The ferry from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard was standing room only. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, the passengers were packed as tight as two coats of paint. I had a rowdy group of college kids at my back, which was fine, as I'd carved out a spot at the rail near the bow of the ship and was taking in big gulps of salty sea air while counting down the seconds of the forty-five-minute ride.
It was the first time I'd returned to the Gale family cottage in Oak Bluffs for an extended stay-I'd only managed quick weekends here and there around my busy work schedule-in ten years, and I was feeling mostly anxious with a flicker of anticipation. Preoccupied with the idea of spending the entire summer on island, I did not hear the commotion at my back until it was almost too late.
"Bruh!" a deep voice yelled.
I turned around to see a gaggle of man-boys in matching T-shirts-it took my neurodivergent brain a moment to decipher the Greek letters on their shirts, identifying them as frat boys-roughhousing.
Is gaggle the right word? I'm sure they'd have preferred something cool like crew, but honestly, with their baggy shorts, sideways ball caps, and sparsely whiskered chins, they looked more like a cackle of hyenas or a parliament of parrots. Either way, one of them was noticeably turning a sickly shade of green, and his cheeks started to swell. When he began to convulse as if a demon was punching its way up from his stomach, his friends scrambled to get away from him.
I realized with horror that he was going to vomit and the only thing between him and the open sea was me, trapped against the railing. In a panic, I looked for a viable exit. Unfortunately, I was penned in by a stalwart woman with headphones on and a hot guy reading a book. I had a split second to decide who would be easier to move. I went with reader guy, simply because I figured he could at least hear me when I yelled, "Move!"
I was wrong. He didn't hear me and he didn't move. In fact, he was so nonresponsive, it was like he was on another planet. As the dude doing the herky-jerky lunged toward me, I gave the man a nudge. He still didn't respond. Desperate, I slapped my hand over the words in his book. He snapped his head in my direction with a peeved expression. Then he looked past me and his eyes went wide. In one motion, he grabbed me and pulled me down and to the side, out of the line of fire.
The puker almost made it to the rail. Almost. I heard the hot splat of vomit on the deck behind me and hoped it didn't land on the backs of my shoes. Mercifully, reader man's quick thinking shielded me from the worst of it. Frat boy was hanging over the railing, and as the vomiting started in earnest, the crowd finally pressed back, way back, and we scuttled out of the blast zone.
My rescuer let go of me and asked, "Are you all right?"
I opened my mouth to answer, when the smell hit me. That distinctive stomach-curling, nose-wrinkling, gag-inducing smell that accompanies undigested food and bile. My mouth pooled with saliva, and I felt my throat convulse. This was an emergency of epic proportions, as I am a sympathy puker. You puke, I puke, we all puke. Truly, if someone hurls near me, it becomes a gastro-geyser of Old Faithful proportions. I spun away from the man in a flurry of arms that slapped his book out of his hands and sent it careening toward the ocean.
He let out a yell and made a grab for it. He missed and leaned over the railing, looking as if he was actually contemplating making a dive for it.
I felt terrible and would have apologized, but I was too busy holding my fist to my mouth while trying not to lose my breakfast. The egg-and-bacon sandwich I'd enjoyed suddenly seemed like the worst decision ever, and it took all of my powers of concentration not to hurl. I tried to breathe through my mouth but the retching sounds frat boy was making were not helping.
"Come on." Reader guy took my arm and helped me move farther away. I turned my head away in case I was sick. I could feel my stomach heaving and then-
"Ouch! You pinched me!" I cried.
My hero, although that seemed like an overstatement given that he had just inflicted pain upon my person, had nipped the skin on the inside of my elbow with enough force to startle me and make me rub my arm.
"Still feel like throwing up?" he asked.
I paused to assess. The episode had passed. I blinked at him. He was taller than me. Lean with broad shoulders, wavy dark brown hair that reached his collar. He had nice features, arching eyebrows, sculpted cheekbones, and a defined jaw covered in a thin layer of scruff. His eyes were a blue-gray much like the ocean surrounding us. Dressed in a navy sweatshirt, khaki shorts, and black lace-up work boots, he looked like a local.
