CASTLES IN THE SAND: A Dom & Jaime Short Story
(Amour et Chocolat Series)
by Laura Florand
In the dark, the waves hushed against the beach, like some poor man’s lullaby. Oh, did your mother leave you? You can have this to rock you to sleep instead, the general public assistance lullaby, provided by the universe.
You didn’t even have to fill out a damn form, answer questions, show your bruises, get pulled into foster care. You just showed up on the sand at night. Sat there. Took it in.
Dom rubbed that sand, its wet grains temptingly tactile. Something about it just made a man want to sink his hands in and see what he could make of it.
So he did that, a big fistful, squeezing his fingers around it and spreading them to see the marks of those fingers in the clumps breaking apart in his palm.
The moon shone down on him, nearly full, playing over the sand in his palm. If he was a cat, he’d try to catch it and hold it.
Such a vivid, brilliant moon, here so far from the bright lights of Paris, that it could almost light a path all the way through the darkness of his past to some innocent, light-filled moment when he was born and every beautiful thing was possible for him.
His mother’s face formed in that round orb of light, the way she may have looked down at him at his birth, all shiny and hopeful. Go away. His hand fisted on the sand again, knocking the light from his palm. You left me, now leave me alone.
The light stroked over his knuckles instead, impossible to knock away.
He turned his back on the moon, letting it cast his shadow over the beach. Shadow on shadow. Jaime was crazy to involve herself with someone who had so much shadow, there was no getting around it.
But she acted so sane. As if tucking herself into his arms was the sanest thing a woman could ever do.
He shook his head and plunged his hand into the sand again. It slid free of his palm in chunks and loose grains of wet sand when he angled his hand.
He’d never built a sandcastle. Not ever. He’d driven his motorcycle once out to Brittany to see the ocean for the first time, felt lonely and stupid, and driven back the same day.
But Jaime was asleep right now in their rented bungalow. She was the one who’d come up with this vacation, because she wanted to give him the ocean. He might be acting stupid still, but he wasn’t lonely.
And yet…there was a part of him that felt lonely still. Because…Jaime loved him and thought he was beautiful. She looked at him, and she saw the sun. She said he warmed her all through.
And all of those things helped make it true. He was more beautiful when she looked at him. He was a better man. The best man he could be.
No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d already been trying to be the best man he could be before he ever met her. But when she looked at him, he felt like that best man.
And that was a wonderful feeling.
But the bottom line was that the buck stopped with him. Not with her.
Whether he was a good man or a bad man, whether he channeled anger and violence in the right directions and never in the wrong, whether he lived up to that belief in her eyes or failed it, whether he could be a good husband and even, one day, a good father…all of that depended on him. Not on her.
She would help, and that help would be invaluable. But he had to do it.
His hands moved in the sand, almost without conscious thought, working it like a stress ball, shaping it like nearly set chocolate. It didn’t respond at all the same way as chocolate, but he liked the texture of it in his hands, liked the shape of the wall he was patting up out of it.
A sandcastle. His lips curved faintly, as they did sometimes when he woke to find Jaime’s hand curled loosely over some part of his body to keep in touch with him no matter what position her sleep tossed her into. He was building a sandcastle.
There in the dark of the night, with the tide coming in. A big man, fully grown, twenty-nine years old. Engaged.
He flexed his sand-coated fingers out to gaze at the simple, elegant platinum band. His engagement ring. The curve of his lips deepened, even as his heart beat with that warm, helpless strength the way it did whenever he looked at that ring. It looked awfully like a wedding ring. No woman who came into his shop would ever have been able to tell the difference.
Not that most of the ones who tried to flirt with him seemed to care whether he was married or not, but he didn’t tell Jaime that. It would bother her. He could just ignore those flirting women—he’d never had the slightest trouble brushing threats to what was precious to him back, and they were lucky they were women and so got brusque indifference instead of something more aggressive. But Jaime would get upset, would maybe even feel vulnerable and wonder if he would ever be tempted.
So he just spared her that, as much as he could. He didn’t want her to ever feel vulnerable about him. He was her safety, her shelter, her protection, her heat, her source of strength. That was the essence of everything he wanted to be for her.
