Rafael Barba glanced at his watch for what was possibly the fourth time in the last thirty minutes. Then he looked at the other three people sitting around the table on the expansive deck looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, with whom he was having post dinner drinks.
“They should have been here by now,” he said.
They were Noah and Jesse. He was in his second year at Harvard Law School and she was a senior at Columbia. The other people with him were Olivia, his wife of nearly twenty years and Jesse’s parents, Amanda Rollins-Carisi and Dominick “Sonny” Carisi. The young people were joining their parents for a week at the beach over spring break, the latter having arrived the day before. It was Olivia’s idea to invite Amanda and Sonny to join them at the beach house for the week since the kids were coming as well. Rafael had to be convinced that there was plenty of bedrooms and bathrooms in the large rental, but still wasn’t that interested in sharing space with another couple.
“Rafa, you’ve said that already,” Olivia said. “They’ll be here when they get here. They are two grown adults; perfectly capable of navigating a car from New York City to the Outer Banks.”
“But it will be dark soon,” he said, looking out at the darkening sky over the water. “And you know that Noah doesn’t drive a lot.”
Even at 24, their son was a typical city dweller. He had a driver’s license and a car, but generally used public transportation and took the train back and forth between their home in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts where he went to school.
“Which is why Jesse said she was going to do most of the driving,” Amanda informed him. Her daughter, although three years younger, was by far a more experienced driver. She’d been driving herself back and forth to visit her grandmother and aunt in Georgia since she turned eighteen. Amanda had complete confidence in Jesse’s ability to get her and Noah there.
Olivia took his hand and stood. “Come on, let’s take a walk on the beach.”
“I don’t want sand in my shoes,” he protested with a scowl.
“Take them off.” She tugged on his hand. “Let’s go. We’re on vacation for heaven's sake. The kids will probably be here by the time we get back.”
“Go on, Your Honor,” said Carisi. “Amanda and I will be here if the kids arrive. Although we might be trying out the hot tub.” He winked at his wife.
Rafael didn’t disguise his eye roll while he pulled off his canvas shoes. Then he pointed a finger at the attorney.
“You are only allowed to call me that when you’re in my courtroom, counselor.”
He followed Olivia down the stairs to the sand and had to admit it didn’t feel too bad. At the end of March, the evening was cool enough they needed sweaters, but warm enough going barefoot wasn’t unpleasant. She threaded her fingers through his and bumped her shoulder into his. Without shoes, they were about even in height.
“You know he only calls you that because he admires you. He always has,” she said gently.
“I know,” he grumbled. Then he looked at his watch, squinting to make out the time in the semi-darkness. “I’m calling Noah when we get back if he and Jesse aren’t here by then.”
At that moment, the two young people were having a similar conversation.
“Do you think we should call our parents?” Noah asked, watching Jesse finish replace the lug nuts on the left rear wheel of his car in the fading daylight.
“Just put the tire in the trunk, Barba,” she said, blowing her bangs out of her face and looking very much like her mother.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he easily hefted the damaged tire and walked around the rear of his car. He may not know how to change a tire but he had no problem lifting it, she thought, looking at the muscles in his arms and shoulder move under his t shirt. Jesse used the back of her hand to push her hair away from her face, wishing she’d put it in a ponytail before starting her task and tightened the last nut as Noah closed the trunk.
“Done,” she declared, standing up and brushing her hands on her jeans. “Think you can do it next time?”
“There won’t be a next time.”
“If you don’t pay attention to your car, there will be. Geez, Noh, you have this fancy car that tells you when there’s low tire pressure.”
“I did put air in it.”
“How many times?” she asked, opening the car door and carefully rummaging around in her bag for something to wipe the grease and dirt from her hands, hoping she wasn’t spreading it around the inside of her new Vera Bradley in the process. “From the looks of the nail in the tire, it’s been there for a while.”
“Here.” He held out his handkerchief.
Jesse took it and as she wiped her hands said, “How come you always have one of these? Isn’t that like an old guy thing?”
Noah did always have one; as far back as she could remember, probably starting in his teens. She could remember him pulling it out to wipe her knee after she’d crashed and burned trying to rollerblade in the park. And again to dry her angry tears after a boy she liked in high school stood her up and she saw him with another girl the same night. He walked around to the driver’s side of the car and looked down the road for oncoming traffic. Seeing none, he opened the door and motioned for her to come get in. She did and he closed the door, returning to the passenger side and climbing in beside her.
