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Man, could that guy swim.
Under cover of her wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, Rachel Shaw kept a discreet eye on the powerful shoulders cutting through the water a hundred feet beyond the crashing surf. The swimmer was moving as fast and effortlessly as the ubiquitous Jekyll Island dolphins that had been cavorting in almost that same spot yesterday.
And he'd been at it since before she'd arrived on the beach twenty minutes ago. Yet other than the few brief times he'd floated on his back while switching strokes, he showed no sign of tiring or slowing down.
A soft, snuffling sigh sounded close to her ear, and she looked over at the golden retriever flopped down next to her low-slung beach chair. He, too, was watching the figure in the wateruntil he turned to her with a pleading "Can we please swim, too?" look.
"Sorry, boy." She patted his head. "I promised Aunt Eleanor I wouldn't bring you home sopping wet. But we'll play a quick game of Frisbee in a few minutes."
At the word Frisbee, his ears perked up and his tail began to sweep the sand.
"I thought you'd like that. But give me five more minutes to veg."
Leaning back in her chair, Rachel tossed her book into her tote bag, abandoning any pretense of reading. It wasn't every day a woman got treated to such a demonstration of athletic prowess. And a quick scan left and right confirmed she had the show all to herself. Ah, deserted beachesone of the beauties of summering on an off-the-beaten-path barrier island in Georgia.
Well, not quite deserted.
Her gaze swung back to the man in the waterwho suddenly changed direction and headed for shore.
As Rachel followed his progress, her canine companion put his chin on her knee.
"Getting anxious, are we?" She gave him a distracted pat, her focus still on the dark-haired swimmer as she waited for him to stride from the sea like some mighty Greek god, all muscles and brawn and sinew.
Instead, he washed up on shore like a limp piece of seaweed, then scuttled backward with his hands, away from the frothy surf.
Talk about a letdown.
Adjusting her glasses, Rachel watched him fiddle with his ankle as he sat at the waterline. Maybe he'd had a close encounter with one of the jellyfish that were sometimes a painful nuisance here.
At the soft whimper beside her, she tugged the Frisbee out of her tote bag. Whatever was going on with that guy, he seemed well able to take care of himself.
"Okay, boy. You've been patient. Time for a quick game."
After settling her hat more firmly on her head, she stood and moved away from her chair. Throwing against the stiff breeze would be nuts; better to face the swimmer and aim the Frisbee his direction.
As she made the first toss, the man rose to his feet, diverting her attention.
Squinting into the sun, she peered at his left knee. Was that an elastic bandage?
Even as the question echoed in her mind, he sent her a quick look, picked up the towel that was draped over his duffel bag and turned his back without the merest hint of appreciative interest.
That wasn't the usual male response when she wore her swimsuit.
At the unexpected twinge of disappointment, Rachel huffed out a breath, straightened her shoulders and smoothed a hand over her hip. She might not be eighteen anymore, but her thirty-three-year-old body had held up fine.
Besides, why should she care whether a stranger noticed her? It wasn't as if romance was on her agenda for this visit. Her goals were the same this year as they'd been for the past three summers: rest, recharge and renew. And a broad-shouldered guy who swam like a fish wasn't going to change thatno matter how good-looking he might be.
She took the Frisbee from her eager companion and tossed it again, doing her best to give the other occupant of the beach the same I-couldn't-careless treatment he was giving her.
Except a gust of wind snatched the Frisbee and hurled it straight toward the man's back as he pulled a T-shirt over his headand her canine friend, in hot pursuit, was focused only on the soaring blue plastic disk.
"Hey!" Rachel jogged forward, waving her arms. As the distance between man and dog shrank at a frightening pace, her pulse tripped into fast forward and she doubled her volume. "Hey, mister!"
Just as the man turned, seventy pounds of golden fur took flight toward the broad chest.
Rachel came to an abrupt halt, cringed and closed her eyes.
Five seconds ticked by before she had the courage to peek at the scene. It wasn't pretty.
The man was flat on his back. Her aunt's dognot her dog, she'd be clear about thatwas nosing through the guy's stuff, which must have flown out of his duffel bag in the melee.
"Bandit! Get back here! Right now!"
Excellent retriever that he was, her aunt's dog snatched up the Frisbee and streaked toward her, leaving the guy in the dust er, sand.
"Hey! Bring that back!" Anger nipped at the man's voice as he righted himself, yanked down his T-shirt and slammed on a pair of sunglasses.
Bandit bounded up, tail wagging, and sat at her feetholding a flipper that was the same color as the Frisbee.
