A Stories from the Shore Book
A second chance for romance plunges them into deep waters—without love’s lifeline, they’re sunk.
Anthony Vallen is the life of any party. Full of energy and fun, Anthony adores romance and enjoys playing matchmaker for his friends while dancing the night away with a series of Mr. Right Nows. But he’s given up on his own happy ending. A bad breakup years ago made him a secret cynic about love… until he runs into Walter Elkins—the boy who broke his teenaged heart—on a scuba-diving vacation in Key West. Suddenly, Anthony’s reasons for shunning romance no longer hold much water. Being with Walter again forces Anthony to get serious—about himself, his worth, and his heart’s desires.
Brilliant and self-contained, scientist Walter Elkins prefers deep thoughts to other people. He’s a good boss and a model citizen, but Walter doesn’t let anyone get close. After a tragedy drove him out of his science career, Walter landed in Key West and became owner of a dive shop and a bar. Things are fine until Anthony Vallen—the only person who ever penetrated his defenses—shows up, and Walter’s calm, controlled life capsizes. He and Anthony have a second chance for love, but Walter must confront the old fears that threaten to torpedo their happiness.
- 2 To Be Read lists
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Heat Level: 4
Romantic Content: 5
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: 26-35
Tropes: Bad Breakup, Beach Romance, Love Can Heal / Redemption, Reunited and it Feels So Good, Second Chances, Uncommunicative Masculinity
Word Count: 67,000
Setting: USA, Florida, Key West
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Same Universe / Various Characters
I NEVER expected to find my second chance for love in a dive bar in Key West.
I was there on vacation with my cousin Jonathan and his awesomely hunky husband Marco. I take full credit for their relationship, by the way. If I hadn’t made up fake names and pushed Jonny to be his best self on that LGBTQ cruise last year, he’d still be hiding out on Cape Cod instead of married to the catch of the century. To be honest, I could never have imagined either me or Jonny snagging Marco Pellegrini. He was several rungs above both of us in sheer looks and accomplishments. But sweet? The man was a pussycat inside. Leave it to my equally sweet cousin to discover the real Marco and make him his. It was enough to make my inner romantic vomit rainbows and roses.READ MORE
Anyway, we were taking a much-needed vacay after working our butts off on the Pellegrini-Vallen Foundation for LGBTQ youth that we’d founded back in March, and Marco wanted to take Jonny scuba diving. I wasn’t averse to tagging along, even though I had no plans to strap an oxygen tank on my back and sink like a stone into the ocean deeps. No, thank you!
Sophia, Marco’s kickass sister, was with us. Some schmuck in New York had broken up with her, and I persuaded her to come along to keep me company and be my dancing partner. And besides, my heart could use a little shoring up too. Not because of some vile man, mind you—I never let anyone get close enough to hurt—but because I was facing the worst thing in the world in a few short weeks. My thirtieth birthday. The day I was to officially become decrepit and be forced to confront my life choices and wasted youth.
WE’D DUMPED our luggage off at our oceanfront condo, rented by the awesome Marco, and walked to Cap’n Otto’s, reportedly a great bar and made even greater by the fact that it wasn’t in Old Town where the tourists flocked, but was close to where we were staying. It was the beginning of October—early in the season—but the place was hopping. As we sashayed in, a collection of watercolors on the walls caught my eye and I stopped to check them out. All local artists. Whoever owned this place obviously was a patron of the arts, and as a would-be artist myself, I approved.
Despite it being outside of the tourist zone, Cap’n Otto’s had clearly been discovered by Key West’s LGBTQ contingent. Sophia had gravitated to the small dance floor, which was crowded with a motley assortment of mostly gay guys. I jumped right into the middle of things, shaking my booty—nicely showcased in tight canary yellow shorts, the color tying in deliciously with my tropical shirt covered in pink, blue, and yellow flowers. I looked cute, if I did say so myself. (And I did. Frequently.)
As Sophia and I boogied, I became aware of a guy shimmying near us, mostly because he was drop-dead gorgeous. His brown curls, sensitive features, and full lips were straight out of a painting by Botticelli, while his body was made of sin. His immaculate makeup (eyeliner, lip gloss) created an alluring feminine-masculine blend. As I stared, he caught my eye and threw me a lethal smile complete with some eyelash fluttering. I beamed in return, then resolutely turned my back on Baby Temptress, as I’d already dubbed him. Too young, too beautiful. He’d use me up and wear me out, then drop me like an over-the-hill anvil. Best not to even start.