“A handkerchief? I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Dad always has one and when I was little I asked if I could have one too -- you know, to be like him. He gave me one of his and then for my thirteenth birthday he bought me ones of my own. Monogrammed, just like his.”
Noah smiled and pointed out the letters on the square of fabric she had handed back to him: a large B with an N and P on either side embroidered in blue. She returned his smile but it froze when he reached out his hand for her face. His thumb rubbed her cheekbone.
“You had a smudge.”
He withdrew his hand and reached for his seatbelt, buckling it across his chest. Jesse busied herself with her own, hoping the flush she felt on her face could be attributed to the exertion of changing the tire.
“We lost almost an hour with that stop,” she said once she’d merged the car back into traffic. “You should call your parents now. We’re going to be even later than we told them.”
“I’m not the one who wasn’t done packing,” he said.
“I’m not the one who insisted we stop to eat!” she retorted.
“There’s no eating in my car, Rollins. I’ve seen the inside of yours from you eating while you drive.”
“I told you, that was one time. And it was because I had to slam on the brakes that my fries went everywhere,” Jesse said defensively. “Would you rather I rear end someone?”
“If you weren’t eating while you were driving, you would have noticed the car had stopped.”
“I’ve told you, Barba, I wasn’t eating. The food was in a bag on the passenger seat.”
It was not the first time they’d had this conversation and it always ended in a hung jury.
Jesse huffed. “Just call your parents and let them know we’re going to be later than we expected. Feel free to add that I changed the flat tire.”
The blonde reached over and tapped a button on the console and music filled the car. She did like driving Noah’s ride. It was newer and had more bells and whistles than hers. But her pickup had character. She found it one summer when she was visiting her grandmother in Atlanta. It only had an AM radio and a cassette deck. Noah was always telling her to replace it with a better radio but that would take away from the character, she told him. So she contented herself with a bluetooth speaker connected to her phone when she wanted music. He turned the radio down and she gave him a look. “Hey!”
“I’m calling my parents, Jess. I’ll turn it back up after.”
He pressed the icon on his phone pre-programmed to call his Dad’s number, expecting to hear his voice on the second ring. He was surprised when it went to voicemail.
“Hi, Dad. Hey, we had a flat and had to put on the spare. Well, Jesse is the one who did it.” She gave him a satisfied smirk. “Anyway, since we got a later start than we expected now we’re running even later. I’ll call again when we’re closer -- what?”
He stopped talking when Jesse swore loudly. She pointed to the dash where both the check engine light and the temperature gauge light were on. He returned to the call. “Gotta go, Dad. Something’s wrong with the car.”
Olivia and Rafael had turned around and were making their way back to the rental house. The moon had risen and was reflecting off the waves. The tide was out, so the sound of the water lapping the shore was quiet.
“Maybe we should buy one,” she mused. They had gone from holding hands to having an arm around each other’s waists and were walking more slowly.
“Buy one what? One of these?” Rafael waved his free hand toward the row of large beach houses. “This is a little far for weekend trips, isn’t it?”
“It is. What about something in the Hamptons though? Or Martha’s Vineyard? It would just be nice to have a place to go to get out of the city.”
“What? Olivia Barba is tired of the city?” he teased.
Before she could answer, they saw a figure coming down the sand toward them. Not quite running, but moving with purpose.
“Your-Rafael! Lieu!” called Carisi. It didn’t matter that she’d been retired as Captain of the SVU unit for more than ten years and he had traded the squad room for a courtroom at about the same time, he still called her Lieu, which made her smile.
“Almost sixty years old and he still looks like he doesn’t know what to do with his arms and legs,” Rafael said with a snort.
Olivia poked him in the side, “Hush. It’s hard to move quickly on sand.”
The tall lawyer caught up with them and held out a cell phone. “Noah called. But we didn’t hear it right away. He left you a message.”
Rafael took the phone and queued up the voicemail, holding it to his ear. “They had a flat.” Then his eyes grew wide. “Something’s wrong with the car.”
“What?” asked his wife. “Put it on speaker.”
He did as she asked and the three listened to Noah’s message.
“That’s my girl,” said Carisi when Noah mentioned about Jesse changing the tire. Then they all heard her expletives and Noah saying he’d call back. Carisi looked sheepish at the words his daughter used. “She learned those from her mother.”
“Let’s get back to the house and call them back and see what’s going on,” said Olivia.