He stared at me expectantly, and I realized he'd asked a question and was waiting for an answer. Feeling like an idiot for blatantly checking him out, I attempted to play it off as if I was still wrestling with the urge to upchuck. I raised my hand in a "wait" gesture and then slowly nodded.
"No, I think I'm okay," I said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he said. Then he smiled at me-it was a dazzler-making me forget the horror of the last few minutes. "You tossed my book into the ocean."
"I'm so sorry," I said. Nervousness and relief that I hadn't lost my breakfast caused me to attempt to make light of the situation. This was a bad play. "At least it was just a book and not an essential item, but I'll absolutely buy you a replacement."
"Not necessary." He frowned at me and then looked at the sea, where the paperback was now polluting the ocean-one more thing for me to feel bad about-and then back at me and said, "I take it you're not a reader."
And there it was, the judgmental tone I'd heard my whole life when it became known that I was not a natural-born reader. Why were book people always so perplexed by nonbook people? I mean, it's not like I wanted to be dyslexic. Naturally, when feeling defensive about my disability, I said the most offensive thing I could think of.
"Books are boring," I responded. Yes, I, Samantha Gale, went there. I knew full well this was likely heresy for this guy, and I was right. His reaction did not disappoint.
His mouth dropped open. His eyes went wide. He blinked. "Don't hold back. Say what you feel."
"Why would I read a book when I can just stream the movie version, which allows me to use both hands to cram popcorn into my face at the same time?" I asked.
"Because the book is always better than the movie."
I shook my head. "I disagree. There's no way the book version of Jaws was better than the movie."
"Ah!" he yelped. If he'd been wearing pearls, I was sure he'd be clutching them.
When he was about to argue, I cut him off with the duuun-dun duuun-dun duuun-dun dun-dun dun-dun sound from the iconic Jaws theme music.
Reader guy laughed and raised his hands in defeat. He glanced back out at the water. "Did you pick that movie because we're on our way to the location where it was filmed?"
I shrugged. "Maybe. Also, it was the first movie that popped into my head."
"I wonder if sharks are big readers?" he asked. He glanced back down at the water. His book had soaked up enough of the sea that it was slowly dropping beneath the surface, sinking down to Davy Jones's locker forevermore. I glanced back at his face. He looked as if he was in actual physical pain.
"You all right?" I asked.
"Not really," he said. He rubbed his knuckles over his chest as if his heart hurt. "I was just getting to the good part."
I had to force myself not to roll my eyes. It was just a book. I thought about abandoning reader guy to his grief, but it seemed impolite since he had saved me from a fountain of barf, he was cute in a "buy local" sort of way, and I had accidentally smacked his book into the drink.
"I really am sorry," I said. "Was it a rare book or super valuable?" I hoped not. Being in between chef jobs was not leaving my bank account flush.
"No, it was just the latest Joe Pickett mystery from C. J. Box." He shrugged. "I'm just stuck at a cliff-hanger without it."
"Oh, that is a bummer." Personally, I hated cliff-hangers on my shows-Just give her the rose, already!-so I imagined the feeling wasn't any better with a book. I glanced at the choppy water below as if I could manifest the book and make it rise out of the ocean and float back to the boat in perfect condition. See? Just because I don't read doesn't mean I don't have an imagination.
"It's fine, really," he said.
One thing I'd learned in my twenty-eight circles around the sun was that when a person said it was fine, it never ever was. I glanced up and noticed we were approaching the pier.
"Listen, I'm happy to replace it, really," I said. I reached to open my shoulder bag, wondering how much cash I had in my wallet. My nausea threatened to punch back at the thought of how broke I was.
He reached out and put his hand over mine, stopping me. His skin was warm despite the cool breeze blowing in from the water. He gave my fingers a quick squeeze before he let go and said, "It really is okay. Accidents happen."