Even if sometimes he really did feel like a damn sandcastle with the tide coming in.
He built the walls higher. Pressed his fingers carefully along the edges to make some battlements. Gazed down at the waves stretching their foam up the beach and started digging a moat.
“Pretty,” said a soft voice, and he looked up, startled.
Jaime sat high on the dry sand, in the yoga pants and cami top she slept in, her arms hugging her knees against the chill of the night air.
He sat back onto his heels, running a hand through his hair and getting sand on his forehead and doubtless in his hair in the process, flustered. “How long have you been here?”
“Sorry,” she murmured, her voice pitched gently, as if she didn’t want to disrupt the peace of the waves. “I didn’t want to disturb you. It’s so beautiful.”
He smiled, his heart easing just to have her here, sharing this night with him. “It is,” he agreed. Now. The first time he had seen a beach it had been lonely, but this second time, with her, he had realized that the edge of the ocean was one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Now, with the moon gilding the water, it was fucking gorgeous.
She smiled, her hair colorless in the moonlight, her freckles undetectable. “I meant you in it.” She gestured. “This big man building a sandcastle on the beach in the moonlight. It’s beautiful.”
He flushed a little. She always did say that about him.
It never really got old.
He dusted off his hands and came up the beach to her.
She rose to meet him, and he pulled her into his arms to warm her up. She nestled in, seeking more body heat.
Yeah. He always had plenty of that.
“Can I help?” she asked.
“Oh, my God, you help just by breathing,” he muttered.
Her arms went around him, and she squeezed him very hard, just as hard as he liked it. Her head lifted from his chest, so that he could see the sudden shimmer in her eyes. “I meant with the sandcastle,” she said gently. “But I love you, too.”
Yeah. God, but he loved those words.
“The tide’s coming in,” he said.
She smiled up at him. “It’s a sandcastle, Dominique. Letting it get washed away is just part of the game. It wipes the beach all clean so you can build a new one tomorrow.”
Hunh. Must be kind of nice to be a beach.
Just…washed clean like that. New. Pure. Anyone could make anything out of you that they wanted. As long as they didn’t mind letting what they made get washed away.
“I’m not very like a beach,” he mentioned.
She laughed a little and shook her head. “I noticed.” She rose on tiptoe to kiss him.
Hell, but he loved getting kisses. Just these random kisses, out of the blue, as if all kinds of things he did were lovable that he couldn’t even quite grasp. Like he was lovable just by existing.
Sometimes, he really worried Jaime had gotten hit too hard on the head. He rubbed his hand over her head at the thought, the heel of his palm gentle against her scar, his fingers sinking into her hair. Her hair was long enough these days that she had had it cut in this elegant reverse wedge that framed her freckles in a crazily erotic way, at least as far as he was concerned.
“You really want to build a sandcastle together?” he asked.
“Yeah.” She linked her fingers with his much bigger ones. “I really do. It would be fun.”
“It would be beautiful,” she said.
Really? His fingers squeezed hers.
And late into the night, they built a sandcastle. They created a massive hill, and they built a tunnel into it and managed to make it all the way through without it collapsing. They found shells and posed them as coats of arms and decorations. They made flags out of bits of seagrass and seaweed.
They dug a giant moat around it as the foam reached toward its base.
A sudden larger wave splashed over them, filling the moat and eating a tiny bit of the base away.
Jaime laughed, grabbing Dom’s hand, and pulling him up the beach above the tide line. “And now we watch! Oh, take a picture, take a picture!” She dug in his jeans pocket for his phone, not having her own on her.
She got photos of the sandcastle, as a few low waves rolled in, not yet reaching it again.
“Can you get us both?” she asked, and he pulled her in tight and held out the phone in his long arm, the two of them crouching together with the sandcastle as their backdrop.
They got one, and then another, just as another big wave splashed up behind them.
Jaime laughed again, and ran forward away from the water. Dom turned, his bare feet in the cool water foaming away from him. He glared at the ocean, fists tightening.
Jaime came back and caught one of those fists. “Going to fight back the tide?” she teased.
“It’s taking our sandcastle!”