Back at the beach house they played the message for Amanda, who pursed her lips at her daughter’s choice of words. “Can’t be good if she said that,” she commented.
It wasn’t good and Jesse was on the brink of using those words again.
Once again they were on the side of the road.
“Pop the hood,” she’d instructed a few minutes earlier and he leaned across into the driver's seat and pulled the lever. Then he got out of the car to join her at the front of the vehicle. When she reached to unlatch it, he pushed her hand away. Small tendrils of steam were curling out from under the hood. Who knew what would happen when it was opened completely.
“I’ll do it. Don’t want you to get burned,” Noah said.
He pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and folded it to protect his fingertips as he reached in the space to find the latch. A cloud of steam made them both take a step back as he gently lifted the hood. Once it dissipated a bit, she stepped closer, looking to see if there was a broken hose or a visible leak. But it was nearly dark and she couldn’t see much.
“Can you turn on the light on your phone, please?”
Noah did, and aimed it where her finger pointed. No hoses were broken or leaking from the top.
“Shine it at the ground, underneath a little,” Jesse instructed and got on her hands and knees to see if anything was dripping onto the graveled berm. It was dry. The only thing she could conclude was the car was out of coolant. As she moved to stand back up, Noah looked away lest he be caught looking at her denim clad bottom that had been pointed skyward and illuminated by the headlights. She was angry enough about the car.
“Noah, what the hell!” she said, throwing her hands up in the air before running them through her blonde locks. “Have you ever put coolant in this thing? Or had the fluids checked?”
“Fluids. You mean like windshield wiper fluid? The blue stuff? Yeah, I’ve refilled that.”
“What about coolant? Antifreeze? Have you ever seen a light that said low coolant?”
The LOW COOLANT light had flickered for a millisecond when she started the car after changing the tire, but she hadn’t given it a thought at the time since it hadn’t stayed on.
“Geez, Jess, I don’t know. You know I hardly drive this car at all. It sits in the garage at mom and dad’s most of the time.”
“I knew we should have brought mine. Even if it doesn’t have a good sound system,” she said, mentally calculating how long it would take for the engine to cool enough they could add some of the water they had in the car and then how far that would get them. Definitely not all the way to the Outer Banks. They needed to find a store that sold coolant.
While she was doing the math and Noah was wondering what she was thinking about, the phone in his hand rang, making them both jump. Looking at the screen, he saw his dad's smiling face from the two of them at his college graduation. Wincing, because he knew what was coming, he answered the call.
“ Hola, Papi .”
“Don’t hola Papi , me, mijo, ” came the sharp reply. “What’s wrong with the car? You didn’t get in an accident did you?”
“No, no. It’s just overheated. Jesse thinks it’s out of coolant.”
“Where are you?” Rafael asked his son.
“Put him on speaker,” whispered Jesse, who had been looking at maps on her own phone. Then she said, “Hi, Uncle Rafa. We’re around Virginia Beach.”
“Jesse, carino , are you all right?” His tone immediately softened.
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She was the one who changed the flat tire and she was the one who knew how to get them off the side of the road a second time and he asked if she was all right. But she knew that’s just how her Uncle Rafa was.
“Yes, we’re fine. The engine is cooling off. Then we can put some water in it and it will get us to a store where we can buy some coolant,” she explained. “It looks like you’re only about two and a half hours from here. It will be late, but we should get there tonight.”
There was the sound of the phone changing hands and then a new voice came on the line.
“Jess, you have everything under control?” It was Carisi.
“Hi, Dad. Yeah, we’re good. The engine is probably cool enough now I can add some water and then we’ll go find some coolant,” she told him.
“Okay, baby. Call me if you have any questions.”
“I will, Dad.”
“Love you, Jess.”
“Love you too. Bye.” She ended the call and handed the phone back to Noah.
“Let’s put some water in this thing and get the hell off the side of the road.”
Two bottles of water later, Jesse declared the car should be okay to drive a little further to the next exit on the highway. She kept her speed a little under the limit and the car appeared to be doing okay, not showing any warning lights except the LOW COOLANT one. She got off of the highway at the next opportunity, keeping her eyes peeled for any place that might sell coolant.
“There’s an auto parts store!” Noah pointed. “But it’s closed. Damn.”
“Well it is a Sunday,” she reminded him as they drove past several more possibilities that were also closed.
They found two stores that were open 24 hours but neither had coolant.
“It’s like there’s a shortage or something,” Jesse lamented after the second strike out.
“How much more should we be driving around?”