Still, I couldn’t help glancing over at him as he gyrated into my peripheral vision. He smiled at my cavorting and ran his eyes over my body in blatant appreciation. When I shook my head at him, he laughed outright. Cheeky little bugger. I surrendered and shimmied closer. By that time, Sophia had left to order us drinks.
Soon, Botticelli Boy and I were matching moves. I tend to be a maniac on the dance floor, and this kid was keeping up. My fantasies of licking the sweat off his neck were interrupted by a shout from the bar.
My young admirer snapped out of his attempts at seduction and scowled in the direction of the voice. “All right, already!” He turned back to me. “Gotta go. My boring boss is putting me to work. What’s your name?”
“Anthony. And you’re Miles?”
“Yep. Will you be around for a while?”
“Good.” Miles gave me a dazzling smile that was more sin than angel and headed off toward the bar.
I followed his shapely form until Sophia was standing in front of me holding out a mai tai. “Getting right into the swim of things, I see.” She raised her eyebrows and glanced significantly in the direction Miles had gone.
“Nope. Too young.”
Sophia and I danced more, joined by Jonathan and Marco. Miles seemed to have disappeared completely, which was just as well. After a few more songs, Marco and Sophia went in pursuit of mudslides, a drink we’d all become addicted to on the cruise, while Jonny and I hit the head.
“Happy?” I asked Jonny as we were coming out of the restroom. It was a rhetorical question. Jonathan and Marco emitted enough joy vibes to light up the planet.
“Yes. And you don’t have to say it for the millionth time—I have you to thank.”
“Exactly. Let’s go drink a mudslide.”
“Hurry up, you two!” That was our ever-impatient Marco, always wanting to move things along.
“Keep your pants on, Pellegrini!” I called back as Jonathan laughed.
Two bartenders were working that night—a guy and a girl. I figured the guy must be Miles’s “boring boss.” As we reached the bar, I caught a glimpse of his thick dark hair and well-built body displayed nicely in tank top and shorts, but I didn’t recognize him until I saw his profile up close. I knew that nose and those lips. I’d know them anywhere. He turned, and his eyes met mine. For an interminable moment, he stared at me. Then he turned away abruptly, busying himself with the cash register on the back wall.
I clutched Jonathan’s arm and dragged him backward several steps.
“What gives?” Jonathan cast me an indulgent smile, used to my dramatic reactions.
“Look at the bartender,” I hissed.
“Huh?” Jonathan squinted over at the bar. “Who?”
“The bartender at the end. The guy. I think it’s Walter.”
“Walter? Who’s Walter?”
I wanted to slap him. Who’s Walter? Only my first (and last) true love. Only the boy who’d broken every tiny bit of my seventeen-year-old heart—smashed it to smithereens and then stomped all over it for good measure. Only the reason why, despite being a cheerleader for romance, I was alone, always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
“Walter Elkins, you fool,” I whispered. “From Franklin Prep?” Jonny’s blank expression made me want to murder him. “The first guy I ever—”
Marco and Sophia were ordering our drinks from the other bartender, a tough tattooed gal. Walter (if it really was him—I was praying I’d been mistaken) turned away to pull some draft beers, and I saw my chance for escape.
“Oh God, let’s get out of here.” I tugged on Jonathan’s arm. Even hanging around for Miles the Cutie wasn’t worth the sheer humiliation of coming face-to-face with my past.
Jonathan peered at the bar. “How can you be sure it’s him? Hasn’t it been, like, ten years?”
“Twelve, to be exact, but who’s counting?”
Marco turned and called to us. “Jonathan! Anthony! Mudslides await you!”
Shit, shit, shit. Marco would have to use our names at that exact moment. Walter wasn’t likely to recognize Jonathan, who’d left his nerdy persona behind over a year ago, but I looked pretty much exactly as I always had, even in twelfth grade. Blond, tall, skinny, and flamboyant as hell. I was sure Walter had recognized me in those few seconds our eyes had met. And was now ignoring me, giving me a sick sense of history repeating itself.
Sophia said something to Marco in her animated way, music pounded out of the speakers, Jonathan nudged me forward, and I was done. Dead meat. Crocodile fodder. My ghost was wafting to the bar behind which stood Walter Elkins, because the rest of me was disappearing into the worst memories of my life.
