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The word resounded in Michael Donahue's head. It had been years since anyone had hurled the accusation at him but he leveled it at himself every day.
He bent down and picked up a flat rock, throwing it sidearm so it skipped across the shimmering surface of the Lehigh River before disappearing from sight.
That's what he felt like doing. Disappearing.
He'd come to the river straight from the Philadelphia hotel where he'd been staying since returning from West Africa, so nobody in Indigo Springs had seen him yet. He could get back inside his rental car and put in motion his vague plan to find a quiet place where he could unwind until he heard whether he'd been approved for his next assignment. It didn't matter where he went, as long as it was far from here.
Except he couldn't leave until Sunday morning and it was only Friday afternoon. He had a rehearsal dinner and a wedding to get through because he'd given his word to his boyhood friend Johnny Pollock that he'd show. At least Michael had had the foresight not to let Johnny talk him into being best man.
"Best man," Michael muttered, picking up another rock and chucking it as far as he could.
How ironic was that?
He sat down on one of the large slate rocks that lined the bank of the river, took off his shoes and socks and dangled his feet in the cool water.
He used to come to the river when he was a kid, although Aunt Felicia had probably thought he was off raising hell. She'd had reason. Despite her good intentions, his great-aunt hadn't been able to handle a teenage boy angry at his mother for dying. Neither could she shield him from the loud arguments with her husband, who didn't want him in their house.
Michael sighed, his gaze moving to the opposite riverbank where he spotted a great blue heron. Its spindly legs supported a gawky body more gray than blue. The bird flapped its wings and ascended into the cloudless sky, transforming into a creature of breathtaking beauty in an instant.
He soon figured out the reason the heron had taken flight: a kayak appeared, followed by a string of bright-green rubber rafts heading for the white water slightly downriver from where he sat.
He read the writing on the sides of the rafts as they drew closerIndigo River Rafters, one of the outfits that operated guided commercial white-water trips on the Lehigh. The companies catered mostly to tourists, also offering mountain bikes and tubes for rent.
Chrissy had been partial to tubing.
He tried to blot out the memory, but it took hold. His mind conjured up an image of Chrissy, her blond hair pulled back from her pretty, laughing face as they headed downriver on the inflatable rubber tubes. Not that either of them had paid a rental fee for their fun.
Getting a couple of truck-tire inner tubes from Jessup's Automotive Store in town would have been easy enough, but that's not the way Michael had rolled. He'd wait until the commercial guides were loading tubes back onto the truck, then lift a couple when their backs were turned.
Chrissy had been up for it, but then she'd been up for just about anything. That was one of the things he'd enjoyed about her. He'd liked the way she'd been on his side, too. Maybe that's why he hadn't tried too hard to talk her out of leaving Indigo Springs with him.
He rubbed the back of his neck, wishing in vain that the breeze off the river could blow away his guilt.
The boats were closer now, the rafters following the guide in the lead kayak down the left side of the river where the rapids were easier to ride.
The current was swifter than usual for summer, when the commercial companies were usually relegated to running pleasure trips. He was familiar enough with the river's nuances that he figured it was a dam-release day. Officials periodically released water from the reservoir to increase the flow and depth of the river. The deeper, faster-moving water made for better fishing, boating and rafting, leading to more tourist dollars.
The strategy was working, judging by the number of people on this trip. Michael watched the rafters in front of the pack take their wild ride down the rapid, glimpsing wide grins and smiling, carefree faces.
As he tried to muster the courage to return to the town where he'd never been welcome, he envied them.
Maybe her family was right and she wasn't as adventurous as she claimed to be.
The closer her group of rafters came to the churning, frothing rapid, the more Sara Brenneman felt compelled to paddle against the current. Back the way they'd come.
She suspected the beads of moisture on her forehead were drops of cold sweat instead of water from the Lehigh.
She glimpsed a lone, dark-haired man sitting on a rock, watching the rafts go by as though he didn't have a worry in the world. How she wished she could join him on dry land.