“Probably not much,” Jesse admitted. She had been confident they’d get coolant and be on their way. That was looking less likely.
“Why don’t we just get a room, spend the night and get the stuff in the morning when the stores open?” he suggested. “We’ll be at the beach house by lunch.”
The blonde beside him didn’t want to admit defeat, but it looked like Noah was right. The car really needed to cool down completely and get some actual coolant in it, if they had any hope of driving it further. Not to mention it was dark now and she was tired of driving. And hungry. Their stop to eat was several hours behind them. She nodded.
“Okay. Let’s find a motel.”
What both of them had forgotten was while they were on spring break, most of the country was as well and they were in a beach town. So not only had they struck out finding coolant, they were striking out finding a place to spend the night.
“Noh, we really need to stop driving the car,” Jesse said after the sixth place said they had no vacancies.
“I know, Jess,” he replied.
Noah knew Jesse considered herself a strong, capable woman but he had known her long enough to hear the tiredness and bit of fear in her voice. He hoped the next place they stopped had a room. Otherwise, they’d be sleeping in the car; a thought he really didn’t want to entertain. She pulled the car into yet another motel parking lot, illuminated by the blue neon of the sign and sighed as she put it into park. As she did, the CHECK ENGINE light came on and her sigh changed to a small whimper. He reached over and put his hand over hers where it lay on the gearshift between them.
“Stay here, I’ll go. Say a prayer.” And he was out of the car and walking toward the door lettered with the words MAIN OFFICE.
She did say a prayer. More than one. She was tired, hungry and afraid something really bad was happening under the hood of the car. He was away longer than he had been at any of the other places, and a bit of hope blossomed in her chest. Putting her head back against the seat, she closed her eyes. Suddenly the door opened and she jumped.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” said Noah.
“Well?” Jesse asked and her eyes widened when he extended an arm, dangling a key in front of her. “Yes!”
”Room 28. My lucky number,” he told her.
“You don’t have a lucky number, Barba,” she laughed, getting out of the car and shouldering her purse.
“I do now.” Noah joined in her laughter as he got their suitcases from the trunk.
The room was on the second floor of the two story building. They trudged up the steps and down the exterior hallway nearly to the end. Noah inserted the key into the lock and pushed the door open. They were met with the smell of cleaning products and fresh laundry, which made Noah feel better. The motel itself was older and showing wear on the outside. Jesse reached for the light switch on the wall and illuminated a standard motel room with a small desk, a dresser and a television on the wall above it facing a double bed.
“There’s only one bed,” she groaned, letting go of the handle of her rolling suitcase so it hit the thin carpet with a thud.
“Jess, we’ve been sharing a bed since you were in diapers,” said Noah. “I’m not sleeping on the floor. And neither are you,” he added when she opened her mouth to argue.
“Whatever, Barba. I’m getting a shower,” she said shortly, grabbing the handle of her bag and pulled it into the bathroom with her, closing the door firmly to punctuate her statement.
She didn’t need to lock it. It was Noah for pete’s sake, not one of the creepy guys on her dorm floor. But if she was honest, that was part of the reason for her annoyance. Turning on the water in the tub with more force than was necessary, Jesse began to undress. They weren’t little anymore. It wouldn’t be like her mom putting her in Noah’s bed next to him after they both fell asleep on the floor watching a movie instead of waking her up to go home. They were very much grown up and to her dismay she was pretty sure he hadn’t noticed, even though she certainly had. Since Noah had gone to law school, they hadn’t seen each other much. Just a quick visit here and there. But when they were both home this past Christmas he’d been dressed not in his usual jeans but in a pair of trousers, a dress shirt, no tie but -- her breath quickened at the memory -- a pair of suspenders. When she was a preteen, Jesse had a short lived but very big crush on her Uncle Rafa. The suspenders he wore with his suits to work had a lot to do with it. So when she saw Noah in a pair, suddenly he didn’t seem so brotherly anymore. The prospect of spending nine hours in the car with him had been appealing, until the trip started out with bickering over her not being ready when he came to pick her up. Then it went downhill from there, with more bickering over stopping to eat, then the flat tire and to add insult to injury, the car overheating destroyed any hopes she’d had of them getting to know each other as something other than kids who had grown up together. As tired as she was, she didn’t foresee much sleep with Noah in the bed next to her; all six foot, two and a half inches of him…..
“Rollins! You fall asleep in there?” his voice from the other side of the door broke through her thoughts. “Don’t use all the hot water.”
