The hustle and bustle of summer had ended two months ago. The traffic on Route 1 was busy. But not as busy if they’d traveled it back in July or August. Now, in mid-November, it had more to do with the shopping outlets stuffing the holiday season down everyone’s gullet.
Dean drove them down through Dover, past an exit to the casino and the Nascar speedway. He mentioned he might want to go and see a race there at some point. Julie nodded, saying she’d never been much for auto racing. But, if he wanted to, she’d love to do that with him. At some point.
“I’ve got my own Mario Andretti right here, though.” She leaned into the passenger side door. Her entire body lengthened across the expansive bench to tap a foot against Dean’s calf. An itch from her tattoo, in its peeling and healing stage, crept up her left side.
Dean smiled, gripped Baby’s steering wheel and commanded the two lane highway like a professional stock car driver.
“You know, I never suggested this because I thought you weren’t a beach guy. We wasted a whole summer.” She frowned. Thoughts of him all bronzed up, relaxing, maybe surf fishing on the sandy shores of Cape Henlopen State Park made her core ache.
“I wouldn’t say wasted.” He grinned, passing the slower traffic with ease. “And, I’m not much for crowds. This’ll be the best of both worlds.”
“Not as much open down the boardwalk now.”
He shrugged. “We’ll see. Am I gonna be able to toss you in the ocean?”
Julie scoffed. “Um, no. It’ll be freezing.”
Dean chuckled and increased his speed. He wanted to get there by lunchtime.
The Rehoboth Beach boardwalk was empty save for the occasional locals biking or jogging or walking their dogs.
A chilly, sharp ocean breeze blew past Dean and Julie. She zipped up her hooded jacket. He grabbed her hand and tugged, pulling her close. His shoulders curled forward, bracing for another blast of cool air to sneak under his corduroy jacket. Wooden boards clacked and creaked beneath their steps.
He inhaled deep. The salty beach air filled his lungs. Red coloring speckled Julie’s cheeks. He sniffled. “I remember this place. We’re close.”
“You’re sure it was at this beach? There’s Lewes, Dewey, Ocean City’s just down the way…” Julie rattled off.
They walked past the tiny bandstand pavilion. Dean turned back and gazed upward. He pointed at the huge sign in cutout orange script letters perched atop a corner candy store’s second story roof. “How the hell do you pronounce that name? Dulls… Doles… Salt Water Taffy. Sammy practically glued his mouth shut with the amount of taffy he chewed all at once when we were here.”
“I’ve always heard people call it Dollies.” Julie laughed. “And, that seems more like a Dean thing to do.”
Dean shook his head. “I was sixteen. I was all about the eye candy on the sand.”
“Ah. Of course you were.” She smiled. “So, that would have had you in Delaware in what, the Summer of ‘95?”
“Sounds about right.”
“I would have been thirteen that summer. I was down here with my friend Cathy for a few weeks at her parent’s beach house. I don’t remember crossing paths and swooning over a bad boy in a leather jacket in the scorching heat.” She smirked.
Dean huffed into the wind. “Give me some credit. I was dressed proper.”
One white bench after another bordered the edge of the boardwalk closest to the beach; tall lamp posts scattered like sentinels between them. “Showing off your goods for the ladies? Dean, that’s so unlike you.”
“When in Rome, sweetheart.”
They passed more of the requisite shops and entertainment venues. Beach wear and accessories, souvenir shops, arcades. Julie pointed to a tiny stairwell stuffed between two buildings leading to a rooftop. “Miniature golf up there.”
Recognition spread over Dean’s face. “Yeah, I remember that. Three girls I met on the boardwalk invited me to play a round.”
Julie narrowed her eyes and flinched at another shock of wind. “How’d that turn out?”
“I played just good enough to let one of them win. One of the brunettes let me lick her ice cream cone. Then, I made out with the blonde in a photo booth.”
“Poor ice cream girl was probably crushed.”
“Nah, I felt her up later under the pier.”
Dean halted on one of the planks. “There it is.” His smile widened. “And, it’s open, baby.”
“That place? Are you really telling me Gus and Gus had the best burgers you’ve ever eaten in your life?”
Dean rubbed his hands together. “We’re about to find out.”
If Julie and Dean had visited Gus and Gus in the summer, they would have been hard pressed to find a spot in the dining area. They probably would have skipped inside and used the take out window on the boardwalk to grab their burgers instead. But the grease and heat on that chilly day were an inviting mix of smells and feels that beckoned them indoors.
Julie smiled in awe at the utter bliss on Dean’s face. “Aw, man.” He spoke through his mouthful. “Yep, gotta tell Donna about this one. This tops the one she treated me to in Minnesota.” The burger dropped onto the crinkly paper from his greasy grip. A finger pointed to the deluxe cheeseburger as he finished his chew. “Confirmed. The best burger I’ve ever eaten is at a seaside shack in Delaware.”