She should be back in Indigo Springs unpacking the boxes that still filled the three-story stone row house she'd recently purchased in the heart of the downtown. The building was zoned commercial, and she was transforming the ground floor into a law office she hoped to open officially a week from Monday.
Only ten days from now.
Everything had happened so fast. One minute she was an associate at the large corporate firm in Washington, D.C., where her father was a partner. The next she was "seriously disappointing" him by starting a new life in a picturesque Pocono Mountains town where she knew no one except an old friend from high-school and the Realtor who had mentioned the white-water-rafting trip.
Even the three people in the raft with her were strangers, although they'd introduced themselves after a pretty guide with a port-wine stain on one cheek had told Sara to form a foursome with an existing group.
The same guide had launched into a talk on what to expect, mentioning that the rapids they'd be riding were classified as Class II and III. That wasn't particularly daunting in a ranking system that topped out at Class V, but the approaching rapid was reportedly the most challenging.
"Just follow the path the lead kayak takes, and it'll be a breeze," the guide had said.
Sara, buoyed by the same spirit of daring that had enabled her to leave her old life behind, had believed her.
Until this moment and this rapid.
If things didn't go well, Sara might be tempted to believe her family knew her better than she knew herself.
The rush of blood pounding in her ears merged with the roar of the white water as she paddled along with the others in her raft through the rapids. Rocks jutted out from the river, their edges appearing as jagged as serrated knives.
The rubber raft ran the gauntlet, bouncing on the water as though navigating the bumps and turns of a roller coaster. Sara's stomach pitched and rolled with every swerve of the raft, and she consciously had to remind herself to inhale. They shot through the final stretch, a film of spray sprinkling the air as exhilaration hit Sara like a splash in the face.
She turned to see how the rafters trailing them were faring, the sun temporarily blinding her before her vision cleared. The raft directly behind them had veered to the right, where the rocks were more numerous, the path more treacherous.
Worse, one of the five people in the rafta tow-headed boy no older than ten or elevenperched not on the edge of the raft but smack in the middle, the exact spot he'd been warned not to sit.
The ejector seat, the guide had called it during the safety segment of her pre-trip talk.
Sara spotted the massive rock at the same time as the rafters in the boy's raft. A man and woman Sara presumed were the boy's parents, plus two older kids, paddled furiously to avoid it, but their raft smashed into the unyielding surface of the rock with resounding force.
Horror gripped her heart as the boy went flying into the swirling water of the river. His companions kept paddling, trying to navigate the rapid, seemingly oblivious to what had happened.
"Man overboard!" Sara yelled, but the thunderous howl of the white water drowned out the sound to everyone except those in her raft.
The boy's blond head and the orange of his life-jacket became visible above the white froth. His arms flailed wildly.
Sara frantically tried to remember what the guide had instructed them to do should a rafter fall overboard.
"Feet first!" she shouted, but the boy didn't have a prayer of hearing over the angry rumble of the water. She couldn't even hear herself. "Lie back!"
The boy remained upright, increasing the likelihood his foot would get wedged by a rock. If he got stuck, the water would rush over his head, overwhelming him. And nobody in her raft could reach him, not when they were downriver from the spot where he'd fallen in and the current was running against them.
"Somebody help him!" Panic welled in her throat but she kept yelling. "Oh, please God! Somebody help him!"
A commercial trip like this one should have no shortage of people who could come to the rescue, but the guide in the lead kayak had already moved on to the next stretch of river and a big gap existed between the boy and the rafts bringing up the rear. Even if the guide in the trailing kayak noticed the boy was in trouble, he'd arrive too late.
The boy bounced off a rock, and Sara prayed his vest had cushioned the blow, that his head hadn't taken a hit.
The water swept him along a perilous few feet, but he managed to remain upright. Then abruptly his forward progress stopped, and Sara suspected the worst had happened. He was stuck.
"Help him!" Sara yelled, the sound swallowed by the white water that had turned from beautiful to deadly in an instant.
Panic squeezed Sara's heart. The other people in her raft were also shouting now. The four of them paddled desperately against the current even though reaching the boy was hopeless.