A PERSISTENT beeping dragged me to consciousness from a dark and dreamless void. I tried to open my eyes, but it felt like two large stones were sitting on my eyelids. The last thing I remembered was sinking under the water in the river where Walter and I had been swimming, my foot caught on a root.
I’m dead, and hell makes a beeping sound. Just my luck.
“Tony. Come on, wake up.”
Jonathan? What’s he doing here in hell? He never does anything wrong.
“Baby, open your eyes.”
Mom. Crying, as usual. I guess I’m alive after all.
“Anthony, you’re in the hospital, but you’re okay. You’re gonna pull through this, kiddo.”
Okay, Dad, if you say so.
I waited. Waited some more. There was one person whose voice I wasn’t hearing. Where was Walter?
Oh, Lord. He’d been with me at the river. Holy crap, was he…?
I finally got my eyelids to open. My parents and Jonny were peering at me. As they leaned down for a hug, Mom getting my hospital gown damp with her tears, I had only one thing to say—in a raspy croak that barely sounded human.
Walter Elkins and I had become lovers ten months earlier, after a valiant, hard-fought campaign on my part to win him. It was a mission I had dedicated myself to the first day I met him in senior chemistry class at Franklin Prep. We were assigned lab partners, and when I beheld the dark, brooding hunk with the glasses and the broad shoulders, I knew… just knew in my tingly parts that Walter Elkins was to be mine.
We were each other’s firsts, and it was magical. At least I thought so, but I’m prone to seeing magic where there is none. Walter’s taciturn silences I decided meant he was a genius who was thinking deep thoughts. His almost pathological shyness didn’t daunt me—I talked enough for the two of us plus all our family and friends. I interpreted every minute shift of expression and read worlds into the few words he managed to spit out in a day. He loved me! After all, I—Anthony Vallen—and I alone had overcome his defenses.
“Where’s Walter?” I repeated to my family, who seemed caught in a frozen tableau at the words—Mom sniffling, Jonny biting his lip, and Dad clearing his throat. Fear clutched me. “Is he okay? He didn’t get hurt, right? Ohmigod—”
“He’s okay,” Mom said and wiped under her eyes. “You need to recover, not worry about Walter right now.”
So… where was he? I kept glancing around the hospital room, half expecting to see Walter pop out from a corner, or come back in with the cup of coffee he was forever drinking, or emerge from the bathroom.
“H-he… he took off,” Jonny supplied. His voice sounded funny. I peered at him, trying to decipher his tone, but Jonny’s hair was in his face as usual, obscuring his expression.
I sank back on my pillow, depleted, and closed my eyes. Walter was fine. He probably had things to do, and I’d see him the next time I woke up.
Only I didn’t. He wasn’t there when I opened my eyes again. He wasn’t there hours later when I was released from the hospital, Mom clucking and fussing over me and Dad helping me into the car like I was an invalid. He wasn’t there the whole last week of summer before he and I were due to start college as roommates. And when I got to the dorm room, it wasn’t Walter filling the closet with Walter stuff. It was some other guy who’d been moved in at the last minute because Walter had called the college to say he wouldn’t be attending.
Walter Elkins had simply vanished. Oh, he did send one terse email apologizing for making me go swimming with him that day and saying he’d had to leave on a family vacation. He added a PS that mystified me: I’m not good for you. It was my fault you almost drowned. I’m sorry and I don’t want to hurt you anymore.
That was insane! It was so not Walter’s fault, and I was frantic with the need to disabuse him of his ridiculous notions. I stalked him incessantly and pestered him with calls, emails, postcards, and singing telegrams until he finally broke down and agreed to see me.
On that day I sat on my dorm room bed, not sure if my queasiness was from the vibrations of my endlessly jiggling legs or the fact that I was about to see Walter for the first time since the accident. The hands on the clock Mom had given me for my bedstand advanced slowly, the clicking of the second hand sounding loud in the silence. I’d sent my roommate away for the afternoon so the coast would be clear. I’d thought about telling him not to come back until tomorrow but decided that was overly optimistic, especially since I couldn’t believe Walter had even agreed to see me. I was half expecting him not to show.
Footsteps sounded, and I stood abruptly, almost falling back on the bed as I overbalanced. Pulling myself together, I waited. After a long pause, a light tap came, so light as to be almost inaudible. Kind of like Walter himself. Two strides took me to yanking open the door. Walter hovered in the hallway, head bowed, hands clenched at his sides. I backed up, suddenly overwhelmed with a wave of anger, sadness, and fear.
