BY KAREN TYNER
Justine coughed when her latte went down the wrong tube.
“You okay?” a man asked.
After a final cough, she waved off his concerns. “Yeah.” From a window at the Mercer Pier Coffee Shop, she enjoyed an unobstructed view of the beach. Movement on the sand caught her attention. “I knew he wouldn’t wait.”
She spun to face the nosey man. All desire to teach him a lesson evaporated when he winked. Tall and tan. Scruffy beard. On any other day, she’d exchange digits with such a handsome specimen, but today was about her father. “M—my dad.” She tilted her chin toward the dunes. “The guy wearing jeans. He’s supposed to meet someone down on the beach, but he’s given up after only an hour.” Justine tossed her cup in the trash and stepped outside onto the wooden deck with Mr. Cuteness right on her heels.
“Why won’t he wait?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She rested her elbows on the railing and scanned the crowded beach.
“Sure it does.” His thumb traced a heart on her forearm. “If he stays, you and I can grab some breakfast.”
Justine quieted the electricity from his touch. Focus on Dad. “If you must know, his friend stood him up.”
The man pointed. “Is that him in the green shirt?”
Her father slouched as he shuffled through the sand to meet her on the pier. “Yes. It’ll be a quiet ride back to Raleigh.”
“Your dad looks more like your grandfather.”
Justine huffed as she looked at the name patch on his car dealership uniform. Dakota. “I’ll pretend that my life is actually your business. Wife number one died years ago. Number two wife, my mother, was way younger than him. I’m nineteen. Satisfied?” She marched toward the steps leading to the beach.
“Was he a Marine in Vietnam?”
She stopped midstride to confront Mr. Snoop. Had he eavesdropped on the conversation with her dad? Why was he following her? Her uneasiness vanished when his lapis eyes locked onto hers. She softened her tone. “Yes.”
“Is he meeting a woman?”
Justine moved closer to him, like a magnet in search of a mate. “His first love. They—”
“Promised to eat a breakfast picnic on this beach fifty years ago before he went to war,” he finished. Dakota’s grin brought out the most adorable dimples.
Her mouth hung open. “Who are you?”
“That woman’s my grandmother. Sylvia Walker.” Dakota held Justine’s shoulders and turned her toward the dunes. “And she’s been sitting over there on that blue quilt for almost thirty minutes.”
A beautiful woman sat several yards away with a basket at her feet. Justine’s father dodged sunbathers as he walked toward the pier. Would he see Sylvia? Justine held her breath and reached for Dakota’s hand. Her father stopped several feet from Sylvia, who shielded her eyes from the sun. When she stood, a thick braid entwined with a simple red ribbon cascaded down her back. Daddy’s favorite color.
Justine’s father wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. He pointed to the beach on the other side of the pier while Sylvia waved her arms in a circle around the blanket.
“Looks like your father found my nana.” Dakota squeezed Justine’s hand.
She returned the gesture. “How’d you know?”
“The cowboy boots. Nana has talked for weeks about her cowboy.”
Justine nodded. She’d read the love letters between her dad and Sylvia, as well as the Dear John letter Sylvia wrote to him during the war. He’d volunteered for a third tour of duty after Sylvia married a man handpicked by her parents.
But today, her father locked his arms around Sylvia’s waist, and she rested her head on his chest.
Justine bounced up and down on her toes like a cheerleader as she clutched Dakota’s hand. “Don’t wait five dates this time, Dad,” she muttered.
“Kiss her, Daddy,” she yelled.
Her father laughed. He cradled Sylvia’s face with his hands, and with his thumbs, he caressed her cheeks. As he bent his head, Sylvia met his lips.
Justine smiled and leaned her head on Dakota’s shoulder, their fingers laced together. She soaked in the happiness of the reunited couple. Her father had said if Sylvia showed up he wouldn’t let go of her hand. Ever. With one hand in hers, he pointed at the pier. Sylvia pulled a plastic container from the basket.
“Did your grandmother bring biscuits?”
“Nana said it was part of the promise. She’d make the biscuits, and he’d bring the coffee.”
“Oh.” Justine pushed off from Dakota’s side. She darted to the coffee shop door, dragging him behind her. “Help me.”
In line, she texted her father for Sylvia’s coffee order. “You in school?”
“No, I joined the Marines.” He ran a hand over his military buzz cut. “Boot camp starts in August.”
Justine linked her arm through his. “Did I tell you that I’m working at the beach this summer?”
With his free hand, Dakota plucked a daisy from a nearby table. Her knees wobbled when he slipped it behind her ear. “Will I have to wait five dates before I kiss you?”
“For you … only two.” She stole a glance at his deep dimples.
“Well…” He lowered his head toward hers. “Since this is our first date, and dinner tonight is number two, I should probably get your name.”