And then she saw a second dark head in the water, moving toward the first. A man this time, but not the man who'd been in the raft with the boy. It could only be the man who'd been sitting on the side of the river.
The man shot through the hissing rapids feet-first, with no inflated rubber raft to protect his body from the merciless rocks, a Lone Ranger tactic that could get him killed. The froth rose up intermittently to obscure him from view, but he moved inexorably closer to his goal.
The boy was fifteen feet away.
And then the water splashed violently against the rocks, spraying into the air so Sara lost sight of both man and boy. She pictured the current sucking them under the surface, their mouths gasping for oxygen, their lungs filling with water. Dread welled up inside Sara like bile, and she shut her eyes against the devastating disappointment.
But when she opened them again, man and boy were moving down the river as one. The man must have hooked his arm around the boy, dislodging him from whatever had pinned him in place. He was guiding the boy away from the rocks, away from the swirling froth, away from danger.
The relentless surge of the white water deposited the boy and his rescuer into the relative calm of the cool, clear pool below the rapids, not far from Sara's foursome and the raft of people who'd only just discovered the boy missing.
The boy was gasping and his young face looked as white as the froth on the rapids, but he appeared to be unhurt. Thanks to the man.
Sara caught a glimpse of a thin stream of blood trickling down the side of a hard, handsome face before the man helped hoist the boy back onto the raft into the waiting arms of the couple Sara believed were his parents.
The current was already taking the rafts downriver from the scene of the rescue. The man swam at an angle to shore, his strokes sure and strong. Sara watched until he reached land and stepped onto the bank, his clothes hanging wetly on his tall, muscular body. He, too, appeared to be okay.
Who was he? she wondered as her raft drifted farther and farther away. But she already knew.
He was a hero.
He was a coward.
Otherwise he'd hang up the hotel phone, change into something besides the faded jeans and T-shirt he wore and drive to the Indigo Springs restaurant where Johnny and his fiancée were holding their rehearsal dinner.
"Yeah?" It was Johnny's voice, barely audible above the buzz of conversation and clinking of silverware.
"Johnny, it's Michael."
"Mikey Mike," Johnny exclaimed, the ridiculous nickname making Michael smile. Only Johnny could get away with calling him that. "Where are you? We're almost through with appetizers."
Michael swallowed. "I'm not coming."
"What? Hold on a minute." The background noise gradually lessened, and Michael pictured Johnny walking away from the table to find a quieter spot. "What aren't you coming to? The rehearsal dinner or the wedding?"
"So you're in town?" Johnny asked, his relief evident.
"I will be," Michael said, deliberately vague. There was no point in telling Johnny that, in another cowardly move, he'd checked into a cookie-cutter hotel near the interstate that was a full twenty miles from Indigo Springs. Especially since he'd led Johnny to believe he'd be staying with his great-aunt.
"Want to tell me why you're not coming to dinner?"
Michael didn't, but Johnny deserved an answer. Without Johnny's friendship, life in Indigo Springs would have been even less bearable. Even after Chrissy's death, Johnny had stuck by him, making the two-hour drive to visit him in Johnstown every few months. They hadn't seen each other since Michael had gone to the West African country of Niger two years ago, but the bond they'd formed as teenagers never weakened. Johnny was more like a brother than a friend.
"I've got a nasty bump on my head." Michael gingerly touched the spot where his forehead had come in contact with the edge of a rock. The hot shower he'd taken had washed away the river water and the blood but not the bruise. "I wouldn't be good company, especially in a crowd."
"What happened?" Johnny asked sharply. "Were you in an accident?"
"A minor one." Guilt gnawed at Michael. His head ached, but not enough to keep him from anything he really wanted to do. "It'll be fine by morning."
"I'm sure," Michael said, then cleared the emotion from his throat. It had been a long time since anyone had been concerned about him. "You'd better get back to your guests."
"And you better show tomorrow, buddy. I let you weasel out of being my best man, but I want you at my wedding, damn it. I'm only getting married once."
"I'll be there," Michael promised.