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A dark shape bobbed on the water outlined by a muted orange sunset and then disappeared. A seal? Amy squinted at the horizon, spotting another object in the fog-shrouded distance. That one had to be a boat.
She leaned the flag in the corner of the lifeguard tower and grabbed a broom. After sweeping the sand out the door, she dumped the hot water from the bucket onto the beach. They kept the hot water available in the tower to treat stingray stings, but with the kids back in school and the summer crowds gone, they didn't really need it. She liked to follow the rules in case anyone challenged her. She didn't need trouble. She'd had enough.
She lifted the receiver of the red phone and called the main lifeguard station up the coast. Zeke Shepherd picked up on the first ring.
"This is Amy Prescott in Tower Twenty-eight. I'm out of here."
"Hey, Amy. Catch any excitement on your last day?"
"Not unless you count an older couple out for a walk with their metal detectors and a couple of joggers. This fog is starting to roll in pretty fast. It drove everyone away about a half hour ago."
Zeke snorted. "I hate Tower Twenty-eight once the summer's over. No people, no action. Do you want me to pick you up in the truck and give you a ride back to your car?"
"No, thanks. I'm jogging back."
"You're in such good shape you should've kicked that guy's butt when you found out"
Amy cut him off. "See you later, Zeke."
Had every lifeguard in San Diego County heard she'd been duped by a married man a couple months ago?
She slammed the receiver back in its cradle. She might as well have Gullible Sap tattooed on her forehead. For all the precautions she usually took with relationships, Carlos had really played her.
Reaching up to unlatch the cover of the lookout window to swing it down, she glanced at the ocean. The animal on the water had moved closer to shore and now looked bigger than a seal. Amy snagged the binoculars from the hook and turned them toward the object.
A breath hitched in her throat. Two scuba divers had broken the surface and seemed to be struggling toward the beach. Had one of them lost air? Embolized?
Amy shimmied out of her sweat pants, yanked the sweatshirt over her head and dropped them both on top of her open backpack. With her heart racing, she lifted the phone off the hook and left it dangling. Of course, she'd already told Zeke she was leaving, but protocol prevailed. If someone did call the tower, the busy signal would indicate a rescue.
Grabbing her orange rescue can, she sprinted down the ramp of the lifeguard tower and churned up dry sand on her way to the ocean.
The divers, still struggling, had moved closer to the shoreline. Amy high-stepped over the waves and plunged into the chilly water, dolphin-kicking her way to the two people.
One diver had his arm around the other diver's neck, the man flailing in his grasp. That technique would kill him, not rescue him.
Amy shouted as she neared the duo, and the stronger diver looked up. The person in his arms slumped and he released him into the water. Adrenaline pumped through Amy's system as she shot forward and caught the disabled diver before the next wave rolled in, dragging him back out to sea.
She hooked one arm around his chest while offering the rescue can to the other diver. He shook his head and plowed through the water toward the beach with a strong stroke.
He seemed to have a lot of strength left; why hadn't he helped his buddy? He might be disoriented or in shock. She'd call the station as soon as she got this one to shore and revived him.
Still clutching the unconscious diver, Amy rode the last wave onto the wet sand. The other diver had reached the beach ahead of her and now struggled out of his gear, dropping his tank to the ground.
Rolling the victim onto his back, Amy called out to the other man. "Are you okay?"
He ripped his mask from his face and tossed it onto the sand. "Don't bother. He's dead."
His cold words felt like another splash of ocean water on her face. Then she took in his heaving chest and a jagged rip along the side of his wet suit. He probably needed medical attention for shock.
She flipped up the mask from the injured man's face and tipped his head back, placing one hand on his chest. His companion spoke too soon. A feeble heartbeat struggled beneath the diver's wet suit.
A warm, sticky substance oozed through her stiff fingers and she gasped. The man's wet suit sported a huge gash down the front and blood seeped from the tear. What the heck had gone on out there?
