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Ankle deep in salt water, Sunny Jordan stared in dismay at the silent diesel engine in her boat. It was dead, and all her plans were dead in the water with it. An urge to cry washed over her. Her documentary film was dead, her goal of exposing the more egregious operators in the commercial fishing industry was dead. She didn't dare think about the porpoises and sharks and sea turtles that would die without her expose to rouse the public to save them.
She yanked the hand starter on the bilge pump. At least it coughed to life, and sluggishly began to suck in water and spit it overboard. The New Dawn had a slow leak somewhere, but she'd been unable to locate it so far.
Wearily, she closed the engine cover and slogged over to the ladder. She climbed through the cramped cabin that contained all her worldly possessions and up on deck to stare at the horizon. A slow, three-hundred-sixty-degree check revealed nothing but water and more water stretching away to infinity along the earth's faint curve. No wonder ancient sailors thought it was possible to sail off the edge of the world.
Not the smallest bump of land or even another boat marred the smooth line of the horizon. She was marooned in the middle of nowhereliterally. If she had half a brain she'd be worrying about her own life and not the helpless little fishies below. But no one had ever accused her of being overly bright when it came to matters of self-preservation.
She ducked inside and turned up the volume on the UHF radio. Static crackle filled the tiny space. She checked her position near the junction of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, not too far south of the Yemeni archipelago of Suqutra. She jotted down the location coordinates off her GPS before picking up the microphone.
"This is the New Dawn requesting assistance. My engine has failed and I need a tow. I am currently located at eleven degrees, twenty-five minutes, thirty-six seconds north latitude and fifty-four degrees, four minutes, seven seconds east longitude."
She repeated the message twice more. Now she simply had to wait. Despite its desolate appearance, this stretch of water was crisscrossed by plentiful shipping lanes and fishing grounds. And it was the rule of the sea that any ship who heard a distress call must respond to it. Nobody might own these international waters, and nations might fight like dogs over them, but sailors stuck together.
The sun set in a brilliant splash of crimson and faded into the violet hues of twilight without anyone responding to her periodic radio calls. As the utter blackness of night at sea fell around her, she sighed and settled down to wait out a long, uncomfortable night. She needed to preserve her battery for radio calls and had turned off all unnecessary equipment, which meant no air conditioner or even an electric fan for her tonight.
She must have dozed off because the stars had wheeled around in the sky overhead and the night was balmy when she blinked her eyes open. The New Dawn bobbed on light swells, pulling against the sea anchor she'd deployed to keep from drifting too far from her reported position.
A faint rumbling caught her attention. She looked about eagerly for the running lights of her rescuer and gasped as a massive black shape loomed off her port side. The sharp point of a ship's prow was bearing directly down upon her. Fast.
Yikes. That ship was really bearing down on her fast! Her sleepy mind exploded to full consciousness as the deadly danger of her situation registered.
"Hey! I'm here!" she shouted, waving her arms frantically over her head. As if anyone would hear her over the roar of the much bigger vessel's engines. A white V of water sliced away from the black blade of the prow. The ship displayed no lights whatsoever as it raced at her like an attacking shark closing in for the kill.
Panicked, she scrambled backward, stumbling and falling over her waterproof camera bag. She hit the deck hard and her head smacked the cabin wall painfully. She flung herself toward the railing, every survival instinct screaming at her to get out of the way before that ship sliced the New Dawn in half. Clutching her camera bag in one fist as she rolled, she plunged over the side and into the icy water.
The Pacific Ocean closed in over her head, entombing her in a dark so cold and heavy, she felt as if she'd been buried alive.
Panic gave way to shock as every muscle in her body clenched at the frigid grip of the sea. She kicked hard for the surface, but it was as if she attempted to swim through concrete. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't seem to get anywhere. Assuming she was even headed in the right direction. She tried to feel which way the bubbles racing past her skin were headed, but who knew if she'd gotten it right. For all she knew she was kicking down toward Davy Jones's locker with all her strength.
And then a new threat registereda deep throbbing noise that pounded through her body rhythmically, growing in volume and intensity with every beat. Oh, God. The larger ship's propellers. She kicked like a madwoman, praying her random swimming would carry her clear of the rotating blades before they made bloody chum out of her.
The water grew violently turbulent, tossing her head over heels in a chaotic swirl that left her so dizzy she wanted to throw up. Probably not a good idea with the single breath in her lungs already running painfully low on oxygen. Little sparkles of light erupted behind her eyelids.
The ocean calmed around her as abruptly as it had gone mad. She was farther than ever from knowing which way the surface and air might be. Perhaps her best bet was to quit fighting and let her natural buoyancy and lungful of air lift her to the surface. But would it be in time before she passed out?
In a few seconds she wouldn't be able to hold her breath anymore and she would inhale a single, lethal lungful of salt water. And then in twelve to fifteen seconds, as the last oxygen in her brain was used, she'd lose consciousness. Without the buoyancy of air in her lungs, she would slip down into the depths of the sea, lost in its cold embrace forever. Vague curiosity about whether or not there was life after death passed through her mind. Guess I'll know one way or the other pretty soon.
Who'd have imagined she would end up like this? It seemed like such a waste to die so young. She was only twenty-seven. She'd assumed she had so much more time. So much more to experience. Her parents' faces flashed through her mind. Her sister's faceChloe was going to be furious at her for dying.
