He trailed his fingers to my neck, and then down to my chest. The pages flipped. More hands, a different one on every page. Some looked familiar. Some didn’t. But with each page, the hands swept across my body. The pages flipped and the locations began to change along with the hands—the back of a pickup truck, my freshman dorm, my apartment, a few hostels.

The scene shifted, and it was me and Mr. Ames in all those places, and I screamed and cried long after the dream had shifted on to a new person, a new place. And each hand carved away a part of me, sanded and chiseled until I was hollowed out, a wisp of a girl.

I pulled away, crying, and stumbled from a hostel bed to my parents’ living room couch. This time I was just me, present day, but my parents looked down at me like I was still only four feet tall.

Dad was talking, saying I was blowing things out of proportion. He morphed into Mr. Ames for just as second as he said, “Quit playing the victim.”

Mom asked me questions, asked me how Mr. Ames touched me and where. When I showed them, when I put my hand to my chest . . . I knew what was coming next. I knew the words like they were carved into my skin, like the pulse of my heart beat them out in Morse code.

I waited for them, cringed for them, begged for them because I needed to hear that it didn’t count.

But instead, my world was filled with Hunt, with his all seeing eyes, with his blistering touch, with his consuming kiss and the words, “Tell me this counts.”

His hands, large and callused lay atop my chest where the heart beneath had been sanded down to a tiny thing. In my dream, he held my crumbling body, and he told me that it was okay. His touch was soft and perfect and exactly what I wanted, but I didn’t stop crumbling in his arms, no matter how gentle he was.

That was when the lies I’d built so high that they scraped the sky shattered. Every brick I’d laid between me and that day when I was twelve crumbled as if they were made of something less than sand.

Because it mattered.

Who touches you, whether it’s your skin or your soul, matters.


I sat, huddled alone in bed in that Italian apartment, shaking from a dream that I knew was nothing more than synapses firing in my brain, collecting recent thoughts and putting them together regardless of sense or order. I knew that’s all it was, but things didn’t always have to make sense to be true.

And I could feel every hand that ever touched me, the ones that I’d welcomed along with the one that I didn’t, as if they were bearing down on me, pushing me below the current until I had no choice but to breathe in that shattered glass of truth.

It all counted.

Hunt walked through the door of our poisoned oasis, held up a bag, and said, “I’ve got breakfast.”

It took everything in me not to cry. Because he was perfect. So goddamn perfect. And I was a mess.

“Thanks,” I shrugged, the corners of my lips jumping briefly in a similar motion. “I’m not hungry, though.”

He laid the bag, probably containing some kind of pastry on the bedside table, and toed off his shoes.

Lifting one knee up onto the bed, he smirked, before crawling toward me. “I can think of a few ways to work up your appetite.”

He pushed my tangled hair to the other side of my neck, and lowered his mouth to my shoulder. I closed my eyes thinking he might be just the thing to clear away the cobwebs from all those newly opened doors.

Instead, his kiss was like a puncture wound, and I couldn’t decide which part hurt worse—the beginning or the end, the knife going in or pulling out. His sweet kiss only made me think of all the other kisses I’d given away without a thought. It only made me think of how much I didn’t deserve him. Or rather . . . he didn’t deserve to get stuck with someone like me.

I moved away from him in the guise of facing him instead.

“How long have you been up?”

He settled back against the headboard. “A while.”

“Couldn’t sleep?”

I wished I had never gone to sleep.

“Something like that.”

“More nightmares?”

He took hold of my waist, and pulled me back between his thighs. My back rested against his chest, and he tucked his chin over my shoulder.

“Enough about that. Any thoughts on how you’d like to spend the day, princess?”

The scruff on his jaw grazed my neck, and I shivered.

His hand smoothed up my thigh, and panicked, I said, “Let’s go out.”

He paused for a few seconds, and then wrapped his arms around me in a loose embrace.

“And do what?”

“I thought you were the one with all the plans.”

“Yes, well.” He pulled me close. “I’m easily distracted.”

God, first I can’t get him to make a move, and now he’s full of them.

“What about swimming? There was that swimming hole that the lady at the restaurant mentioned.”

“As if I could say no to you in a bathing suit.”

I donned the same swimsuit I’d worn that night in Budapest. His eyes went dark when he saw me, and he grasped one of the ties hanging off my hip, tugging me forward.

Against my better judgment, I melted into him. His touch was an addiction, and addictions don’t become any less desirable when they’re joined with pain. He kissed me, and his lips were an introduction to light after a life of darkness. The brightness hurt, but not nearly as bad as the thought of a life wasted in the black.

I made myself step away before I fell into pieces at his feet. I peeled his hands off my hips and said, “Later.”

Later, when I could get a grip. I just needed to shove all these emotions and memories into a box and pack them away into the back of my mind. Then things could go back to normal.

I saw his eyes drop to my lips, and I knew what he was considering, so I moved toward the door, putting several feet between us.

I said, “Absence makes the hard grow fonder.”

I turned the doorknob, and he embraced me from behind.

“I don’t think I could be any more fond of you.”