She opened his fist, lifted his palm to her lips, and kissed it. “Let’s watch. I love this part.”
Sometimes his fiancée was a little nuts. “We should have built it above the tideline.”
“The sand’s not wet enough up there.” She slipped her arm around his waist and leaned against his side. “Ooh, here comes a big one!” And a few seconds later, squeezing his waist triumphantly: “Ha, it held! The wall held!”
“Not for long.” Dom tightened his hand on her waist.
“Here comes another one! Oh, no!” But she was laughing as the wall came crumbling down.
He looked down at her. Full of happiness and play, she was totally unthreatened by the tide, confident that her happiness would not be washed away by the world. “It’s a game?” he checked.
The closest he ever usually came to games was when he played at beating his rival chefs. And he was a really, really sore loser.
Not that he let himself lose much.
He was practically related to Sylvain at this point, and he still wanted to punch his nearly-brother-in-law in the nose whenever some random newspaper decided that Sylvain’s chocolates were number one in Paris and Dom’s were number two. Some journalists were just idiots.
Sylvain didn’t like it so much when Dom’s were picked number one and his were number two either, though, Dom thought with a small, mean grin.
“It’s a game,” Jaime said. “It’s fun. It’s cathartic, you know? There’s nothing like building a sandcastle and then watching it get washed away by the ocean.”
“Kind of like making something out of chocolate?” he guessed. “And watching it get eaten.”
“Yep. But even more ephemeral and just for us. Just for fun. Because it makes us happy.”
Happy. Dom’s thumb rubbed possessively over her hipbone. “You’re happy?” He liked to double-check that from time to time.
She smiled and angled her head up. “I love you,” she said firmly as an answer.
Well, hell. Maybe he could get into this sandcastle stuff. Maybe it was exactly as joyous and full of life and play as he had always hoped it would be, as a child wishing he, too, could go to the beach.
“That wave’s going to get the wall! I bet you a dollar,” Jaime said.
“Lousy exchange rate on the dollar,” Dom said. “I’d rather bet a kiss.”
She grinned up at him, her face so full of energy and pleasure. All for him. Due to him. “Talk about a win-win situation. I’ll take that bet.”
When she lost, they couldn’t quite figure out who owed whom the kiss and who was paying up, so Dom stole two kisses to make sure all debts were paid.
And by the time that all that was left of the sandcastle was a valiant but slumping mound from the massive hill they had made, Dom was braced over Jaime in the sand, kissing her no matter who won or lost. He couldn’t help laughing with his own happiness, but in between the laughter, like waves coming back, were these great, powerful surges of seriousness, this vast, vast seriousness that seemed to stretch all the way to another continent and plumb untold depths and hide inside it intense, dark currents.
“So how am I doing?” he asked, on a wave of it. “As a boyfriend, I mean. It’s been a little over a year.”
“Aggravating.” Jaime curved her hands around his neck. “Stubborn. Impossible.” She gave his big shoulders a tiny shake. That shake didn’t move them at all, which made her grip his shoulders and try to shake them in earnest and then frown at him in mock severity when she couldn’t.
“I love you,” he said, rather helplessly, as that laughing, joyous happiness surged back again, blending with the seriousness.
“I know you do, you idiot.” She slid her arms more fully around him and arching her head for another kiss. “That’s what’s so annoying.”
He sighed, settling his weight a little more on her just for the pleasure of having her pinned under him, of feeling that slimness under his body. “So I have a question for you,” he said very softly.
She waited, interested, listening.
He found her left hand, ran his thumb over her engagement ring. “Will you marry me?”
He could feel himself flushing, but fortunately, it was night.
“Oh,” Jaime said softly. A breath in. “Oh.” Another breath. “Oh.”
Each oh reverberated in him, like an echo in a vast chamber of joy. Like a so much more personal, so much more caressing lullaby than the sea. He slid his arms under her in the sand, scooping her up closer.
“Oh, it makes me so happy that you asked,” Jaime whispered, her eyes shimmering. And then the tears spilled over. “Oh, but you know I will.”
She always thought he knew that. And he never, entirely, one hundred percent, did. Mostly because it was such a crazy thing for her to want to do.
