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Bayley Foster held a dead man in her arms.
And tried as hard as she could not to think about it. Mostly it took all her concentration to keep swimming for shore. Hoping with all her heart that her neighbor heard her screams as she'd launched herself off the deck of her beach house. Late afternoon, he should be home.
Bayley'd thought the floating man might still be alive when she'd seen the dark head bobbing in the water in the late afternoon sun. Seeing him up close, she knew he was dead. He looked dead. More than that, his soul was gone.
Still, he was a person, someone's dad or brother or friend. He deserved better than drifting to some unknown watery grave in the Gulf of Mexico. His family deserved to know what happened to him.
She could easily imagine her family in that situation, never knowing what happened to her if her stalker hadn't been stopped.
She didn't want to touch the body, stifled a gag even now just gripping the collar of his suit coat to drag him behind her toward shore. But she was making itone awkward, frog-legged stroke at a time.
Just her and the dead guy.
Maybe she should call him Bob. Or not. He kind of looked like Great-uncle Harold. Since Harold was dead, too, surely he wouldn't mind sharing his name for a while.
The riptide caught her by surprise, grabbed her in its iron grip, drawing her away from where she wanted to go. Shore. Safety.
The current sucked at her legs, every stroke like pulling through mud, the body dragging behind her. For the first time, she realized how stupid it had been for her to go in after him. She'd heard the stories of well-meaning tourists who didn't know better facing the vicious undertow, trying tosave someone else when they couldn't even save themselves. She was a locala Florida nativeshe should know better.
Where was her neighbor? What she wouldn't give to see him come swishing by on his surfboard about now. A retired cop two doors downover the past few months, she'd come to trust his dear face, horn-rimmed glasses and all. She knew he wouldn't let her down.
She was so tired already. Giving her head a shake, Bayley cleared the clammy, salt-soaked hair from her eyes. She commanded herself to pay attention to her surroundings and forced her muscles to continue the strokes parallel to the beach that would deliver her from the riptide.
She wanted to rest, but that was dangerousshe'd only get sucked out farther. Keep swimming. Her leg muscles burned, each halfhearted kick shooting shards of pain up to her hips. But she couldn't stop. Wouldn't stop.
"Just a little rest. That wouldn't hurt, would it, Harold?" Yeah, it would hurt. If she gave in, she might end up taking her eternal rest, just like Harold. Fighting against that siren's voice in her head, she kept kicking, slowing against her will.
Focus on the task, Bayley. She was taking him home, this man whom somebody loved. Wouldn't she have wanted someone to do the same for her? The nearly healed muscle in her right shoulder where she'd been stabbed screamed at her, reminding her of how close she'd come to being dead. Like this guy.
But God had been faithful, even then, when He'd felt so far away. He'd brought her through circumstances that made her shudder to think about. He had plans for her. She knew He did, and He would bring her through this, too.
She struggled to keep her head above the water. Salty waves poured into her mouth with every gasp. At least it would be fast.
How could she even think that? She'd spent the past four years of her life fighting for survival. With God's help, she'd won against a determined stalker. She refused to die here when she had the strength to fight.
"Come on, Harold." Kicking harder, she inched forward.
The riptide spit her out as suddenly and effortlessly as it had gripped her. Bayley drifted for a few seconds in the normal ebb and flow of the surf, ablefinallyto swim toward the shore. She looked up to gauge the distance and saw the roofline of her house, and her friendly cop's, and Mrs. P's. The other colorful homes on wooden stilt pilings along the Florida Panhandle shore.
And that guy so wasn't her cop coming to rescue her.
He plowed through the surf, looking like a blond Adonis, already waist deep, his black Sea Breeze PD T-shirt wet from the waves slapping his broad chest.
Her feet hit the sand. She struggled forward, groping with her toes for purchase in the churning water. A huge breaker knocked into her and she went down, tumbling. Her knee scraped against the sand, the force tearing her skin, leaving it raw and stinging in the salt water.
A hand grasped her T-shirt and hauled her up and out of the water. Impervious to the force of the waves, he set her on her feet and held her there.
"Are you okay?" His green eyes, nearly the exact color of the ocean, filled with concern.