We'd leveled up to okay. Well, all right then. Okay usually did mean exactly that. I smiled at him, relieved. His gaze met mine, and for a second I forgot about everything-my anxiety about returning to Oak Bluffs after so long, the nature of my responsibilities while on the island this summer, the low balance in my checking account, the future of my culinary career-and suddenly it was very important to me that this guy not think badly of me. Why? I have no idea, it just was.
"You know, it's not so much that I'm not a reader as my occupation keeps me too busy to find time," I said. "There's not a lot of downtime to curl up with a novel in my world."
The wind whipped my long black hair across my face as if to chastise me for being a fibber. Whatever. I hooked my finger around the hank of hair and pulled it away from my mouth.
Reader guy leaned an elbow on the railing. Now I had his attention. "When you do have time, what do you like to read?"
Uh-oh. I hadn't really thought the natural conversational trajectory through. Shit. I scanned my brain for the title of a book-any book.
"Stephen King," I said. One does not grow up in New England and not know the King. "Big fan. Huge." Not a lie because I'd watched all of the movies repeatedly.
"So, you like the scary stuff?" he asked. "Like Stephen Graham Jones, Riley Sager, and Simone St. James?"
The heat of the sun beat down on my head. Why was it suddenly so hot out here? Who was I kidding? This guy was book smart and I was a book moron. Why was I even trying to converse with him?
"Yup, all those guys. Horror's my jam," I agreed. Before he could ask me any more questions, I spun it around. "How about you? Who are your go-to authors?"
He looked thoughtful and said, "Oh, you know, Kafka, Joyce, Proust . . ."
Even I, the nonreader, knew these were literary heavy hitters. My voice came out a little higher than normal when I asked, "For fun?"
His gray-blue eyes met mine, and I saw a spark of mischief in them. Relieved, I burst out laughing and swatted his forearm. "Funny, really funny."
His return grin was like getting hit by a blast of sunshine at the end of a long winter. "What gave it away?"
"Joyce is not really known for his cliff-hangers," I said. I hadn't read any of that stuff since my D minus attempt at English 101, but even I remembered there were no creepy cornfields to be found in James Joyce. Pity.
He snapped his fingers. "Should have gone with Shakespeare."
A gentle bump indicated that we'd landed, and as the boat rocked beneath our feet, he reached out a hand to steady me. A current of awareness rippled through me, and I was about to ask his name, when a shout brought my attention back to the direction of the puker.
"Hey, miss!" I turned and saw one of the frat bruhs had my duffel bag by the handle. "Is this yours?"
It was! I had completely forgotten it. I took a few steps toward the guy when I remembered my new friend. I turned back but the crowd was already filling the space between us.
I called back to reader guy, "Sorry, I have to-"
A large family shuffled into the gap, cutting off my words as everyone scrambled for the exit, while avoiding the vomit-contaminated area. I was jostled right into the young man with my bag, and when I glanced back, all I could see of my new friend was the top of his head. He raised his hand and waved over the crowd. I returned it, feeling very unsatisfied by our parting. I hadn't gotten his name or anything, which did not stop me from hoping I ran into him again.
Martha's Vineyard was less than one hundred square miles. Surely, I'd see him at some point. Right?
"Sam, you're here!" Tony Gale, my dad, stood on the pier and waved at me. At least, I thought it was my dad. The man in question had face hair, specifically a goatee-hello, 1990s!-and was wearing skinny jeans. Skinny jeans! I tried not to stare. I failed.
I returned his wave and skirted around the disembarking crowd to reach him. Before I could say hi, Dad kissed both my cheeks, a custom from his Portuguese upbringing that was as ingrained in him as his love of linguica, and hugged me tight as if proving to himself that I was real. The faint scent of Old Spice aftershave engulfed me-thankfully that hadn't changed-and I instantly felt as if I were a kid again.
Copyright © 2023 by Jenn McKinlay. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.