“Pretty…pretty soon?” he asked, while butterflies flew out of his stomach and all through his body, right down to his toes and his fingertips. “Maybe, I don’t know…however long it takes to get a dress and invite guests and all that, but…soon?”
She didn’t say anything to him about how he was the one who had originally wanted to wait four years. Reproaches and I-told-you-so’s weren’t Jaime’s style at all. She just looked radiant. “A few months? September? Or we could elope.”
Eloping sounded nice. But… “No,” he said. “Let’s do the guest thing. Let’s have all your family there. Let’s do it…right.” Firm. Definite. A public declaration of lifetime commitment. We’re here. Together. No tide in the world can touch us. “With your father there.” Yeah. He didn’t get along with Mack Corey but that man was solid. Dom wanted him to witness it, to be at Jaime’s back. “And your sister.” Merde. “I guess that means Sylvain, too.”
Jaime laughed through her tears. “You sure you don’t want him as your best man?”
Dom drew back, horrified. “No.” That would formalize a mutual support that both of them would far rather stay unadmitted. He thought about it a second. He’d forgotten that whole best man, maid of honor thing they did in her culture. But it was kind of like the témoins in France. “Célie can be my best man. Or Luc, if you think it has to be a man. Célie will probably cry, and Luc quite definitely won’t.”
Luc would do it for him, wouldn’t he? After all, Dom had gone down to Provence to help Luc get his head back on straight when the other chef nearly had a nervous breakdown over discovering he was going to be a father.
Ironic job for Dom to take on, but maybe Luc would return that favor to him one day, too. He caught his breath, unnerved even to contemplate the moment when he might need the return of that favor.
Jaime smiled. “Make it Célie. She’s kind of been your right hand person for years now, hasn’t she?”
He thought a little more. “I don’t know who else we’ll find to be guests on my side,” he finally said.
Jaime smiled slowly, squeezing her hands behind his neck. “I do.”
In the lukewarm late afternoon in September, Dom knelt on the beach, plunging his hand into damp sand, packing it into the shape of a wall.
“You set it too low,” Sylvain called, and Dom looked up, frowning to discover his annoying black-haired chocolatier-poet of a soon-to-be brother-in-law heading down from the boardwalk over the dunes. Where the hell had he come from? “The tide will wash it out in the night.”
“Don’t you have something to do back at the beach house?” Dom asked. “Shave? Get your nails done? You’ve got a wedding to go to tomorrow.”
“My nails done?” Sylvain asked dryly. He flopped down on the beach near Dom’s sandcastle. “That’s what all the women are doing.”
Yeah, Dom knew. He’d lost Jaime to this mass of femininity, all the women busy getting pampered. Even his chocolatier Célie had gotten looped into this mass of giggling girls. It disconcerted him. Almost none of the women involved giggled when taken separately, nor could be qualified as girls. What was this strange female bonding thing that happened, that seemed to create this force field of laughter and silliness around them that no man could penetrate?
It would have been a lot more reassuring to have Jaime to himself. When it was just the two of them, she made sense, and in doing so, she made sense of him. That old idea of eloping to Papua New Guinea sounded better every minute.
“Don’t you have even a bucket or anything to work with?” Sylvain asked, picking up a fistful of sand.
“Weren’t you and Luc busy in the kitchens trying to outdo each other in sculptures for the wedding?” Dom had thought he had the beach to himself.
“Anne threatened to murder us if we set one foot in her kitchens while she was getting her nails done. Given all she’s taking on for these wedding preparations, we didn’t want to give her even more of a hard time.”
“You mean you’re scared of her?”
Sylvain grinned. “Mack’s a brave man.”
Dom snorted. “Not that brave, or he’d have done something about it by now.” It put a whole new perspective on Mack Corey, to see the way that man looked at Anne Winters when Anne wasn’t watching. Gave Dom a little point of victory against the old conquer-the-world billionaire. I went after your daughter a hell of a lot faster than that.
Sylvain grinned wickedly. “Think I should give him tips?”
Dom almost grinned himself. That would be pretty damn hilarious, Sylvain giving Mack Corey tips on how to flirt with women. Hell, he’d pay good money to see that.