"I think so, but this guy's not."
The guy got his first look at the body, and shot her a somber glance. "He's dead."
"I know." Bayley wanted to explain she wasn't really that clueless, but she didn't have the energyor the breathto try. It was all she could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other with the waves beating against her back.
"You can let go of him."
She still had the fabric of the man's suit coat twisted in her fist. Looking at it, she barely recognized her own fingers, white and wrinkled from the water.
The stranger's hand grasped her elbow. "You can let go of him now. I'll take care of him."
Somehow, she knew he would. She opened her fingers, wincing against the cramp from being clutched too long in the same position. "Rest in peace, Harold."
"Get out of the water, now." The cop lifted the man into his arms without even a grunt of effort. He surged out of the ocean.
Bayley stumbled into the shallow foam at the edge of the Gulf, red and blue lights sending long weird beams from the road out over the uneven sand. Two paramedics pounded across the dunes, a stretcher between them.
She sank to her knees and rolled onto her back, the surf breaking just beyond her feet and sliding over her legs. Boneless, her body melted into the sand beneath her, her eyes closing in relief. She could hear the officer's deep voice directing the scene, so firm and in control.
Just like a cop, always having to be in charge. She drifted a little further toward sleep. Too bad, 'cause he had really pretty green eyes.
Cruse Conyers handed the body off to the paramedics, but probably not for long. Unnatural, unexplained deaths were investigated by detectives. So he'd be spending some more time with Bayley Foster's "Harold."
Yeah, he knew who his neighbor was. Anyone with a newspaper would. And he knew that her family owned the house two doors down, though he had few memories of her there over the years.
She'd been incredibly lucky to get out of the water on a red flag day like today. Only the very stupid or very brave would have done what she did. He didn't know her personally, but the retired cop who'd borrowed his house while he'd been undercover for the past two months had raved about her. She wasn't stupid.
Brave, then. His sister wouldn't have gotten within ten feet of a dead body, much less attached herself to him like Velcro and dragged him out of the ocean.
Cruse scanned the crowd of onlookers, all gawking at the dead man. Where was Bayley?
She'd followed him out of the water. Hadn't she?
He spun around, taking a step back toward the ocean. Dusk was falling, dappling the sand with shadows. But he saw her, a dark figure, lying half in the water, half out.
He broke into a jog. Had he missed something? She'd been tired, exhausted even, but maybe she had a head injury and he hadn't given her the chance to tell him, or maybe she'd hurt her neck in that tumble she took in the surf.
Reaching her side, he stopped. Her eyes were closed, but her chest rose and fell. Sharp, quick breaths still. He didn't move her, not yet. If she had a neck injury, he'd only hurt her.
He touched her shoulder, careful not to shake her.
Dark blue eyes flashed open, zeroing in on his with quick comprehension. A flicker of pain crossed her face as she struggled to sit. He stood, ready to whistle for the paramedics. The dead guy could wait. His injuries certainly couldn't get any worse.
"Wait, I'm just beat."
She laid her head down on her knees, her dark brown hair covering her face. Now that her legs were out of the water, he could see blood coursing from her knee down her shin. She was hurt. And though it was far from chilly, the summer heat was fading. After the exertion of swimming, she'd be cooling down, and fast.
She'd hauled a dead man out of the water, swimming against a riptide. Somebody should help her. He leaned down and scooped her up in his arms. She yelped.
"Be still. You're exhausted and you need to get inside and get out of those wet clothes." He grinned down at her. "And since we haven't been introduced, I'm Cruse Conyers."
"Bayley Foster. And my legs work fine." Navy-blue eyes snapped.
"Relax, door-to-door delivery is part of the service."
She shook her head like a teacher with an incorrigible child, and his smile faded away.
Cop. Job. Dead guy. He tried to focus on thatanything to get his mind off the fact that his arms were full of soft, curvy Bayley. Where she rested against his chest was far from cold. Bayley wasn't the kind of girl Cruse had those thoughts about. She was a nice girl, a home-and-family kind of girl. And while he once might have dreamed of that kind of life, he knew now it was out of the question for him.