But, hey. Anyone could make a mistake, right? The flipper looked a lot like the Frisbee at first glance. Sort of. To a dog. Maybe.
Somehow, though, Rachel doubted the man striding toward her was going to see it that way.
Especially since he'd just been flattened by the dog in question.
Better to jump in fast and get the apologies over before he reamed her about losing control of her dog and threatened a lawsuit for bodily injuries. Although other than that bandage on his knee, he appeared to be in fine condition.
Her gaze lingered on the bandage. Dropped lower.
It wasn't a bandage.
It wasn't even a real leg.
The man was wearing a prosthesis.
Her aunt's dog had tackled a man with one leg.
Was there any possible way she could transform herself into a sand crab and disappear into the beach?
As Rachel stared at his leg, a blue Frisbee held by long, lean, sun-browned fingers appeared in her field of vision.
She jerked her head up, heat rising on her cheeks.
Smart move, Rachel. Add insult to injury by gawking.
"I think this is yours." He passed her the Frisbee.
She couldn't read his eyes behind his dark glasses, but she had no trouble deciphering his tone.
He was ticked.
Clenching the fingers of one hand around the edge of the disk, she leaned down, took the flipper from Bandit and handed it over. "Look I'm really sorry about this. Are you hurt?"
"I've had more painful falls."
Her first instinct was to glance back at his leg.
She quashed it.
"That flipper does look kind of like a Frisbee." She aimed a distracted wave toward the appendage in his hand.
"A swim fin doesn't look anything like a Frisbee."
At his correction, her chin lifted a notch. Flipper, fin, who cared? "Maybe it does to a dog. And for the record, Bandit is very friendly. But when he's focused on retrieving, he tends to be oblivious to everything else."
The man regarded the dog. "Bandit. An apt name. I can see why you picked it."
Rachel appraised him. Was that a touch of amusement in his voice?
She softened her tone. "Actually, he belongs to my great-aunt. So on behalf of both her and Bandit, I apologize again. You're sure you're not hurt?" Hard as she tried, she couldn't keep her gaze from flicking down to his leg.
The sudden stiffening of his posture was subtle but unmistakable. "I'm fine. But you might want to keep that guy on a leash around kids. A forty-pound child wouldn't have fared as well." He leaned down and patted Bandit, but his cool tone suggested he was far less willing to forgive her faux pas. "And for the record," he parroted her own words back at her, "I'm no more prone to injury than a man who has two good legs."
With that, he turned away and headed toward his towel.
Rachel watched his retreating back, fanning her burning cheeks with the Frisbee.
That had gone really well.
Bandit nudged her leg, and she looked down at her canine friend. At least her aunt's dog liked her.
"Sorry, big guy. I think we'd better cool it for a while."
Tail drooping, he skulked back to the beach chair and flopped down, chin on paws, angled away from herthe same cold treatment she'd gotten from the other occupant of the beach, who was packing up his gear to make a fast exit.
With a sigh, Rachel trudged back to her chair and sat. As she did, one of the slats emitted an ominous crack.
Three seconds later, she found herself sprawled on the sand, staring up at the dark clouds invading the blue sky.
And hoping her rocky start to this year's vacation wasn't an omen of things to come.
Why in the world had he gotten so bent out of shape because some stranger had been taken aback by his prosthesis?
Jack Fletcher strode toward his SUV, stabbed the remote on his key clip and tossed his beach gear into the backseat.
After two and a half years, he should be past all that. He was past all that. It had been months since an awkward or uncomfortable or shocked reaction had rankled him.
So what had happened back on the beach just now?
He slid into the driver's seat, started the engine and cranked up the air. Instead of putting the car in gear, however, he rested his arms on the wheel and considered that question.
Most of the women he'd socialized with since reentering the dating game a year ago had never suspected he had a prosthesis. Why would they? After months of painful practice, he'd mastered a natural gait. And the couple of women he'd toldthe ones who'd seemed as if they might have potential for more than a few laughs on a Friday or Saturday nighthadn't appeared to be too bothered by the news.
Then again, they'd already known him when he'd dropped the bombshell. He'd made certain of that.
Too bad he hadn't had an opportunity to lay the same groundwork with the woman on the beach.
Expelling an annoyed breath, he shifted the SUV into drive. What did it matter, anyway? His mission here was straightforward and twofold: help Gram until she regained use of her broken wrist and try to keep his clients happy, despite the remote location. That was more than enough to occupy him for the next six or eight weeks. Impressing a shapely blonde with a friendly dog wasn't part of the plan.