He bit the grin back quickly before Sylvain could see it and start thinking Dom was going soft on him or anything. “Sure. Go do that and let me think. I mean, there are so many other people besides me whom you can drive crazy in this world.”
Leave him alone and let him think about…weddings, and what they meant. About his past, and what he was promising to be for all his future. The slide of sand over his fingers made him—
“We brought you some proper tools,” Patrick said, dropping onto the sand a huge plastic basket full of an enormous collection of smaller buckets and shovels and plastic molds shaped like starfish and turrets. Dom glanced up at the golden-haired chef, shirtless despite the September cool, sand on his torso. Rimmed in light by the setting sun, Patrick seemed in his natural element, there on the beach. Beside him, his black-haired former chef—now his co-chef—Luc hefted a proper shovel, not one of those plastic things but one made out of solid wood and metal.
“Now that’s a tool,” Sylvain said, sitting up. “A man could actually do something with that. Where did you find it?”
“The shed up at the start of the boardwalk.” As Sylvain jogged back up the beach to find more tools, Dom started to give Patrick an approving look at having gotten rid of the other man.
Premature. Patrick had angled his golden head, trying to take in Dom’s start of a wall. “So do you have a concept here I’m missing or…?”
Dom looked down at his wall. His hands, in the act of patting some shape out of the sand, were covered with the wet grains of it, so that old scars were half-hidden. “I was trying to think,” he said severely.
“On the night before your wedding? Are you out of your mind? Let’s start bigger,” Patrick said and paced two long strides away. “How about here?” Patrick asked Luc, as if it wasn’t even Dom’s damn castle, as if Patrick and Luc were just automatically in charge of anything they saw.
“On my own! I was trying to think on my own!”
Luc matched Patrick’s strides to the other side of the castle, surveyed the space between them with the same cool assessing black gaze he might use to survey a sculptural challenge in the kitchens, and nodded, thrusting his shovel into the ground.
Dom looked from his little wall, the size of a few pats of his hands, to their four-meter spread. Hold on now. He did not like how wimpy his sandcastle attempt looked next to the thrust of that shovel. He’d just been engaging in a moment of poetic brooding, merde, not trying to compete with the entire world for who could make the biggest and best sandcastle.
“What are you doing?” he growled.
“A moat.” Luc tossed the shovel of sand inside the circle. “Here. For your walls.”
“I know!” Patrick said. “Let’s make Mont St. Michel!”
“I was just—” Dom broke off. If his rival chefs were going to make Mont St. Michel, he’d be damned if he’d admit that he was just making a tiny child’s sandcastle while he thought, so he could remember that night he’d formally proposed to Jaime, how washed clean and ready for anything he had felt.
“Mont St. Michel,” Luc said dryly. “Out of sand.” He reached down and lifted a handful of the sand he had turned up with his shovel. Intense, controlled, elegant, arrogant Luc gazed at the sand a moment, shifting it in his fingers, a very curious expression crossing his face.
And suddenly Dom realized that Luc had never made a sandcastle either. Even though he now lived above a beach, he would never have let himself act like a child. And as a child, he never would have had the opportunity.
He pretended like he was a sandcastle expert, cheerfully going through the plastic molds in the basket, but that didn’t mean a damn thing, with Patrick.
Damn, Dom might have to let them help with the sandcastle as his civic duty. Luc had a baby due in only five more months. Those good dads you saw in stories and on TV always knew how to build sandcastles. Hell, Dom had even seen some actual real dads doing it farther down the beach earlier with their kids. As if they existed, good dads. And a man could actually be one.
Sylvain returned, having picked up two more people, Gabriel and Philippe, all of them carrying two shovels each. If they’d raided Anne Winters’ gardening shed, Dom sure as hell hoped they were the ones who had to explain themselves to her, not him.
Gabriel stopped just above the beginnings of the four-meter long moat, his hands on his hips, wind catching his streaked brown hair. “Thinking small?” he asked, disappointed.
“What have we got to work with?” Philippe asked, studying the forms.
