It wasn't every day that Josie Griffin got to rip the back end. Parker's Inlet wasn't exactly known for its monster wave action, but it was known for monster spring storms. Yesterday's had been a doozy, which was why she was here at dawn, paddling back out to take advantage of the poststorm wave surge, despite the frigid water temperatures.
Life always seemed simpler from the top of a surfboard. Waves juiced up, crested, and pounded home. If you were lucky, you squeezed the juice, and if you weren't, the juice squeezed you. Which pretty much summed up life as far as Josie was concerned. All you had to do was keep from getting your juice squeezed too often.
Pressing her belly to the board, she maneuvered her dad's newly designed shortboard as new sets built up behind her. She grinned with the sheer joy of having the whole Atlantic to herself. At least that's how it felt. Even in peak season, this part of the beach was usually deserted. It was a distance from the hotels and hard to get to through the dunes and high sea grass. But it had the best break around and today, in addition to the high surf, the wind was perfect, straight off the coast. So she'd left a message on her dad's machine and hiked in.
She probably should have waited for him, but the siren call was too strong. He'd understand. He'd been answering that call since before she was born.
After spending weeks on graphics for some particularly fussy clients, she welcomed a day of hooky, even if she was helping her dad out at the same time. He'd be happy with her report on the new design, she thought as she caught the outside and pushed to her feet. The nose was perfect, the board mindless. One of his best yet. She was grinning fiercely as she ripped her board across the shoulder, playing it before dumping out and heading back for more.
Life doesn't get any better than this, she thought, then shivered and laughed. Well, it could be eighty degrees instead of sixty, and this could be the Pipeline in Hawaii or Australia's Gold Coast, instead of Parker's Inlet. But for South Carolina in May, this was pretty damn good.
Timing it just right, she pushed to her feet once again, then dragged her fingers through the wall of water building behind her and shot like a bullet just under the edge of the curl. She tucked again and swerved to her right, squeezing as much out of the wave as she could.
She caught another shoulder and juiced it out a little more, thinking this would only be better if her dad was out here with her. She loved watching him tackle the surf. She was still learning technique from him even after all these years.
Her mind wandered off down memory lane . . . and she never saw what struck her board and sent her flying.
She was smacking the water before she realized her board was no longer beneath her feet. The heavy undertow pulled her down, rolling her and dragging her against the bottom. The ride ended with a solid crack to the head courtesy of her surfboard, before depositing her in the surging foam near the shore.
She caught her breath and took stock. It wasn't like her to lose focus like that. Even in relatively small waves like these, losing concentration could have deadly consequences. Especially when surfing alone, but she spared herself that lecture. Instead she scraped at the seaweed and sand coating her wet suit, then tugged the hood off and brushed her hair loose. Scooping up some water, she rinsed the grit off her face, gasping again when the salt water stung her forehead. She must have taken a pretty good hit. She gingerly felt along her hairline.
"Great. Just great," she muttered as her fingers encountered a growing bump. Her face felt scraped up as well. She tried to piece together what had happened and remembered the thump just before she went flying. Her board had slammed into something. She scanned the water. "So what in the hell did I hit?" There hadn't been any floating debris when she got here. Most of it had already been deposited far up the beach during the storm surge. She ripped off the Velcro strap tethering the board to her ankle just as a trunk the size of a small suitcase tumbled onto the beach with the next breaker.
Josie rolled to her feet and jammed the nose of her board into the sand in one swift move, wincing at the throbbing pain in her forehead as she raced to catch the chest before it slid back out to sea again.
She loved walking the beach and collecting trea-sures. Her waterfront bungalow was a testimony to the number of mornings she'd spent doing just that. Shells, driftwood, and all manner of flotsam and jetsam cluttered her windowsills, shelves, and just about every other available surface. But this was the first time she'd ever found real treasure. Or a trea-sure chest anyway.
How had she missed this? She scooped up the dome-lidded box, tugged at the seaweed stuck in the hinges, then scrubbed it with the heel of her hand. It appeared to be all metal, though it was hard to tell with all the barnacles, shells, and other ocean gunk encrusted on it.