Besides, the woman had been wearing a wedding ring. In all likelihood, she was here for a short family vacation. Maybe she'd dropped her kids at the Sea Turtle Center for one of the youth programs and decided to grab a few rays while her husband played golf. Assuming she was like most Jekyll Island visitors, she'd be gone in a week.
If he was smart, he'd forget about her.
Fletch pulled onto the main dragsuch as it wasand pointed his SUV back toward Gram's. Not a single car passed him as he cruised down the island's two-lane circular road a nice change from the Norfolk traffic. And in less than five minutes, he was swinging into the driveway of the tidy cottage Gram now called home. The short distances between destinations were also nice.
He set the brake, snagged his duffel bag and exited into the heat. All was quiet in this octogenarian neighborhood. That, too, was welcome. He'd heard enough loud noises to last a lifetime.
Still this island's gentle, laid-back nature could drive someone who was used to action stir-crazyunless there was an interesting diversion or two.
Like an attractive blonde.
Not going to happen, Fletcher. Suck it up and just do your duty. Duty.
A twinge of regret echoed in his soul as he closed the car door and started for the house. Duty obligation responsibilityyeah, he knew all about those. They were part of Navy SEAL DNA, on and off the job. Forever.
He stepped up onto Gram's porch on his artificial leg.
He was here for the duration. That's how SEALs operated. They didn't let people down. No matter the cost.
"Did you have a pleasant time, dear?"
Rachel pushed through the outside door to the screen porch and dropped her tote bag onto a wicker chair before responding to her great-aunt's greeting. "It doesn't get much better than an afternoon on a Jekyll Island beach."
"True enough. Why do you think I moved here twelve years ago?"
She surveyed the woman across from her. Eleanor Kavanagh's driver's license might list her age as seventy-four, but one glance at her trim figure, wedge-cut blond hair and fashionable capris busted any stereotypical notions of the term elderly. "Don't you ever miss Cincinnati?"
Her aunt let loose with an unladylike snort. "Not a lick. I didn't have any complaints about my life there, mind you. I had a fine job that provided a steady income and a comfortable retirementbut being an accountant can't hold a candle to running an art gallery." She patted the retriever as he settled at her feet. "I see you kept Bandit dry."
"It was a struggle."
"I imagine." Her features softened as she stroked the dog. "Good thing I didn't go. Once he turns those dark brown eyes on me, I'm a goner. They're impossible to resist."
For some reason an image of the man from the beach materialized in Rachel's mind. Though his eyes had been hidden behind sunglasses, she had a feeling they were hard to resist, too.
She blinked and refocused on her aunt. "Sorry. I drifted for a minute."
"I noticed. I asked if there were many people on the beach."
"No. I had it almost to myself." She claimed one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch.
"I thought you might. I've been sitting here for a while and I only saw one other person cross the access bridge over the dunes. He was leaving."
Rachel set the chair in motion. "Yes. I noticed him." No need to recount the whole incident with the Frisbeeor to mention her brief, charged interchange with the man.
"I couldn't get a clear look at him from this distance, but he seemed fairly young from my perspective, at any rate." Her aunt swirled the ice in her glass of lemonade.
"I don't see many solitary young men around here. I wonder if he's married."
"No." At her immediate response, Rachel frowned. For some strange reason, the image of his bare left hand was clear in her mind. "I mean, he wasn't wearing a ring. But a lot of guys don't. His wife might have gone shopping."
"That's not a big draw here."
"True. There isn't a mall in sight."
"But we do have a century-old hotel that serves high tea and hosts croquet tournaments on the lawn, plus a wonderful restored historic district. I'll take charm over shopping any day."
"I'm with you." At least her aunt was off the subject of the muscular swimmer.
"Speaking of charm from the glimpse I had, that young man appeared to be quite handsome. You must have gotten a close-up look, if you could check for a ring."
So much for any hope of changing the subject.
As warmth rose on her cheeks, Rachel leaned down to brush a few grains of sand off one of her flip-flops. "I didn't check for a ring. I just happened to notice his bare hand when we exchanged a few words." Maybe Aunt El wouldn't spot the telltale flush.
No such luck.
"I do believe you might have gotten a bit too much sun." Eleanor appraised her. "Your face is pink. Remember to take it easy for the first few days, until you get acclimated. And don't forget the sunscreen."
"Duly noted. With my fair complexion, I make liberal use of it at home in Richmond, too."
Her aunt dismissed that comment with a wave. "Sun in the city and sun on the beach are two very different things. That young man certainly had a nice tan."