Amy clamped both hands against the wound to staunch the loss of blood. The man's body shuddered and jerked. His arms flew up and he grabbed her around the neck, his strong fingers creating a vise and grinding her gold chain into her neck. Choking, she clawed at his arms with her bloody hands, her nails skimming off the thick neoprene of the wet suit.
The diver behind her charged toward them and drove his knee into the man's throat. Her attacker's hands dropped from her neck and he slumped, a gush of air escaping from his lungs, a gurgle of blood spouting from the tear in his wet suit.
Amy hacked and tumbled backward, her hands hitting the sand behind her. She scrambled like a crab across the wet surface, leaving bloody indentations in her wake.
"Sorry about that." The stranger pressed his fingers against the throat of the man who'd just tried to strangle her. "Thought I had him. He's dead now."
"W-what happened to him? Why did he attack me when I was trying to save him?" She raised her gaze to the other diver, now on his knees, peeling his wet suit from the top half of his body and toeing off his fins.
He cocked his head, squinting into the fog with a steely blue gaze. "I stabbed him."
Then she noticed a knife plunged into the sand next to him. Screaming, she rolled onto her stomach and launched to her knees. A hand encircled her ankle, yanking her leg back, and she landed on her belly again. She spun around, kicking wildly with her other leg.
The man fell on top of her, covering her mouth with his hand, grinding salty grains of sand against her lips. She struggled to knee him in the crotch, but his body felt like a lead weight against her, immobilizing her.
His face inches from hers, he brought a finger to his lips. "Shh."
A chill raced up her spine. Then she heard itthe low whine of a motorboat. Salvation. She bucked beneath her captor and worked her jaw to open her mouth and bite his hand.
His voice growled close to her ear, his briny scent invading her nostrils. "Stop fighting me. Those are some very dangerous men out there on that boat."
His words sucked the already-diminishing air out of her lungs, and she slumped beneath his rock-hard body. She moved her lips against his palm in a silent question, the saltwater on his hand working its way into her mouth.
The maniac flashed a smile, rows of white teeth in a tanned face. They gleamed in the fog that now surrounded them like damp cotton. He winked. "Don't worry. I'm one of the good guys."
Her eyes darted to the dead diver slumped in a heap at the water's edge.
"He's one of the bad guys." He shifted his muscular frame, giving her some breathing room. "I'm going to remove my hand from your mouth and let you up, but you need to stay close to me and we need to get off this beach. Nice job on that rescue, by the way."
Amy swallowed, not even minding the sand that scratched her throat. Two lunatics had invaded her beach and now one of them planned to kidnap her. The perfect ending to a lousy couple of months.
As soon as he removed his hand and his hold, she planned to scream bloody murder and run toward the sound of the boat. She could swim a long distance if she had to. Her gaze tracked over the muscled shoulders and corded arms of the man who held her, and her stomach fluttered. He could probably swim just as fast and far.
And he had a knife.
He slid his hand from her mouth, resting it on her throat. Amy dropped her gaze to the stranger's sinewy forearm and gulped. He could easily finish the job the dead guy started. As she gathered air in her lungs for a big scream, a motor whirred fast, loud and close.
In one movement, her captor rolled off her body and grabbed her arm, yanking her to her feet. At the same time, a scream ripped from her throat. A loud pop followed her cry for help and the man beside her cursed.
"Thanks a lot, beach girl. You just gave them a target in this muck."
The people on the boat confirmed his words as they fired two more shots in the general direction of Amy's head.
"Let's move." The man shoved her in front of him and she stumbled as her feet hit dry sand. At least if any more bullets came their way, they'd have to go through his large frame first. And he made a great shield.
Was he protecting her?
Keeping his hand pressed against the small of her back, he said, "This fog should give us enough cover to make it to the lifeguard truckas long as you keep your screaming to a minimum."
Either she followed the man with the knife or turned toward the men with the guns. Since he hadn't used the knife on heryetand the guys on the boat insisted on shooting at vague shapes in the fog, even after she screamed, Amy put her money on the guy with the knife.
