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Matt DeMarco's eyesight was neon green and distorted, thanks to the night-vision goggles he was using for his fruitless scan of the horizon.
A mixture of seawater and sand sloshed around his legs as he continued a slow, methodical jog along the water's edge.
He'd been at it since midnight, a full twenty-seven hours since the Carolina Moon should have docked at Charleston Harbor. He knew enough about Atlantic tides and currents to realize that if the private yacht had experienced any sort of mechanical malfunction, it would be drifting offshore in the general vicinity of Folly Beach.
Where the hell was Janice? His softly muttered curse of frustration was lost in the sound of the gently lapping surf.
She was a damn good partner and had covered his butt, and he owed her big time. But she'd gone too far this time. Deep under cover, she'd been in the wind for over a month, not filing progress reports, not even communicating with her supervisory agent. The last report she'd filed had placed her in Charleston. And the last confirmed sighting of her was from a week ago when she'd rented a boat to take her out to the Carolina Moon.
Janice Cross was like a pit bull. Once she got her teeth into something, she wouldn't let go. But he prayed whatever she'd discovered on the Carolina Moon hadn't cost her her life.
As dawn approached, the waters were beginning to fill with the fleet of shrimpers and fishermen working the ocean, rivers and oyster beds in and around Charleston.
If the private yacht was disabled, surely one of the fishing fleet would
His thought was lost as Matt suddenly choked in a mouthful of briny water. Only then did hisbrain fully process the fact that he'd tripped and gone flying into the lukewarm ocean. Spitting the grit of sand, bits of shell and God-only-knew-what-else out of his mouth, he pushed up to his knees, feeling around in the murky water for his goggles. No luck.
"Damn," he muttered, pushing dripping hair off his forehead.
Glancing over his shoulder, he looked for the cause of his dive into the shallow surf, expecting a discarded cooler or driftwood or, more likely, one of those federally protected, lumbering, loggerhead turtles that spent the month of April plodding up to the dunes to lay eggs.
The first sliver of hazy sunshine illuminated the beach, and he felt his throat squeeze tight.
This was no turtle. It was the body of a young woman whose long blond hair swished and swayed with the movement of the ebbing surf. She appeared to be wearing some kind of evening gown.
Scanning the surrounding area, Matt grabbed her beneath the arms, dragging her up higher on the beach.
Dropping to his knees at her side, he placed his ear near her mouth. Relieved to hear a single, faint wheeze, he then checked her pulse. Untangling the mass of long blond hair from her face, he tilted her head back and alternated between mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions.
When she spat out a gurgle of water, he rolled her on her side and patted her back as she coughed and sputtered water from her lungs.
Matt reached around and felt for the cell phone he kept clipped at his waistband. Flipping it open, he found himself staring at a blank screen. Sand particles crusted the keypad. His phone was state-of-the-art, but apparently not waterproof.
The woman's lashes fluttered, but her eyes still hadn't opened.
"Hang on, honey," he whispered, then again glanced in both directions. He should call fire and rescue and the police. Normally he would have, but his current status as a Special Agent in Charge, on loan to the short-staffed Charleston office made that impossible without blowing his unofficial assignmentfinding Janice. The next best option was to hand the woman off to someone else. Janice's life might very well depend on it.
There were two guys a couple of hundred yards south. Too far away to be of any immediate help. Crap. He couldn't just leave her on the beach.
She coughed again, then drew in a deep, labored breath.
"I know it hurts, but you're breathing."
When she lifted her right hand, Matt noticed that blood was trickling down from her palm and also that she had a goose-egg-size lump on her forehead. Straddling her, he ran his fingers along her neck and found that aside from the fact that she wore only one gold earring, there were no bulges or obvious distensions. She didn't have a broken neck. As far as he could tell, her bloody hand was her most serious injury. Matt reached for the hem of her gown and gave a rough tug. The fabric tore easily. Though wet and sandy, as a temporary bandage for her hand it would have to do.
Spotting movement in his peripheral vision, Matt managed to shift enough to avoid the sand she flung at his face.
Though she couldn't weigh much more than a hundred poundswet gown includedshe heaved him off her and began clawing her way toward the dunes.
He probably should have let her go. She had, after all, just ungratefully tossed him on his ass. Yep, he should just let her go on her merry way. Except that she'd nearly drowned, had a lump on her head and her hand was dripping a trail of blood onto the sand.
That, and he didn't believe in coincidences. What were the chances of Janice being missing at sea and this woman rolling in with the high tide?
Realizing she might be his only lead, Matt let out an exasperated breath and went after her. Snaking his hand around her small waist, he lifted her off the ground. She flailed against him but she didn't scream. Odd.
"Stop kicking," he said between gritted teeth, squeezing her more tightly against his chest.
"Let go. You're hurting me."
Matt loosened his grip but didn't release her. "I'm not trying to hurt you. I'm trying to help you. You're bleeding."
She stilled as he lifted her wrist and raised her hand toward her face. He heard a little breath catch in her throat.
Carefully, he reached down, hooking his hand behind her knees and lifted her into his arms. "We need to get you to a hospital. You prob"
"No, no hospitals." Her eyes were a rich, dark blue and there was more than panic there. Matt saw a deep fear. Of what? Or who?
"My cell's useless," he told her softly, "but there's a pay phone in the parking lot." He shifted her higher in his arms as he navigated the sand. "You can call a friend."
"Pretty gallant of you given that a minute ago you were ripping off my dress," she said as she jammed an elbow into his rib cage.
Air bellowed from his lungs. "Rip your geez, lady! I needed something to wrap around your hand to stop the bleeding."