Somehow she had managed to wash her hair and her body without even realizing. Quickly turning off the water, she called, “Sorry! I’ll be right out!”
Drying with one of the thin white towels provided and wrapping her head in another, she pulled on a tank top and a pair of her dad’s boxers that she’d pilfered for sleeping. Suitcase in hand, she opened the door. Noah was standing on the other side and waved away the cloud of steam that exited with her.
“Are you sure you didn’t use all the hot water?” He brushed past her. “Sorry, I really have to pee.” And closed the door.
She rolled her eyes and moved to the dresser to comb out her long blonde hair. Those were exactly the brotherly kinds of comments she didn’t want to hear anymore. Her stomach growled in agreement and she laughed out loud. There had to be a place that delivered pizza this late in a beach town. Especially when it was spring break. On top of the desk she found a menu for a restaurant that advertised delivery to that motel. Jesse heard the shower running so didn’t bother asking him what he wanted. She didn’t need to. She knew exactly how he liked his pizza: extra cheese, sausage and peppers. But only peppers on his half. Not hers. She shuddered with distaste.
“I ordered pizza,” she called through the door. “I’m going to find a soda machine.”
“Good deal,” came the reply. “Get me -- “
“Root beer if they have it. I know.” His laugh followed her out the door, key and wallet in hand.
The vending machines were at the opposite end of the hallway from their room. By the time she was making her way back, Jesse was wishing she’d put some shoes and a sweatshirt on. It was still March. Putting the key in the lock, she pushed the door open.
“Spring break or not, it’s cold out th ---” the words died in her mouth when she saw Noah standing by the bed in nothing but a pair of sweatpants hung low on his hips, rummaging in his bag for a shirt. His curly brown hair sat in ringlets on his head, damp from his shower.
She couldn’t remember the last time -- when he was 16? -- she’d seen him shirtless. Clearly he did more at law school than study. She recalled seeing a gym pass tag on his ring of keys. Suddenly Jesse wasn’t so cold anymore, as a rush of heat ran through her veins. She shifted her feet nervously, trying not to stare. He found what he was looking for and pulled it over his head, asking as he did,
“They have root beer?”
“Um, yeah. They did.”
She put the bottles down on the desk. Root beer for Noah. Cola for her. He always told her she drank too much caffeine. This from the son of the Cuban Coffee Fiend she always replied. But a coffee habit was one thing he had not learned from Rafael Barba. Jesse had just sat down on the bed with pillows behind her back when there was a knock at the door.
“I got it,” Noah said, grabbing his wallet from the dresser. She heard a short exchange between him and the delivery person and then he was back in front of the bed, holding the box to his nose. “I smell…..extra cheese…….sausage…….and peppers. But peppers only on one half.”
She grinned at him. “What else?”
He returned the grin and put the box down on the bed. “You know me too well, Jess.”
Then he grabbed the sodas and sat down beside her, stretching his long legs out on the bedspread. There were paper plates and napkins in a bag atop the box. They eschewed the plates, but Jesse was grateful for the napkins, since Noah’s penchant for extra cheese tended to make the eating messy, just like when her dad made homemade pizza. She was just about to take a bite when she all but dropped her slice.
“What? Did you burn your mouth?” Noah asked with concern.
“No!” She put the piece of pizza back in the box and scrambled off the bed, reaching for her purse. “We didn’t tell our parents we stopped! They still think we’re on our way!”
“Exactly.” She pulled her phone out. “Do you think they’re still up? Should I call or just send a text?”
“I’m sure my dad is still awake, which means my mom is still awake, which means your mom is still awake, which means your dad is probably still awake.” Noah replied.
He had put his piece of pizza down as well and gave it a longing look before getting off the bed to get his phone from his jeans that were draped across a chair. The phone was ringing in Jesse’s ear.
“Jesse, babe. Is everything all right? Did you get coolant for the car? Was that not the problem? Is there something else wrong with it?”
“Dad, we’re fine. But when we got off the highway, none of the stores that were open had coolant.”
She could hear him repeating her words; she assumed to her mom and Noah’s parents.
“So where are you?”
“We’re in Virginia Beach. We got a room for the night. We’ll get coolant in the morning when the auto parts store opens and get on the road. We’ll be there by lunch,” she told him.
Again, he repeated her words, but before he was finished speaking, Noah’s phone rang.
“It’s my dad,” he said, accepting the call. “Hi, Dad.”