Her legs pumped in the sand. She veered toward the tower and grabbed her backpack with her sweats on top. She didn't hear any more gunshots and the occupants of the boat must've cut the motor because she couldn't hear the distinctive whine.
The thick fog almost obscured her companion. He didn't even seem to be breathing heavily, or maybe she couldn't hear him over the roaring in her ears and her own ragged breath.
He bumped her side, grabbing her upper arm. "Where's the lifeguard truck?"
"I don't have a truck on this beach. My car's parked in the lot." She tried to shake him off, but his fingers pinched harder.
"You'd better not be lying and leading me into some kind of trap. That could get us both killed." His icy blue eyes almost glowed in the fog.
"You're the one with the knife." She pried his fingers off her arm and kicked up sand behind her, hoping she got some in his face.
The beach remained eerily quiet behind them, but the dense fog could mute sounds. Amy kept up a steady pace, her feet leading her to the parking lot where her car waited. Once they got there, she'd dig her cell phone out of her backpack and call the police. The stranger couldn't object if he really was on the right side of the law.
A strip of dark asphalt appeared and Amy pointed. "It's right there."
When the soles of her feet slapped against the gritty asphalt, she swung her backpack from her shoulder and clawed for her keys in the front compartment. She clicked the remote and gasped when the man swept her in front of him, pushing her toward the car.
"Get in and drive."
Before she had a chance to figure out if she could take off without him, he scrambled into the passenger seat. He pounded the dashboard. "What are you waiting for? I said 'drive.'"
She curled her left fist around her keys and fumbled with a zipper on the backpack crushed between her lap and the bottom edge of the steering wheel. Her fingers skimmed the smooth metal of her cell phone and she pulled it out.
"I'm going to call 911 first."
His jaw hardened as he sluiced back his wet hair, beginning to curl at the ends. With a pair of broad shoulders and washboard abs that tapered to the wet suit peeled down to his slim hips, he looked like Triton or at least some sexy merman. Then he opened his mouth.
"No, you're not. We need to get out of here. Now."
Sounded like he knew his enemies well. Who was she to argue? She tossed her backpack in the backseat and started the car. "You're right. Those guys seemed determined."
A breath hitched in her throat. Maybe they were determined because they were cops or the Coast Guard, but would they start shooting into a bank of fog after she screamed without even shouting out a warning? Experience had taught her they just might. Her father had taught her to never trust the law.
Her gaze slid to the knife resting on the man's powerful thigh encased in black neoprene. She didn't have a choice right now anyway, but his reaction to her call to 911 would tell her a lot.
As she accelerated out of the beach parking lot, she scooped her cell phone from her lap where she'd dropped it and flipped it open. She'd pressed Nine before the man beside her snatched the phone from her hand.
"You can't call the cops." He cradled the phone in his palm and snapped it shut.
Amy clung to the steering wheel, her knuckles turning white. "You're going to kill me, aren't you? F-for witnessing that murder."
He tossed the phone into the backseat and let out a ragged breath. Squeezing her bare thigh with his long fingers, he said, "I'm not going to hurt you, beach girl. I'm sorry you're scared."
If he meant to soothe her with his gentle touch on her leg, it sent a ripple of fear across her skin instead. Did he plan to rape her before he murdered her?
Amy swallowed. He seemed like a fairly reasonable lunatic. Maybe she could use logic on him. "Why can't I call 911? The operator can alert the Coast Guard and go after the the bad guys. You could be long gone by the time they picked them up, and I swear I won't tell them anything about you."
"You wouldn't be a very good lifeguard if you did that, would you?" He clicked his tongue as he rummaged through her glove compartment. He pulled out her registration and peered at it. "You can call the cops when you get home. By that time, I will be long gone and so will that dead body on the beach."
Her heart did a somersault in her chest. "When I get home?"
He flicked the paper registration with his finger. "Yeah. Drive back to your place and I'll disappear in a puff of smoke or more likely a blanket of fog."