She walked back to her board, jiggling the box lightly. Something was rattling around inside. Excited now, she moved farther up the beach and set the trunk down well above the surf line, then quickly retrieved her board before sinking onto her knees in front of the box. She grabbed a heavy chunk of seashell and tried to pop off some of the barnacles stuck around the front hasp. Nothing came off easily and she really had to pry to get even small pieces of crud off the thing. She'd probably end up busting it just to get it open. What if the chest had some kind of historic significance? She could be destroying a valuable artifact from an infamous shipwreck.
"Yeah, right, and I'm Indiana Josie." Finders, keepers she told herself, rooting around in the sand for a sturdier piece of shell. Her head was pounding, but her curiosity was stronger. She wondered what her dad would say about her find. Probably tell her to take it to the local marine museum. With a grunt, she pried off a big hunk of barnacles and the hasp finally popped off.
Grinning, she slowly pried the lid open a crack, the hinges groaning in protest, and gasped at what she saw inside.
The seal of the box was amazingly tight as the velvet interior was totally untouched by the water. But it was what lay nestled on the deep purple fabric that grabbed her full attention.
She gingerly lifted out the long, heavy silver chain. "My God." Dangling from the chain was a large yellow stone set in silver. It wasn't cut like a polished gem. The stone was raw and unevenly formed, with some rough edges and some worn down. Maybe from being handled or rubbed, she thought. Other than the size of it, the stone wasn't all that remarkable. In fact, it looked like a big piece of quartz. The setting was oval with detailed scrolling around the edges.
And the chain. She ran the links through her fingers. Each one was bigger around than her thumbnail, and heavy. Really heavy. When she looked closely, she saw they weren't all exactly the same shape. "Hand forged," she murmured, suddenly wondering just how long this trunk had been floating around.
She couldn't resist slipping it over her head. It lay heavily around her neck, the chain extending down between her breasts, the stone weighty even through her wet suit.
"Och, but it's about time, if I do say so meself."
Josie let out a small squeal of surprise and twisted around on her knees. She hadn't heard anyone approaching, but she'd been pretty involved with her find.
Her train of thought evaporated like ocean mist the instant she laid eyes on her surprise intruder. She had a vague suspicion she'd whacked her head a lot harder than she'd thought. What other explanation could there be for the small man standing before her?
The very small man. He was barely half as tall as her shortboard. Actually, his short stature probably wouldn't have been all that startling . . . if he hadn't been outfitted in full Scots regalia. From the smartly wrapped kilt, to the sash crossing his broad little chest, the green tam on his head, to the black leather shoes that laced up over the sturdy little calves covered in red-tassled socks . . . he was a vision in plaid. All he needed was a set of bagpipes to complete the ensemble.
"I say, lass, have ye gone daft on me?"
It was quite possible, she thought. "Who are you?"
He grinned and stepped forward. "Ah yes, forgive my poor manners. Somewhat waterlogged, I suspect. I'm Bagan, Guardian of the MacNeil Stone." His brogue was heavy, but it went perfectly with his appearance, especially the bushy white eyebrows and twinkling blue eyes.
He looked like he belonged on a billboard for Glenlivet.
"Was beginning to think I'd never see the light of day again," he said somewhat wistfully, looking past her down along the shoreline. "Fish food, I thought I was." He turned back to her and clasped his small, pudgy hands. "But no longer! Ye've freed me from my briny grave."
"Excuse me?" Briny grave? Waterlogged? But he was perfectly dry. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand what--"
He nodded to the necklace. "Yer wearin' the MacNeil Stone, lass. 'Tis the clan charm stone. All the good for you, to be certain, but we must make haste." He looked at the dunes behind her, then up and down the shoreline again. "Might I inquire what part of the country I've landed in?"
"Parker's Inlet." Was he drunk? Had he been wandering the dunes after a late night?
"I'm not familiar with that area. Odd." He smiled. "But after so many years I suppose the motherland wouldn't have remained unchanged."
