started to cry pathetically. They’d actually left me here alone. They’d probably forgotten about me. My father was working. My mother didn’t know where I was half the time. No one would notice I was gone until dinner tonight. I squeezed my eyes shut, promising to pummel Seth and Mike if I ever got off this beach.
A light tap on my shoulder startled me, making me flinch as I glanced up through the strings of wet hair that hung in my face. There was a boy standing over me. Swallowing hard, I blinked to make sure he was real. He crouched low. When I stared up into the dark brown eyes that peered at me from beneath the brim of a Red Sox cap, I stopped breathing.
“You’re Sarah, Emma’s sister,” he said as he studied the ropes. “How the heck did you end up tied to this fence?”
I stood up. He knew my name and my sister? Emma was boy crazy, but I never thought she’d actually catch one, and certainly not one as beautiful as this boy. He was tall, a lot taller than me, and I supposed he could be Emma’s age, but his face looked older. His skin still held a tan from the summer, and his dark eyelashes were long and thick, making his eyes seem gentle. I got lost in those eyes, the color of milk chocolate surrounded by a rim of gold. He looked down at me with so much sympathy, my whole body was warmed by it.
“Don’t worry, Sarah.” He shot me a smile, and my heart skipped wildly. “I’ll get you free. Then you can tell me who did this, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Who was this boy? I just blinked silently at him, like a moron, a shivering moron who fell for the stupidest and meanest prank ever. He took out a pocketknife and extracted the blade from it.
“These ropes are pretty thick. It could take me awhile to cut through them. Can you hang on a bit longer?”
Those brown eyes watched me and waited for my answer. I nodded, and he grinned reassuringly before getting down to work.
When he was behind me, tugging on the rope, my face flushed red with embarrassment. What must he think of me? That I was an idiot, what else? At first, I was thrilled to have been found, but now I almost wished I hadn’t been, at least not by him. He would always know how naive and gullible I was.
I was trying not to look at him while he worked so he wouldn’t catch me staring. Because I was so diligently not paying attention, I was surprised when the rope released and the sudden lack of tension sent me to my knees in the cold sand.
“Are you okay?” He took my arm and helped me up. I was shivering too hard to answer, and he was too now, dressed only in a short-sleeved T-shirt and faded jeans. We were both soaked through, and his eyelashes clumped together as he looked at me.
“Let’s get you home,” he said quietly, releasing my arm. Then he started walking in the direction of my house, looking back at me, waiting for me to follow.
My legs felt stiff from standing so long. I moved slowly as I came up beside him, hugging my arms around myself, stealing looks at him every now and then.
“What happened?” he finally asked when we were two houses down from my front door.
My lips pressed together. I didn’t want to say.
“Was it the twins?”
Shocked, I stopped moving. How could he know that?
He nodded at my silence, reading the truth in it. “They’re trouble,” he said. “I saw them trying to push a cat through the book return slot at the library.”
My eyes widened, then I laughed out loud. “Seriously?” It was the first word I’d spoken to him.
“Yup. Had the whole body through before I got to them.”
“You saved the cat?”
He grinned. “When you have mad superhero skills like mine, you have to share them with the world.”
Then he winked and started walking again.
That was when I fell for him. I could almost feel the impact. It was probably hero worship in the beginning, but over time, as I got to know him, it slowly changed to love, real love, the kind that coated your heart at first, but then soaked in deeper with every look, every word, and every accidental brush of skin until your heart was completely saturated with it.
When we finally got to my house that day, he put his arm out to stop me. His dark gaze met mine and he said, “Before you go in, I need a favor.”
I nodded because I would do just about anything he asked.
“Don’t sit on your roof at night anymore.”
I sucked in a breath, blinking at him in surprise.
“If you fell off and everyone was sleeping, you could get hurt and no one would know. I can’t keep staying up to check on you. Superheroes need their beauty sleep.” Then he smirked at me, but his eyes told me he was serious.
My mouth fell open. The roof was my secret. I loved to sit out there and sketch with nothing but the moonlight to guide my hand. I stared up at him, alarmed now, wondering if he was some weirdo stalker.
