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There was simply no other word to describe him.
"Oh, man, you are so freaking gorgeous," Maggie Copeland breathed in appreciation. "So strong and sleek. C'mon, show me what you've got give it to me, baby."
It had been years since she'd seen a male specimen as thrilling as this one, and she'd almost forgotten how the sight could make her heart race and her blood sing. As if sensing he had an eager audience, the orca breached, lifting his entire body out of the water and twisting upward in a glorious show of strength and grace, before falling back into the waves. Maggie gasped in admiration. Shamu had nothing on this beauty.
Her fingers worked quickly on the shutter release, snapping pictures in rapid succession. High overhead, she could barely hear the traffic on the twin bridges that spanned the narrow strait known as Deception Pass and connected Whidbey Island to the mainland. But she knew if she looked up, she would see the tiny shapes of hundreds of tourists who had pulled off the road to glimpse the killer whale as he frolicked in the frigid waters below the bridge.
Maggie almost hadn't bothered to stop, but her curiosity had gotten the best of her. Well, that and the fact that she'd been looking for any excuse to delay reaching her destination. After pulling over, she'd attached a telephoto lens to her camera and had made her way along the pedestrian walkway of the soaring bridge. Her first peek over the edge had made her head swim, and she'd pulled quickly back, her heart racing. The drop was dizzying, and it had taken several moments before she'd had the courage to take a second look, telling herself she wasn't afraid of heights. But when she'd glimpsed the orca some two hundred feet below, she'd forgotten everything except her desire to capture the magnificent animal on film.
She'd been a teenager the last time she'd navigated the steep, rocky trail that twisted its way beneath the bridge to the water's edge. Even then, with her brother beside her, she'd been terrified of falling, but tonight she'd managed the descent effortlessly, despite the fading light and the weight of the heavy lens bumping against her hip. The fragrant scent of crushed pine needles underfoot, combined with the salty ocean air, had been so familiar that for a brief moment she'd felt a wave of nostalgia. She hadn't been back to the Pacific Northwest in almost ten years, and she'd forgotten how good the Puget Sound air smelled. Now she crouched on a high rock overlooking the turbulent waters of Deception Pass, with an unobstructed view of the orca. If only she had more daylight!
Lowering the camera, she glanced toward the horizon, where the sun was rapidly slipping away beneath a breathtaking display of purple-andorange-streaked sky. In another minute, it would disappear completely. The few people who had joined her on the rocky shoreline were already making their way back up to the road, leaving her alone. If she didn't start back to her car now, she'd have a difficult time negotiating the trail in the dark. She might not be anxious to return to her childhood home in the tiny community of Rocks Village, but neither did she relish the thought of spending the night on a deserted beach.
With a last, longing look at the orca, almost invisible now except for the tall, black fin that sliced through the water, Maggie secured her camera over one shoulder and carefully began working her way to the ground. Almost immediately, her fear of heights returned and she realized that getting down from the boulder was not going to be as easy as climbing up had been. What had earlier seemed a manageable height now seemed like a frightening drop to the rocky beach.
In an instant, she was fifteen years old again, excited that her brother and his friends had allowed her to come with them to Whistle Lake on neighboring Ana-cortes Island. The twenty-foot cliffs were popular with the local kids as a place to prove their bravery and cool off during the warm summer months. But Eric and his friends had craved bigger thrills, and had instead hiked to where the cliffs towered fifty to sixty feet high over the lake. One by one, they had leapt from the rocks into the deep water, and then taunted Maggie when she'd refused to join them.
Nothing could have induced her to leave the security of that rock, but she hadn't seen Eric's friend, who had climbed out of the water, make his way stealthily back to where she stood. With a cry of triumph, he had rushed at her. Although later he claimed that he'd only meant to give her a scare, he'd barreled into her, plunging them both over the edge. Maggie knew she'd been fortunate to have only broken a leg, and the boys had been lucky that her mother hadn't killed them. Maggie had never been back to Whistle Lake and avoided heights whenever she could.