“Noah, you and Jesse are at a motel?”
“Yeah, Dad, it’s fine. Like Jess said, none of the stores that were open when we got here had coolant for the car. We were tired and hungry so we just got a room. We’ll be there in the morning.”
“Do you want me to come and get you?” Rafael asked. But before Noah could reply, he heard his mother’s voice. She had taken the phone from her husband.
“Noah, my love. You and Jesse are in a safe part of town, yes?” Of course that would be the first question his mother the retired police captain would ask. Since she couldn’t see him, he rolled his eyes.
“Yes, mom. It’s fine,” he assured her.
“All right, then you and Jesse get some sleep. I’m going to drag your father to bed so the rest of us can get some sleep too. Call or text us in the morning when you are back on the highway.”
He could hear the muffled sound of his dad’s voice. Then Olivia said, “No, Rafael, we are not going to get them. Noah is 24 years old. He can take care of himself and Jesse.”
Coming back on the line with him, she said, “Good night, sweetie. We’ll see you both tomorrow. Drive safely.”
“We will. ‘Night, Mom.”
He turned around to see Jesse ending her call as well. She had heard part of the conversation among the parents through her phone.
“Good thing we found this room, or your dad would be on his way to get us,” she laughed.
“With yours riding shotgun,” Noah replied.
“You’re probably right,” Jesse agreed, taking up her spot on the bed again.
Fortunately they hadn’t been on the phone long enough for the pizza to get cold. But the long day was starting to catch up with them both. One slice each and they were fighting sleep, the caffeine in her soda notwithstanding.
“Go brush your teeth, Rollins,” Noah told her with a yawn of his own. “You’re falling asleep.”
He closed up the pizza box and put it on the desk. When she returned from the bathroom, he took his turn cleaning his teeth. She was sitting on the edge of the bed when he emerged.
“Do you have a favorite side or something?” she asked.
“I don’t know, you’re the only girl I’ve ever slept with,” he said, then realized how that sounded. “I mean, well you know, shared a bed with,” he added, blushing a little when that didn’t make it much better. “Oh hell, just stay there, I’ll take the other side.”
He turned out the light, plunging the room into darkness save for a sliver of light coming in from outside under the door. Both of them were grateful for the cover, because each was nervous about getting under the blankets together for the first time since they were much younger. Jesse was in the bed with the covers pulled to her chin by the time she felt the mattress dip down on the other side and he arranged his head on the pillow. They were both laying on their backs. Noah wasn’t touching her, but she could feel the warmth coming off his body and it was inviting. She scooted a little bit to the side so that the side of her arm was touching his. He smiled in the darkness.
“Good night, Noh.”
Jesse thought she wouldn’t sleep being in the bed beside Noah, but he was the one who lay awake, after she had fallen asleep within minutes of closing her eyes. He listened to her gentle breathing and thought about what he’d said before he turned out the light. Jesse really was the only girl with whom he’d shared a bed. He wasn’t a virgin anymore. No, he’d lost that in undergrad. But there had been no actual sleeping involved in any of his few encounters. Also, when girls find out your mom used to be the head of a sex crimes division and your dad is the District Attorney of New York County, well, he hadn’t had too many long term relationships. But he couldn’t blame it all on the girls. No, every time he found himself getting interested in someone, he started to compare her to the young woman beside him. She wasn’t as funny as Jesse. She wasn’t as smart as Jesse. Her eyes weren’t as pretty as Jesse’s. The object of his thoughts sighed in her sleep and moved a little closer to him, seeking his warmth. She rolled onto her side, her head nearly on his shoulder. He could smell the shampoo they’d both used from the small bottle in the bathroom, but it smelled different on her. Noah wondered if he could put his arm around her without waking her up. But all the talks his parents had with him about consent echoed in his head. Jesse’s hand found his, though, between their bodies and she clasped it gently as she slept. Finally, his body started to relax and he closed his eyes, allowing sleep to overtake him.