He'd nailed the lid on those dreams with the same nails that had hung his police academy diploma on the wall, joining the force in hopes of fixing the unfixable.
His little sister had been attacked, the criminal having taken everything from her but her life. He couldn't change the past for his sister. The best he could do for her was to save some other poor woman from the same fate.
Mrs. Phillips, the next-door neighbor on the other side of Bayley, had caught sight of them and beelined toward him.
Her short, black hair frizzed in the humid evening air and flapped up and down as she slogged through the fine sand.
"Cruse. Oh, Cruse? Is that Bayley? Is she okay?"
"I'm fine, Mrs. P, just tired." Bayley squirmed into a semi-upright position, which to her probably seemed like a good idea.
His gut clenched, his fingers tightening involuntarily to curve around her ribs. Old temptations, the kind he used to follow without a second thought, threatened to overwhelm him. He hadn't been a Christian long, but he knew he wasn't that guy, not anymore.
Think about boring things, Cruse. Writing reports, flossing his teeth, uh, folding clothesnot that he ever did that. Oh, and those decorating shows his sister liked to watch. Those were really boring. Shaved trees, shaped like pelicans. Topiary, topiary, topiary.
His mental chant wasn't working. She was going to have to walk. He set her on her feet and grabbed her hand, pulling her toward her beach house.
"You've got to be upset, dear. I mean, after all, you were swimming with a dead man." Mrs. P fluttered up the steps and followed them through the half-open door into Bayley's kitchen.
Cruse needed to get out of Bayley's house and fast. He was her neighbor, and a cop. He could watch out for her, protect her, help her with heavy boxes. What he couldn't do was think about her in that way.
Pulling a chair from the table with his foot, Cruse pushed Bayley gently down. She shivered in the air-conditioning.
Cruse strode into the bedroom, snatching up the first thing he sawa warm, worn quilt from the bottom of Bayley's bed. Back in the kitchen, he wrapped her from head to toe, wooden dining chair included.
Mrs. P bustled in Bayley's all-white kitchen, heating a kettle, two ceramic mugs on the counter with tea-bag tags hanging out. The self-appointed neighborhood grandmother had things under control here. Bayley didn't need him and that suited him just fine. She'd needed help and he'd helped her. That's what he did. He helped people. He protected. He didn't get involved.
"Get some rest, Bayley. I've got to get back outside to the scene, but I'll have some questions for you later." He nodded at the diminutive older lady, now patting Bayley's back as she bobbed her head at him. "Mrs. P. Take care."
Outside, the freedom and wildness of the Gulf balanced him as he took a deep breath of the humid air. He'd chosen this place because of the vastness of the ocean. It had enough space for him.
Taking the stairs down two at a time, he met his partner, Slayton Cross, coming up. "Details, Slay. Go."
Slayton took his PalmPilot out of his shirt pocket and turned it on, but didn't glance at it. "There's no ID. Lividity indicates he was killed somewhere else. Ligature marks on his wrists. In my opinion, it's definitely a homicide."
They stepped off the stairs into the sand, and lingered, Slayton leaning back on the banister, one foot on the bottom step, his fingers beating a familiar tattoo. After two years of being his partner, Cruse could almost tune it out. Almost.
"We lucked out. Another two days in the water and he'd have been as useless as the body that washed in a couple of days ago. At least we can get fingerprints off this guy. If he's in the system we'll ID him."
A few straggling onlookers remained, but most had left the crime scene unitCSUto their job gathering evidence, though there'd probably be little left to find after hours in the ocean. "You follow up with the CSU. I'll get a statement from Bayley."
"Bayley?" Slayton's fingers went back to tapping on the rail.
"My neighbor. The woman who rescued our floater?"
"Got it." Slayton tucked his notebook away. "See you tomorrow."
Night had fallen. The beach was dark, the ocean a vast, black backdrop behind them. The CSU had set up generator-run floodlights, punctuated by the flash of their cameras documenting the scene. The photos would be of limited value considering the victim hadn't been killed here.
Cruse circled the area. He wouldn't leap to conclusions, but fully dressed men, in suits, no less, didn't usually wash up here. Likely, the two murders were connected.