“Come in,” I managed to say before my throat closed up.
He shuffled in, still not meeting my eyes, and came to a halt in the middle of the floor. I’d sworn to myself I wouldn’t cry, that I would retain my dignity and have a mature conversation in which Walter would realize he’d made a mistake and… fuck, who was I kidding? One sight of him and my stupid eyes were overflowing.
“Why did you leave like that? Why haven’t you talked to me?”
He stared a hole into the carpet and mumbled something. One thing about Walter—he was great at being stoic. My irresistible force had no impact on Walter-as-immovable-object. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
I wrapped my arms around my middle to keep from shaking him. “What? What did you say?” Then I rolled on, not waiting for an answer, burning with the need to talk now that I finally had him in front of me. “What happened that was so bad that you’d just stop everything between us? How could you do that? Why would you do that? I almost died, and you left me!” Shutting my mouth on the flood of words, I waited, willing him to lift his head and fricking look at me.
He gazed at his feet. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? That’s all you have to say? We… we were together! I love you! You said you loved me! And after all that, you don’t even come to see me in the hospital after I almost drowned—”
He lifted his head. “What? I—”
“—you drop out of sight, don’t come to college, and send me some cryptic message about not being good for me? What kind of bullshit is that?” I stopped and wiped fresh tears from my eyes.
“Anthony, I…. I can’t do this. I meant it when I said I’m not good for you.”
“What does that mean? I don’t understand! You’ve always been good to me, you’ve been a great boyfriend. We didn’t fight, we had fun, and I… I never thought you would want to end things.” I grabbed a tissue and blew my nose. “Is there someone else? Is that it?”
His eyes grew round with shock. “No! Of course not!”
“Then why?” By this time I was crying so hard my body shook, and I dropped the tissue on the floor.
Walter finally moved, taking my hands and drawing me to sit next to him on the bed. I buried my face in his shoulder and wept as he held me gingerly. “I hate that you’re so upset. I’m sorry. I do love you.” He tightened his arm around me, then withdrew it altogether. “But I need to let you go. I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”
I lifted my head. “What—” It came out as a croak. Clearing my throat, I tried again. “What do you think you’re doing to me right now?”
His eyes were so sad. “I’m trying to keep you safe.” He got up. “I need to go now. I’m sorry.”
“No!” I tried to clutch his arms as he stood, but he pulled himself out of my grasp.
He made it to the door, turned to give me one more pleading look, then left before I could say another word.
I FULLY intended to keep after Walter until he got it through his thick skull that he was good for me and we were meant to be. But after a few months of my emails, calls, and letters going unreturned, I gave up. That was when I shifted my goals around relationships. No more romance for me—I became the king of casual hookups. Partying hearty and keeping things light were my modus operandi, because it would be a cold day in hell before I ever again let a man screw me over the way Walter Elkins had.
Cautious, contained and stoic Walter Elkins has a hero complex of sorts. Being able to protect those he loves is key, and his protective streak is a mile wide. And Anthony Vallen? “Even though emotions were my friends […] I didn’t have a stoic bone in my body.” Anthony is out and proud and loud. He’s the life of the party, he’s the hurricane that hits land and everyone has to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm.
Walter and Anthony were unlikely high-school boyfriends (“I brought him out of his shell, and he calmed me down. And he took me seriously. He listened to me in a way no one but Jonny ever had before.”) until Anthony almost drowns and Walter, hating he couldn’t keep Anthony safe, was unable to face him after that. Twelve years later, they meet again in Key West (where Walter now owns Back Bay Dive & Sail) when Anthony, Jonny, Marco and Marco’s sister Sophie go on a scuba-driving vacation.
What follows is a story of second chances, a hurricane, and some seriously hot sex because, hello, Walter for all his stoicism is hawt. Personally, I liked the Anthony and Walter’s dynamic. They just plain fit each other:
It had felt safe being around Walter. He’d taken care of everything, slowly and patiently. I could be my fluttery self—a butterfly flitting all over—because I knew he would be there when I needed to land.
I liked the idea, as Jonny says, “the universe brought you two together again for a reason. And I don’t believe it’s so you guys can screw it up a second time” and while declaring their love is easy, getting the rest of it right is a bit more of a struggle.
In Over Our Heads is a fun read, and I liked Walter and Anthony, as well as the secondary characters and I’m hoping we get another installment of the series featuring Walter’s brother Miles.
“Sometimes all you need is a second chance to get things right.”