“Sheriff Donna, right?” There had been a ton of new information from Dean since San Francisco. Julie started writing things in a notebook after she’d asked Dean if it was alright to do so. She didn’t want to put anyone at risk.
Dean dredged a french fry through a puddle of ketchup, then popped it into his mouth. He studied Julie with a smirk. “Yeah. She’d like you.”
“One way to find out.”
“We could visit all these people you keep telling me about sometime soon.”
“Hm.” Dean pondered with that thoughtful look of his and slurped the last of the soda. The ice rattled in the bottom of the cup with a shake. Julie scooted her water bottle across the table toward him. “Nah. I’ll grab another one in a bit.” He grabbed the burger again, holding it upside down, bottom bun facing up.
“Why do you eat your burgers that way?” Julie nibbled on one of Dean’s fries.
His open mouth froze for a second. “Upside down?”
“Less messy. Top bun is thicker. Catches all those yummy juices.” His tongue darted over his top lip. He grinned at her reaction. “You know I’m all about licking my plate clean, Jules.”
Julie’s face warmed but she teased back. “You know I love your healthy appetite.”
The chuckle rose up low from his throat. “We should get a room, stay the night.”
Julie frowned. “I thought we were going to head to a shooting range after this. My first lesson.”
A slight lift to his shoulders preceded his next suggestion. “Can’t we do both?”
“Maybe. Depends on how long you’re going to make love to that burger.”
He closed his eyes, engulfed another large mouthful, and moaned. “Oh, my God.” He murmured through bun, beef, and bacon.
Julie snickered and noted the older man behind the grill getting a kick out of Dean’s show. “Are you trying to make me jealous?”
Dean’s eyes popped open. “Trying to turn you on. Is it working?”
Julie leaned in. “You always turn me on. Except when you piss me off. So, hurry up.”
Dean gave her a low growl, teasing back. “A pissed off Julie is a sexy Julie.” He tore into his burger.
He’d given her a demonstration first at the indoor shooting range. Three rounds sunk into the target from the farthest distance possible down what looked like narrow bowling lanes. Dean had whirled the target much closer after he was done. A cocky grin formed at the tiny triangle pattern he’d created dead center.
Dean positioned the target about ten feet from the counter the two of them shared in the booth. “Your turn, sweetheart.”
Julie’s turn only lasted two minutes. Julie huffed and passed the gun over to Dean after two shots. She shook from the kick back of the gun.
“Clamped eyes and an unwilling trigger finger aren’t going to hit much of anything.” Dean sighed his critique.
Julie struggled with the massive ear coverings and readjusted them. She regulated her breathing. Dean modeled the correct gun posture again. The ear coverings fit his head with no trouble. He even looked hot donning clear protective goggles.
He shot another two rounds with the rental handgun. He frowned. “Not the nicest feel.” Then, he dropped it on the counter and pulled out his own gun. It was the one Julie had really wanted to hold. The clerk at the shooting range counter had commented on how pretty the gun was when Dean had it checked on their arrival. Dean smiled like a proud daddy.
His right arm extended, fingers wrapped around the grip. His left hand covered and steadied the right. Just as he had explained earlier. Julie made sure her mouth was clicked shut tight. Dean would get way too much enjoyment out of the potential puddle he was turning her into with the current show.
She jolted at the first shot. Dean was steady and unflinching in his stance with each subsequent fire. He nodded at the result and then dropped the gun to his side. “Come here.” He motioned with his gun pointed at the floor directly in front of his boots. “Let me lead.” His smile was easy and warm.
Julie smiled and slid in front of Dean.
“Here, baby. Get a feel for her.” He transferred the gun into her palm with careful intent.
Julie lifted the gun up for inspection. Her fingers trailed over the scroll detailing along the barrel. The ivory grip was smooth. The silver steel shone under the light. “How long have you had this?” She was mesmerized by the design, thinking of all that he’d done with this weapon.
“Forever. Colt M1911A1. 45. Doesn’t hold a lot of rounds. Seven in the magazine, with an extra in the chamber.” He spoke with authority over and above her right. He was just loud enough to hear through the ear mufflers. “Still probably heavier than you’d like. If you can actually hit the target today, maybe we’ll look into a Glock or 9mm.” He chuckled. “Plant those feet steady.” His hands shifted along the curve of her hips and twisted them. “Face the target head on. Raise the gun and lock your arms to start. Cup the grip. Good. Now, up to a comfortable level so you can stare straight down the sight. Then, your eyes just follow where your hands move the gun. Aim for the middle of the chest. Think you’ve got it?”
His fingers sunk into the flesh of her hips, holding tight. His warm breath skirted through her hair. “Think so.” She inhaled and held her breath.
“Do the close one eye thing if you think it helps to zero in. Then, keep all your energy in your grip, let that breath out, relax the rest of your body, and shoot.”
The air released. She heard him whisper.
“You’ve got this.”
Julie pulled the trigger.