Confusion knitted her brows. "You weren't ?"
He glared down at her. "No, I wasn't. Call me picky, but I prefer a willing, responsive partner to a bleeding, semi-conscious one. You have to get some medical attention for that hand."
He watched as her full lips drew into a grimace as she unwound the bandage and surveyed the gash in her palm. "It doesn't look good, does it?"
Matt reached the parking lot and carried her to his Jeep. Setting her down, he leaned her against the car while he opened the passenger's door. "Who do you want me to call?"
It was a struggle to keep from rolling his eyes. "Either give me a name and a number or I'm taking you to the nearest emergency room."
"I told you, no hospitals."
"That wound isn't going to heal on its own." Irritation ratcheted up a notch or two. "No emergency contact number, fine. No hospital? Fine, too. Get in. I'll take you to the closest urgent-care facility. We'll make better time if I just drive you. There's a place off Calhoun Street. We can be there in twenty minutes or less. Or, Roper Hospital isn't that far. We can"
"No," she said, shaking her head so vehemently that water splattered everywhere. "I can't"
"ignore that gash."
Matt knew wounds and the long, diagonal injury to her hand was a defensive knife wound. Who had she been defending herself against and why?
"I won't ignore it. Thank you for your help."
The fact that she averted her eyes as she attempted to dismiss him didn't go unnoticed. Nor did the ridiculousness of her remark. She was still bleeding profusely, so he opted for a different tack.
He knew his own motivation for not drawing the attention of the local authorities. What he couldn't fathom was why a woman who'd obviously been in some sort of altercation, obviously jumped or been thrown into the ocean, was so resistant to going through normal channels. Seriously strange behavior.
Tugging his T-shirt over his head, he ripped off a strip of damp cotton and created a second makeshift pressure bandage.
"Thank you." She kept her elbow bent and her hand above her heart and then took a wobbly step away from the car.
Matt grabbed her by the shoulders, steadying her and preventing her from wandering off. "You should see a doctor," he reiterated.
"It's not bleeding as much," she said, lifting her hand in front of his face.
Maybe her weird reaction had something to do with the big bump on her forehead. "You need stitches, a CT scan of your head and you've likely got water still in your lungs. You don't want me to take you to the hospital, okay. Tell me who to call and you can be their problem."
"Is there a third option?"
He read fear and confusion in her eyes as she tilted her face to his. "Like?" He let the word dangle in the air between them.
"I don't have anyone to call and I can't go to a hospital, either."
Matt knew trouble when he saw it and as a rule, did his best to avoid it when possible. One look at the drenched blonde with the wide, frightened eyes and he knew possible had just taken a vacation.
"What boat were you on?" he asked.
"Boat?" she repeated as if he'd spoken in tongues.
He looked down at her pricey-looking stilettos, which had remained on her feet despite what she'd been through, and said, "You aren't a mermaid. So I'll assume you ended up in the water the old-fashioned way."
He actually chuckled at her deadpan delivery. "Most women don't swim in an evening gown and heels. You must have gone overboard." His mind raced forward. "There haven't been any reports of a manpersonoverboard or vessels in distress to the Coast Guard," he said. "Did you go out alone? Capsize, maybe?" He grabbed her good hand and turned it palm up. "You've been in the water a long time," he said as he pressed gently to test the loose skin on her uninjured hand.
"How long?" she asked, and then snatched back her hand to cover her mouth as a raspy cough rumbled in her throat.
"You don't know?"
Her eyes narrowed slightly and sparkled with a flash of what might be anger. "Forgive me, but I guess I lost track of time while I was losing blood, fighting currents and floating in the ocean in the dark."
She began to slouch and he tightened his arm around her waist. "How about you sit down before you fall down?"
"That might be a good idea," she agreed, putting up no resistance as he guided her into the car.
Matt lifted her legs and tucked them into the footwell before he walked around the car. On his way to the driver's seat, he grabbed a fresh shirt out of the back of the Jeep and shrugged it over his head before slipping behind the wheel. He shot her a glance as he stuck the key in the ignition. She looked like a drowned rat.
What do you know? He thought again about Janice.
"Where are we going?"
"You don't want to go to a hospital. I'm giving you that. But we're getting you appropriate medical attention."
"A friend of a friend. I'm Matt DeMarco, by the way."
Again, she seemed to be taking the words for a trial run.
Matt drove quickly back toward Charleston, sometimes ignoring traffic signals and often weaving through cars even if it meant violating no passing zones and rolling through stop signs. "You, ah, seem a little out of it," he said softly. "Sure you don't want to rethink the hospital option?"
"Definitely not." She shifted straighter in the seat. "I appreciate what you've done, but you can just drop me at the next corner."
"Right," he scoffed. "Do you really want to roam the streets of Charleston bleeding? What do you suppose the folks would make of that?"
Matt veered to the right to cross the Ashley River. On the other side of the bridge, he could see the Battery, a jutting peninsula where the Ashley and Cooper rivers joined. If you were from Charleston which he wasn'tyou'd smugly proclaim that the Ashley and the Cooper met to create the Atlantic Ocean.
"Are you planning on telling me your name?"
She rested her head on the seat back, "Wasn't planning on it, no."
"Are you being mysterious or rude?"
"Okay, I'll play." He took his eyes off the road long enough to catch a glimpse of her. She was struggling to remain conscious. Her long lashes fluttered against her cheeks and her flawless skin had gone pale. "Keep your hand up, the bleeding has started again." Given the head injury, he decided it was a good idea to keep her talking. "You've got the accent, so you're a native?"