He looked surprised by the question. "Why, Scotland of course, lass. Oh, aye," he said with understanding. "Yer accent. New to our shores, are ye?"
He must have really tied one on. His cheeks were ruddy enough. She wasn't sure how to break it to him. "We're not in Scotland. This is America. South Carolina, to be exact."
His blue eyes widened a moment, then crinkled merrily at the corners as he laughed. "Och, don't run a man about so." Then he scanned the coast again, seeming to think a bit. "America, you say." He sighed a little. "Well, I suppose the tides can shift and move one about, can't they now? It is all as it will be, in any case. Destiny has a way of fulfilling herself and doesna always feel the need to make us privy to her reasons or methods."
Josie's head began to throb in earnest. Maybe she was hallucinating.
"So, you're to be the one, aye?" He looked her over.
"The one what?" she asked warily.
"What manner of garb would ye be wearin'?" he asked.
"A wet suit. Keeps the cold out." She'd spoken to a great variety of people in her twenty-five years of wave-trekking all over the globe with her father, but this had to rank as one of the strangest. She motioned to where her board was stuck in the sand. "For surfing."
He stared at the colorful length of fiberglass. "Surfing ye say." His bushy eyebrows furrowed. "And what manner of thing do ye hunt with a weapon such as that?"
Josie couldn't help it, she laughed. He was odd, no doubt, but he seemed harmless. "Big waves," she said. Poor guy was just old and confused.
He frowned. "I canna say I ken the need for it." He smiled then and gestured to her suit. "But I will admit to admiring yer armor. Quite flattering to the feminine form."
Josie raised her eyebrows. Great. Just what she needed, an addled dwarf hitting on her.
"Well, we've no time to contemplate the ways of the world during my absence," he said brightly. He turned and scampered up the nearest dune. He looked back when he realized she wasn't following. "Och, but me manners are truly wanting today. I've introduced myself and not asked ye about yersel. What is yer name, lass?"
She paused, unsure she wanted to play along anymore. But there was no harm in giving her first name. "Josie."
"Josie." He said her name as if he were tasting it, judging it somehow. He nodded then, as if in approval. "Would ye be a descendant then of Lady Elsinor?" He chuckled. "Aye, that would be the way of the Fates, wouldn't it? As I remember it there were several Josephines in her clan."
"I have no idea who Lady Elsinor is," she said. "And my name isn't Josephine. Just Josie."
"Not a Josephine of Clan MacLeod then?"
"No." She grinned. "I guess you could say I'm a Josie of Clan Pussycat." She laughed at his completely nonplussed reaction. "My father has a passion for corny old comics."
Now it was the dwarf who looked a bit wary. "Yes, well, however odd it might be to have the family cat as yer namesake, we've no time to ponder the curiosity. We must be off." He moved higher up the dune. "We must book passage immediately. I needs deliver ye to The MacNeil."
"Say what?" Charming and odd was one thing. Charming and seriously deranged was something else entirely.
She quickly ran down a list of possible courses of action. She could outrun him easily. But what if he were armed? Who knew what he might be hiding beneath that kilt. She surreptitiously scanned the length of the beach. The grassy dunes blocked the view of the path to the street. The rising sun hadn't burned off the ocean mist, so the taller buildings and hotels crowding the beachfront farther down were invisible. And not one early-morning treasure hunter was in sight.
She gained hope as one lone runner shuffled slowly toward them, but as she neared, Josie saw she was at least sixty. Great. Josie and a senior citizen versus the maniac midget. Even the WWF couldn't have come up with that match.
She snagged her board. "Wave hunter and dwarf whacker," she muttered beneath her breath, realizing the ridiculousness of the situation, but holding on to it nonetheless. It was the only weapon she had. She wondered if it was bulletproof.
"I, uh, I'm sorry," she began, trying to sound friendly, but firm. "I won't be able to help you out today. I'm waiting for someone." Although if her father wasn't here by now, chances are he'd fallen asleep over his drafting board again and hadn't gotten his phone messages.
From the Paperback edition.