Now, working her fingers into a crack in the surface of the stone, she clung to the side and searched for her next foothold, but there was none. Peering down, she wondered if she could jump, but quickly decided against it. The rocks made the option too dangerous, and she didn't want to risk breaking an ankle or, worse, damaging her precious camera.
Wishing she was wearing jeans and not a pair of shorts, Maggie stretched her leg downward, feeling blindly for a place to set her foot, and scraped her bare knee against the rough surface of the stone. Swearing softly, she finally succeeded in finding a small sliver of ledge. With her weight now balanced, she groped for a new handhold, dismayed when her camera strap slid from her shoulder and down the length of her arm to her wrist. Nudged off balance by the weight of the heavy lens, she made a grab for it, but it slipped free of her fingers. Instinctively, she stuck her foot out and snagged the strap with her foot. Maggie winced as the camera dangled precariously from the toe of her sneaker, and the telephoto lens bounced sickeningly against the hard stone.
Crap. Now what? She clung to the rock with both hands, balanced on an outcropping no wider than her thumb, with one leg stuck out at a precarious angle and her expensive camera swinging from her foot.
"Do you need a hand?"
Startled, Maggie nearly lost her footing. The voice was deep, masculine and unless she was mistaken, amused. She hadn't heard anyone approaching, and now she carefully craned her head to get a look at the newcomer. A man stood directly below her with his arms raised as if to catch her. Even from her height, she could see he was young and good-looking, and his voice had a quality that caused something to resonate deep inside her. "Uh okay."
He stepped forward, and this time she heard the crunch of rocks beneath his feet. "Here, let me take your camera, and then I can help you down."
Uncertainty washed over Maggie. She'd spent a small fortune on the camera, and even more on the telephoto lens. These two pieces of equipment were all she had brought with her from Chicago, yet they constituted the foundation of her photography business. If this guy decided to do a grab-and-run, she'd be completely screwed. But the decision was taken out of her hands when he reached up and removed the camera strap from her foot and casually slid it over one shoulder.
"Careful," she admonished, keeping a sharp eye on him in case he should decide to bolt.
"No worries," he said easily. "Now it's your turn."
To Maggie's horror and astonishment, he reached up and put his hands on the back of her bare calves, gripping them firmly. Part of her realized that he was only trying to help, but his touch seemed to scorch her skin, and it was all she could do not to jerk away.
"Okay, thank you," she replied, and her voice sounded high and breathless. "I can manage from here."
"There's another ledge about eight inches below you," he said, ignoring her words. "I'll help you find it."
With one hand wrapped around her leg, he eased it slowly downward until Maggie found the small toehold. "Great, I've got this," she assured him, not at all sure that she did. "Thanks."
"Are you experienced at bouldering?" Now there was no mistaking the amusement in his voice.
"At what?" she asked, momentarily distracted.
"Never mind, I can see that you're not." Instead of stepping back, the man slid his big hands up to her hips. "You've run out of toeholds, sweetheart. Let go. I've got you."
With both hands gripping her hips, he plucked her from the side of the rock as if she weighed no more than a child. Maggie gave a small cry of surprise as she found herself in his arms, her hands clutching at his broad shoulders. Immediately, she was swamped with sensation.
He felt solid beneath her fingers, and he smelled incredible, like clean laundry and something spicy. Heat poured off of him, and she could feel it even through the layers of their clothing. She had an almost overwhelming urge to curl herself around him and absorb his warmth. He didn't immediately release her, and it didn't occur to Maggie to protest. Even in the darkness, she could feel the intensity of his stare. Was it her imagination, or did his arms tighten fractionally around her?
"I've got you," he repeated, and his voice sounded a little husky.
Suddenly, she became aware of the intimacy of their position. Her arms were still looped around his neck, and their faces were so close that she could feel his warm breath against her cheek. Something tightened inside her, making her feel unsettled and short of breath and, despite the cool breeze coming in off the ocean, much too warm. To her relief, he loosened his hold, allowing her to slide the length of his body until her feet touched the ground.
"Thank you," she gasped, stepping back. Her equilibrium was off, and she swayed. He put a hand out to steady her.
"Are you okay?"