The room was much lighter when Jesse woke, but not light enough to tell her it was past sunrise. She didn’t remember where she was at first, especially when her head wasn’t on a pillow, but pillowed on a muscular chest covered in a Property of NYPD t-shirt. Then it all came back: the flat tire, the overheated car, no coolant, no vacancies. Uncle Rafa wanting to drive up and get them. She stifled a giggle so as not to wake her sleeping body pillow, because that’s how she was treating Noah. Her head was on his chest, the arm not sandwiched between them was across his waist and one leg was bent and across one of his. She opened her eyes and tipped her head back. She could see his chin, covered in more stubble than yesterday. He’d joked in the car that he wasn’t shaving again until classes resumed. Her fingers itched to touch it. Maybe just one finger wouldn’t wake him. Sliding her palm up his chest, she stretched out her pointer finger and gently touched the dimple on his chin. Like the curls on his head, his whiskers were soft, not scratchy. He hadn’t moved, so she allowed her finger to trace the line of his jaw. Suddenly she felt fingers on her back and realized his arm was around her. Her hand froze and the fingers on her back stilled.
He was awake! A small impish smile curved Jesse’s lips. She continued to trace his jawline up almost to his ear. The fingers on her back started to move again, up toward the back of her head. Hers moved to the side of his neck and down, pausing when she felt his pulse flutter beneath them. His brushed her hair aside and gently touched the nape of her neck and moved around to trace the shell of her ear, eliciting a small shiver from her. She continued moving her fingertips down his neck to his collarbone. The rest of his chest was concealed by his shirt, so she followed the line of the fabric where it met his skin until she was back where she started initially. Noah’s fingers had moved down her neck to her bare shoulder and his thumb was rubbing gentle circles there. His eyes hadn’t opened the whole time they were exploring each other, but now they did and his blue ones met her brown.
“Good morning,” Noah said, bringing his other hand that had been resting on the mattress until now across his body to brush silken strands of her hair away from her face. “Sleep well?”
“You make a good pillow,” Jesse told him.
An early riser by nature, Noah had been awake before she touched him. He was surprised but pleased to find she was using him as a pillow and had lain there wondering how she would react to an un-brotherly advance. When he felt her featherlight touch on his chin and then up his jaw, he tried to control his heartbeat and keep his breathing even so as not to give away the fact he was awake. Then his hand seemed to move of its own accord up her back and when hers stopped he knew she knew. But then she continued touching him, so he played along. The skin at the nape of her neck was soft and he’d wondered if the rest of her skin felt the same. Keeping his hand at the side of her face, he boldly touched her lips with his thumb and she, equally boldly, pursed them against it, her heart pounding. He pulled his hand away, shifting his body slightly away from hers.
“Jess, I — “
“I swear to God, Barba, if you tell me you have to pee, I’ll sic Frannie Junior on you when we get to the beach house.” She pushed herself up on her elbow to glare at him.
Noah’s laughter filled the room, making her frown even deeper and start to roll away from him, intending to get out of the bed, but he tightened his arm around her waist, stopping her.
“Dammit, Noah. Let me go!”
“Not until you let me finish what I started to say. And it wasn’t that I had to pee,” he said. “Although I do,” he added, earning him a smack in the middle of the NYPD logo.
“Fine,” she said. “Speak.”
Noah swallowed nervously. If she hadn’t interrupted him, he was about to tell her he wanted to kiss her, but now the words stuck in his throat. Jesse had been his best friend as long as he could remember. He’d heard enough stories about his mom and dad to know that often the best relationships started as friendships. He had also heard about how his parents waited so long to take the step from friends to lovers because both of them were afraid of being rejected by the other and ruining their friendship. He didn’t want that to happen with Jesse either, but he’d never know if he didn’t take a chance. He just hoped their actions of the past few minutes meant that she felt the same way as he did.
“I’m waiting,” Jesse prompted. If she wasn’t laying down, she’d have tapped her foot. She settled for drumming her fingers on his abdomen, making the muscles twitch when she hit a ticklish spot.
He exhaled through his nose. Now or never Barba, he thought. He looked into her warm brown eyes and moved his hand to push her hair behind her ear and ran his thumb over her cheekbone.
“I — would you mind if I did this, Jess?”
Noah lowered his head toward hers and saw her eyes widen and then close as he brushed his lips against hers. When she didn’t push him away, he repeated the action. Her mouth was soft and she sighed against his, making him increase the pressure of the kiss. Jesse moved her hand from his shirtfront to his shoulder and then into the curls at the back of his head, leaning into him. When his tongue ran across her bottom lip, however, she pulled back.
“Hold up,” she said. “Much as I’m enjoying this — and I am, make no mistake, Barba.” She grinned at him. “But before this goes any further, I’d like to brush my teeth.”
“Go then,” he replied with a smirk that would have made his dad proud. “I’ll wait.” He laced his fingers together and put them behind his head. That earned him another smack in the middle of the logo on his shirt which made him laugh again and she thought briefly how much she like the sound of it.