Sunny reached deep and fought one last time. It was simply not in her nature to give up. She'd go down trying to save herself. But her kicks were feeble now, and to no avail. As she used up the last of her strength and oxygen, the darkness claimed her.
Aiden McKay scanned the ocean through binoculars from the bridge of the Sea Nymph, one-hundred-forty feet of pure yachting luxury on loan to him from billionaire Leland Winston.
"Do you see her?" he asked the Nymph's captain, Steig Carlson.
"Negative. We are exactly at the last coordinates the girl transmitted, though."
Aiden frowned. The sexy female voice had been making periodic calls throughout the day asking for assistance with her marooned vessel. He'd been annoyed at having to break off his mission to respond to the call, but it wasn't as if he had any choice. He was one of the good guys, after all.
"Large vessel off to port," Steig announced. "Must have responded to the New Dawn's distress call, too."
Aiden snorted. Every vessel within a hundred miles had probably set course at full speed toward that girl's sensuous voice coming across their radios. Sailors were nothing if not a lonely bunch.
He swung his binoculars around to port. It was a dark night, but he made out the bulk of a good-size ship. "That vessel's moving fast," he commented, frowning. Looked to be pushing twenty-five knots or more. Why would a ship searching for a small boat be tearing along like a bat out of hell? Wouldn't they be trawling slowly like the Sea Nymph, searching the waters quadrant by careful quadrant?
He swung his binoculars to the next quadrant of his search, in front of the speeding boat, and lurched. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of
He swore as the Nymph rolled and he momentarily lost his target. He scanned left and right with the binoculars and caught sight of it again. A small vessel bobbing like a helpless cork in the swells directly in front of the racing ship.
"Sweet Mother of God," he breathed. "Those bastards are going to ram her."
Steig swore beside him. "They're going to smash her boat into matchsticks at that speed." He reached for the throttles and threw the sleek yacht's twin diesel engines to full power.
Aiden shouted into the radios, "Unknown rider, alter course! You are about to collide with a small craft. I say again, alter course immediately!" But the black hulk in front of him either didn't hear or didn't care. Or worse, it knew good and well that it was about to sink the disabled cabin cruiser that could only be the New Dawn.
Aiden watched in helpless horror as the blacked-out ship slammed broadside into the smaller boat. With a terrible grinding noise audible even from here, the big ship's prow crashed through the New Dawn's hull. The little boat lifted up in the air like a toy in a bathtub and then all of a sudden disappeared underneath the larger ship, dragged below the water like flotsam in the ship's path.
The girl with the sexy voice was on that boat!
He kicked off his deck shoes frantically and reached for the swim goggles that were always in his pocket.
"Don't do it," Steig bit out. "The water will be full of debris and it's too dark to find her."
"This is what I do. Who I am."
He was already shirtless, so he merely tore off his pants and dived directly off the bridge of the yacht to the sea below.
"Aiden!" someone shouted behind him as his body knifed through the air and into the welcome embrace of the sea that was his true home. He swam with powerful strokes toward the last position of the New Dawn.
The silence and pressure closed around him, and with them came the peace he always found in the ocean. A jagged piece of white-painted timber came into view.
He surfaced near where the boat went down and shouted, "Hello! Where are you?"
No response. The Sea Nymph's spotlights came on, illuminating the wreckage in harsh light. He made a quick visual search of the debris field. No sign of any human clinging to a piece of the New Dawn. He took a big breath and dived under the surface. His ears popped as he reached a depth of fifteen feet or so, but the rest of his body absorbed the crushing weight of the water with something resembling relief.
No sign of the girl. He swam in a wide circle that encompassed most of the debris field. She had to be here somewhere. He kept a time count in a corner of his mind. Two minutes. Three. He widened his search area, worry setting in. If he didn't find her soon, it wasn't going to be a search and rescue anymore. It would be a corpse recovery.
He kicked harder. Spotted a flash of white waving softly in the current like a piece of fabric. He pulled powerfully toward it. A shirt. A pale face flashed in the scant light from overhead.
The girl. Unconscious and drifting down toward the depths. Angling deeper, he came up underneath her, catching her slender body in his arms and kicking mightily toward the light above. Four minutes.
He swore mentally. If she'd been down here four minutes, she could be very close to brain death. He stopped kicking to plaster his mouth against hers tightly. Angling her head down so he was directly below her, he blew into her mouth enough to clear the water out. Then, he exhaled hard into the air pocket he'd created, forcing air into her lungs. Underwater mouth-to-mouth wasn't exactly the ideal way to prevent drowning, but he couldn't just hold her in his arms and let her die!
He closed her mouth with one hand, while his free arm went around her once more. He resumed kicking hard toward the surface and air.
After sacrificing his own oxygen reserves to the girl, he actually began to feel the burn of it in his muscles. Thankfully, his body was extraordinarily efficient at processing oxygen. Although he was getting close to his limit, he had enough gas left in the tank to save the girl.
They burst up out of the depths, and he took a long, gasping breath. He looked around frantically for something big and flat and buoyant, and spotted a portion of the destroyed boat's hull not far away. Pinching her nose shut, he breathed another lungful of air into the girl's mouth. Then he dragged her over to the hull and quickly up onto the makeshift raft. He clambered onto his knees beside her and commenced CPR.
"Come on," he growled. "Don't you die on me."