“I was trying to think,” Dom tried again. By himself. Trying to build his effigy maybe, for the sea. You can have this. You can’t have Jaime and me.
Patrick patted him on the head. “Don’t do that. It’s not your best skill.”
Dom sat back on his heels and glared up at Patrick incredulously.
Luc bit back a grin. Nice to see Luc grinning more easilly these days than he ever had before. Even if it was over how annoying his old sous-chef was.
“How do you put up with him again?” Dom asked Luc.
“Patience,” Luc said. “Lots and lots of patience.”
“A Vauban fortress,” Gabriel said. “That’s what we should do. But none of this tiny stuff. We can sketch it out to here.” He took two long strides past the point Patrick had made, adding another fifty percent to the width.
Dom put his hands on his hips. “A Vauban fortress,” he said dryly. But he was starting to get a vision—great walls of sand in the shape of a star.
There were six of them. They could do this. Hell, he could make the Victoire de Samothrace entirely by himself out of chocolate. He didn’t need help.
A couple more men strolled down the beach together—Joss, Célie’s Legionnaire, and a man a little older than they were, nearing forty, but his hair still black. Christian Lacour, the long-suffering chocolatier who had been inflicted with the job of coaching Dom, Sylvain, Philippe, and Luc in their first international chocolate and pastry competition, as a junior team chosen to represent France, and a few years later coached Célie’s team, the first all female team to represent France. Dom didn’t know how much Célie’s team had tried Christian’s patience, but he knew damn well how bad Sylvain and Philippe had been. Okay, and himself. They’d been teenagers or just barely out of their teens, full of testosterone and completely lacking in impulse control. And still Christian hadn’t killed any of them. So these days…well, they realized how much they owed Christian and invited him to their weddings. Where he evilly mentioned that it was getting to be their turn to coach some of these junior teams and he was going to put them forward to the committee.
Christian might have a vindictive streak. Either that or he just held this particular grudge a very long time.
“What’s this?” Christian asked as he and Joss stopped above the beginning fortress.
So then they had eight.
And about half an hour later, when Mack Corey showed up and saw the massive walls rising, the gray-haired billionaire grinned and started building trenches and sand siege engines to attack it. So then they had nine.
Joss began to set up snipers in the form of shells and bits of grass on the fortress walls, in complete discord with the time period this fortress belonged to.
“Archer sniper positions,” Joss said. “And we’ll have these men out here escorting a civilian convoy of foreign aid in…”
And then, when they had it nearly done, the women poured down from their manicure session like schoolkids bursting to freedom. “No fair! Why do you get to have all the fun?”
Maybe building sandcastles was fine for a fresh manicure and maybe it wasn’t. Dom had never cared in the first place whether Jaime’s nails looked perfect when he slid his ring on her hand—in fact, it kind of scared him, when she started looking too perfect—and he’d far rather she crouch inside his great walls, making garden plots inside to nourish the troops under siege, grinning at him over the walls.
He ran out of time to brood, to be honest. That brooding just got…dissipated out to everywhere. No room for it left, amid all this laughter and competitiveness and support.
And when the whole group of them were cheering and taking photos and toasting beers to the sandcastle as it fought against the waves at midnight that night…
“You’ve got a good group of friends,” Jaime murmured, squeezing his hand.
Dom flushed a little. Below them, his “best woman” and chocolatier Célie was challenging Sylvain over which of them had constructed the tower that was holding out the longest against the waves.
He wanted to say something like, “Friends? These guys?” Something defensive and aggressive, to prove he didn’t need friends, that he fought his way to the top of the heap by himself and to hell with the world that hadn’t helped him, that hadn’t loved him, that hadn’t wanted him. That he was Dominique Richard. No support needed.
But he couldn’t. Because, well…here they were. Having flown all the way across the Atlantic in most cases, with their girlfriends or their wives, or in Célie’s case with her boyfriend, to be at his wedding.
“Yeah,” he said instead, and cleared his throat. “I guess I do.”
Jaime smiled up at him. He looked down at her hand which, in only fourteen more hours now, would wear his ring.
“You’re happy?” He just had to double-check.
She smiled. “I love you,” she said firmly as an answer.
© 2015, Laura Florand