We followed the lover’s path once more toward Manarola. When we passed our lock at the mouth of the tunnel, he pulled me tight against his side and kissed my temple.

The easy path led us into the village within ten to fifteen minutes. Manarola sat perched on a rocky outcrop of land right on the coastline. It was even more colorful than Riomaggiore, and seemed to be more reliant on the sea than the first village. There were boats everywhere we turned, even if we weren’t down by the water.

We had some of the best gelato of our trip so far at 5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia. Another couple there directed us toward a swimming hole down by the rocks. The village streets declined steeply as we approached the harbor, and the swimming hole that the couple had mentioned was a natural pool encircled by rocks. Judging by the dark blue color in the center, I’d say it went fairly deep, too. We could climb down onto the rocks ourselves or there were some ladders that led down to the ocean. But it was a warm summer day and the water was already crowded with tourists. I saw a pasty, middle-aged, white man in his forties strip down right there on the rocks to change from his clothes into his swimsuit.

Hunt pressed his face into my hair, laughing.

We knew there were more places to swim in the other villages, so we decided to pass on that particular swimming hole and keep exploring.

The path that led from Manarola to Corniglia, the third village, couldn’t have been more different from the lover’s path. It was more of a true hike, winding upward away from the coast to the rocky hills. Eventually, the rocks gave way to green fields of lemon and olive trees, and grape vines and wildflowers. The smell of sea salt combined with the perfume of the flowers, and when Hunt caught me sniffing repeatedly at the air, he laughed.

I laughed too and shoved him. “What? It smells good.”

He dropped a kiss on my shoulder and said, “You smell good.”

Each time he said something like that, an ache formed in my chest. Not in my heart. Or my lungs. But in hollow places, in the gaps. Like a phantom limb, it ached in the places where I had lost a piece of myself along the way.

As we neared the village, we could see it set up above the rocks. As it turned out, there was a long flight of stairs at the end of the path that led up to the village. And based on our recent experience with the epic stairs in Heidelberg, I knew enough to know that getting up to the village was going to be a bitch.

I looked at Hunt.

“Don’t even think about pretending to sprain your ankle again. I’m on to you.”

I smiled. “I would never use the same con twice, sweetheart.”

Desperate to avoid the stairs, I started looking for another option to get up to the village. Maybe a train or a funicular. Instead, I stumbled upon some hand-drawn signs on a rock that said, “Guvano Beach” with an arrow. The word secret was scrawled above Guvano, and I was sold.

“Jackson!” I yelled. He followed, and together we took off in the direction of the arrow.

But it quickly became clear that an arrow was not going to suffice, and we had no clue where to head next. We walked down to a nearby house and an old woman stood hunched and sweeping on the porch.

Hunt tried to talk to her, but she didn’t speak English. I said, “Guvano.”

Her expression changed, her mouth making a small “o” and she nodded. She gestured for us to go around behind the houses and then mimed pushing a button.

We stood there unsure, and she gestured us away with her broom.

“Um . . . okay.”

Hunt took hold of my hand and together we walked behind a few houses down an ever-steepening slope until we found an old abandoned train tunnel. Another scrawled note said Guvano with an arrow through the tunnel. We found the button that the woman must have been referencing, and it said lights in both Italian and English above the button. Hunt pressed it, but nothing happened. He pressed again, still nothing.

“Let me try.”


We found a breaker box, and flipped every switch. Nothing.

“Are we doing this?” I asked, eyeing the dark path of doom ahead of us.

I mean, I wanted a beach, the more private the better. And since it seemed we had to travel to hell and back to get to this one, I was willing to bet it was pretty private.

Hunt shrugged his backpack off one shoulder, and pulled it around in front of him. “Hold on.” He rifled through his bag and came back with a cell phone.

“You have a cell phone with you? How did I not know you have a cell phone?”

He shrugged.

“I don’t really use it. For emergencies only, you know.”

I pulled mine out of my backpack and followed his lead. “Mine too.”

We passed through the entryway. The cell phone lights were feeble in the vast darkness of the tunnel, and it did little more than light up our arms and give us a vague, shadowy view of our feet.

I grasped Jackson’s elbow, and we shuffled slowly through the tunnel as it sloped downward. It was dank, and I could feel the grime settling on my feet as we walked, but I kept telling myself it would be worth it once we got to the beach.

We walked for a few minutes, and I kept expecting to see a light at the end, but there was nothing. The darkness stretched on forever and ever as we walked down and down, our footsteps echoing through the empty chamber around us.

When we were about ten minutes into the tunnel, a low rumbling began below my feet and then migrated to the walls. I heard the whisper of tiny pebbles falling and scattering to the ground. I looked at Hunt in horror, but it was too dark for me to see his face.

I clutched his waist and said, “Jackson. Train!”

The second word was drowned out by the roar of a train passing by. Not through. By. Still squeezing Hunt with all my might, I realized it was in the tunnel next to us. I breathed a sigh of relief that was swallowed by the noise of the train, and Jackson brushed a kiss across my forehead. I was too numb to react.

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