Jesse pushed the covers off, climbed out of bed and went into the bathroom. She returned a few minutes later. When she saw he was still in the same position, she waved her toothbrush at him.
“You need to brush yours too, my friend.”
She reached for the covers to pull them off of him but he stilled the action by grabbing her wrist.
When he moved to stop her hand, the blanket had flattened out on his legs except where it tented over the reaction his body had to the short amount of time they’d spent touching and kissing. He released her wrist and she stepped away from the bed, her cheeks flushed pink, and busied herself with putting her toothbrush away and running a brush through her hair. Then she opened her suitcase to find a set of clean clothes and disappeared into the bathroom again. Leaning against the door, she blew out out a breath.
Jesse was technically a virgin but she wasn’t inexperienced. She just hadn’t thought about the possible effect on Noah what they’d done might have and it excited her a little bit. But he clearly hadn’t been ready for her to know about it. She dressed quickly and opened the door, moving to slip on her shoes. Grabbing the key from the desk, she turned her head in his direction but didn’t make eye contact.
“I’ll go find us some coffee. Be right back.” And she was out the door before he could reply.
Muttering a curse under his breath, Noah threw back the covers and stood up from the bed. Grabbing his own clean clothes, he brushed his teeth and dressed, mentally kicking himself the whole time for not having better self control. Jesse still hadn’t returned when he came out of the bathroom. Crossing the room, he pulled back the curtains to reveal not a window, but a sliding door to a small balcony that looked out over the beach. It was still early and the sun was just beginning to come up over the water. Opening the door he stepped outside into the crisp morning air. He leaned his forearms on the metal railing and inhaled the smell of the ocean. He had been looking forward to a week at the beach with his parents, Jesse and her parents. Now he had probably screwed that up; not to mention any hopes he had for anything other than friendship with the young woman. He didn’t hear the door open announcing her return until it closed and he smelled the aroma of coffee and chocolate. He shook his head. She always knew what he liked.
“Hey, I didn’t realize we were beachfront,” Jesse said as she joined him. “Look at that sunrise!”
He turned to see her with a cardboard carrier in her hands that she put down on a tiny table, the only piece of furniture on the small porch.
“I got you a mocha, since you only drink coffee when it’s contaminated with chocolate,” she teased, removing the lid and handing it to him.
Noah took a drink, leaving a mustache of foam on his upper lip. He moved to wipe it away with the back of his hand, but Jesse grasped his wrist with her slender fingers and took the cup from his hand with the other, placing it on the table.
“Let me help with that,” she said, stepping closer to him so their bodies were almost touching.
She had to stretch and go up on her toes, placing her other hand on his shoulder for balance, but she closed her mouth over his upper lip, licking the foam away. The moment her tongue touched his lip he couldn’t hold back a groan. The hand not in her grasp went to her waist and pulled her flush against him. She released his wrist and carded her fingers through the curls at the back of his head, holding it in place, while her tongue moved to the inside of his mouth to meet his. She tasted of coffee and he had a fleeting thought that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. Now with both hands free, his other one joined the first at her waist, holding her tight, while he took control of the kiss, slanting his mouth over hers. The combination of the mocha and toothpaste made him taste like chocolate mint candy. Feeling like a swimmer, Jesse pulled her mouth away to take a gasping breath and pressed her lips back to his, unable to get enough of him. Noah spun them around and trapped her body between his and the railing, continuing to kiss her, when a voice called, “Get a room!” followed by laughter and a second voice saying, “They have a room, you idiot!”
Noah ended the kiss, keeping her securely in his arms and looked for the source of the voices. Two young men were stumbling up the beach, probably just on their way home after a night a partying. One of them saw him looking and gave him two thumbs up. He chuckled and pressed a kiss to Jesse’s forehead.
“Your coffee’s getting cold,” he said softly. She was resting her head on his shoulder and shook it back and forth.
“What? Jesse Rollins-Carisi doesn’t care about coffee?” Noah teased. “Are you sick?”
“Lovesick, I think,” she replied almost in a whisper, turning her head to look at him. “Noh, is this real? I mean, you’re my best friend. Can we -- do this too?”
“Oh, we can, Jess,” he replied, taking her face in his hands and kissing her gently. Lovingly. “We can. And as much as I’d like to stay here with you in this motel room for the rest of the week, if we don’t put coolant in my car and get on the highway, my dad is going to have my mom putting a BOLO out on us.”