His eyes narrowed at my reaction. “I live behind you,” he explained. “On Woodcart Road.” He gestured in that direction with his chin. “My window is in the back. I can see the back of your house from it.”
I pictured Woodcart Road. It wasn’t very long, and I thought I knew all the kids on that street, even the older ones. But before I could ask him anything more, the front door opened and my mother inhaled sharply. “Where on earth have you been, Sarah? The twins left with their mother hours ago, and you were nowhere to be found.”
My jaw clenched at the thought of them. Well, now I didn’t have to tell their parents that I’d lost them. My father appeared in the doorway too, taking me in and looking at the boy beside me.
“Hey, Sarah Smile,” Dad said. “You had us worried.”
I wondered if the boy would tell them what had happened, and I silently pleaded for him not to. But he didn’t seem inclined to say much as he stood there smiling politely at my parents. I wanted to ask his name, to say something more so he wouldn’t think I was some strange, mostly mute girl, but I couldn’t because at that moment my mother took me by the arm and pulled me inside the house.
“We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she scolded. Apparently, I had been missed.
My eyes met the calm gaze of my father, who glanced from me to the boy again. Then he nodded at me before he walked outside to talk to him.
“How are you, son?” Dad asked. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder as if he knew him. But that was all I saw because my mother was already ushering me into the bathroom and running the water for a warm bath.
• • •
It wasn’t until dinner that night that I finally learned who the boy was. My father said his name, and in my mind I kept repeating it over and over again. Spencer. I liked it. It suited him.
“I don’t want the girls having anything to do with him.” My mother spoke around a mouthful of spaghetti.
Both Emma and I were riveted to the conversation, awaiting the result. When Emma found out Spencer had brought me home, her eyes went wide, and she wanted to hear every detail. Since the main detail involved huge amounts of humiliation for me, she’d laughed her butt off. We both knew I was no competition for her when it came to boys, and she seemed to revel in my embarrassment.
“Have some compassion, Maggie. He lost both his parents,” Dad said. “He’s a good kid. It’s not his fault Jackson is his uncle. As long as the girls don’t go over to that house, I don’t see any reason to keep them away from him.”
When my mother was overruled, I got a pursed-lip glance of disapproval from her. But I hardly noticed because I’d just learned that Spencer lost his parents. Now he was living around the block from us with his uncle. That was why I’d never seen him before. My heart hurt for him.
Spencer’s uncle was probably my father’s least favorite person in South Seaport. My father was a good man, a good policeman too, and as honest as the day was long. That was what people said about him. He was a towering example of good character, and I completely idolized him.
Jackson Pierce, on the other hand, was an untouchable villain. The Pierce family had lived in South Seaport for generations, and they had connections. Jackson was a well-known figure around town, tall and burly, with a round, full face and a head of thick white hair. He’d smile when he passed you on the street, but his narrowed eyes told you the smile wasn’t real.
Jackson owned two popular bars, one on Main Street and the other down by the docks. He was doing something illegal in those bars. I didn’t know what, but my father did, and he was ordered to turn a blind eye. That was what he told my mother as he whispered angrily in the kitchen after Emma and I had gone to bed one night. Our house was small, and I could easily hear the quiet conversations that weren’t meant for my ears. Usually, when my parents argued, I silently sided with my father. I wasn’t exactly a daddy’s girl, but I’d always identified more strongly with him.
While Emma had the soft feminine looks of my mother with her creamy skin, dark eyes, and wavy brown hair, I was the image of my dad. He and I were made of sharp angles and unexpected contrasts. Our hair was bright red, our eyes were green like the sea, and our jaws were perfectly square. We were tall and skinny, quiet but with a fiery temper that could flare unexpectedly. I was proud to be so much like him, even though the looks that made my father handsome didn’t quite translate the same way to me. I wasn’t pretty, but there was no mistaking whose daughter I was.
My looks had never bothered me before. So I’d never bothered with them. But from that day forward, the feminine wiles lying dormant inside me began to bubble to the surface. Spencer had awoken them. My thoughts were filled of him and when I left the house, my eyes searched for him. Something changed the day we met. The shift was small but pivotal.
Somehow I knew things would never be the same.