Maggie nodded as she gaped up at him. He was tall, probably a few inches over six feet, and leanly muscled. He wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled carelessly back over his forearms and a pair of cargo shorts. His hair was cut short, and there was no mistaking the humor in his expression.
"I'm fine," she assured him. "Just feeling a little foolish."
"Why? It could have happened to anyone," he assured her.
"But not to you," she guessed, smiling.
"Nope," he agreed, grinning shamelessly. "Not to me." He slid the strap from his shoulder and handed the camera to her, using one hand to support the telephoto lens. Once she had it back in her hands, she relaxed fractionally.
"Thank you. I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't come along when you did."
And now that she was no longer in danger of being trapped on the boulder, or lying injured at the base of it, she realized they were alone on the narrow strip of beach, and the earlier glow of the sunset was deepening into the violet of nightfall. Waves washed against the rocky beach, sucking and dragging the stones back into the surf with a loose rattling sound. Maggie knew she should be nervous, but instead she felt oddly safe. Call her crazy, but there was something vaguely familiar about the man, although she was certain they had never met before. If anything, he kept a deliberate distance between them, as if sensing her apprehension.
"Did you get some good pictures?" he asked.
"Of the orca? Yes, I think so."
"I saw them briefly, from up above," he continued conversationally, "but by the time I got down here, they were gone."
"They? " she asked in surprise, momentarily forgetting her caution.
"Didn't you see? There were two of them: a male and a female. The first was here, in the strait. The female was headed toward the open sea."
"What makes you think it was a male and a female?"
He smiled, his teeth white in the darkness. "From the shape of the dorsal fin. The female has a smaller, curved fin. The male's fin is tall and straight."
Maggie knew enough about orcas to know he was right. A male and a female. How had she missed the female? Of course, she'd only been scanning the waters of the pass itself, and hadn't been looking toward the ocean. If a second killer whale had been swimming just beyond the headland, it was no wonder she hadn't spotted it.
She couldn't blame the female; faced with the choice of following the male into the narrow bay behind Whidbey Island or making a run for the open sea and freedom, she'd choose the latter, too.
She had chosen freedom, too, she reminded herself.
She'd left Whidbey Island, located north of Seattle in Puget Sound, nearly ten years ago, and she hadn't looked back. Chicago represented freedom to her, and everything she'd never had growing up on an island in the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, it offered an escape from the humiliating memories of what had happened ten years ago. So why didn't she feel like she belonged in Chicago? She'd tried to convince herself that the city was where her future lay, but it was times like this that she understood what she'd given up; there would be no killer whale sightings in Chicago, or the scent of salt-tinged air, or the breathtaking beauty of Deception Pass with the sun sinking behind the horizon. With an irritated sigh, she pushed her nostalgia aside, reminding herself that she was only here for three weeks. No way would she allow herself to be drawn back by the local charm and beauty of the area. So maybe Chicago wasn't where she belonged, but neither was Whidbey Island.
"Well, thanks for your help," she said politely, and indicated the trailhead that led back to the road. "I'm going to head back up."
He fell into step beside her, putting one hand beneath her elbow as the terrain grew steep. "You wouldn't want to fall," he said in explanation as she looked at him in surprise. "Not with that camera. Of course, I could carry it for you."
Even with the strap around her neck, Maggie kept one hand on the lens to prevent it from swinging. The result was that her balance was a little off. She considered him for a moment. He seemed sincere enough, and he had helped her. After a moment, she removed the strap from around her neck and handed the camera to him.
"If you're sure you don't mind "
"I'm sure." He positioned the strap over his body, steadied the lens in one hand and indicated she should precede him up the trail. "After you."
Maggie clambered gracelessly up the steep path, acutely conscious of the man behind her. Was he checking out her butt? Could he even see her butt? Honestly, it was so dark she had trouble seeing the path. As they climbed higher, the pine trees around them grew thicker, and soon they were in dense woods and visibility was close to zero.
"Hold up a minute," he called from behind her.
Maggie paused and glanced over her shoulder. He was closer than she realized, and while her breathing was already labored from exertion, he wasn't even winded.