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'That guy's got to be the world's worst surfer,' Maddy Westmore murmured in disbelief as she shivered under her lifeguard's jacket. The sleeting October rain made it hard to focus but she couldn't pull her eyes away from the tall athletic figure clad in a black wetsuit about sixty metres out in the tumbling surf. She watched with guilty fascination as he squatted on his board, steadied himself, straightened.
Then she sucked in a breath as he wobbled precariously.
The poor guy had been surfingor, rather, attempting to surffor well over an hour, in the sort of miserable Cornish weather that had given Wildwater Bay its name back in the seventeenth century. She'd been studying him for most of that time. The methodical way he paddled out, waited for the biggest wave and then mounted his board. But he'd yet to ride a single breaker for more than a few seconds. She had to admire his perseverance, but she was beginning to question his sanity. He had to be frozen through to the bone by now and close to exhaustiondespite the muscular build displayed by his suitand the undertow on this stretch of beach was no joke.
'I dunno,' said Luke, her fellow lifeguard, in his broad Australian accent. 'He's got good form. Gets onto the board all right.'
Maddy's breath gushed out as Bad Surfer crashed backwards off his board for what had to be the hundreth time.
'No balance, though,' Luke finished dispassionately, flipping up his collar. 'You wanna call it?' he added hopefully. 'Beach is closed in ten minutes anyway and that storm front's gonna hit any second now.'
Feeling a rush of relief as the surfer clambered back onto his board, Maddy scanned the rest of the beach in the gathering gloom. Only a couple of hardy boogie-boarders remained inside the yellow flags they'd set up to mark the lifeguarded area. Otherwise the beach was deserted. And with good reason. North Cornwall hadn't had a great summer this year, but the weather had gone rapidly downhill as winter drew near. Even the hard core surfers had called it a day hours ago. All except one. Who was giving hard core a whole new meaning.
'Sure' she raised her voice above the gathering wind 'let's put him out of his misery.' Crossing to the lifeguard truck parked on the sand between the flags, she grabbed the loudhailer out of the cab, already anticipating the Extreme Hot Chocolate she was going to wheedle out of her boss, Phil, when she started her afternoon shift at the Wildwater Bay Cafe.
The booming sound of her voice as she called in the remaining boogie-boarders and the surfer whipped away on the wind, but the boarders responded instantly. Staggering out of the surf, they hurried across the acres of sand, making a beeline for the cafe. The pair waved and shouted a greeting as they passedno doubt anticipating their own Extreme Hot Chocolates.
'Crikey, he's still at it.'
Hearing Luke's incredulous comment, Maddy spotted the surfer's black board with its distinctive yellow lightning stripe bobbing back out towards the main swell.
'He's nuts. He has to be,' she whispered. Either that or he had a death wish.
The storm clouds had darkened in the distance, hovering over the horizon like smoky black crows and the vicious cross wind had picked up pace, making the waves gallop and leap like bucking broncos. Even an accomplished surfer would have trouble riding swell that choppy. Mr Couldn't Keep His Balance didn't stand a chance. She raised the loudhailer back to her lips.
'The lifeguard station on this beach is now closing. We strongly advise you to leave the water immediately.'
She repeated the order twice more, but the surfer and his board kept paddling in the wrong direction.
'Maybe he can't hear us?' she said, trying not to worry.
The hailer had a special wind setting but, after the number of tumbles the guy had taken, his ears could be waterlogged.
'Let's get the flags in,' Luke said at her shoulder, rubbing his hands together. 'He's a big boy. If he wants to kill himself, we can't stop him.' Taking the loudhailer out of Maddy's numbing fingers, he slung it into the truck. 'Plus, I've got a hot date with Jack in an hour. With the promise of hot sex for dessert,' he finished, mentioning his new boyfriend of three weeks.
The surfer heaved himself up onto his board again, his movements sluggish.
Maddy dragged her gaze away. 'That's what I love about you, Luke,' she said, forcing the niggling concern down. Suicidal surfers were not her problem. 'You're such a romantic.'
Luke chuckled as he rolled up the flag nearest the truck. 'Hey, hot sex is romantic, if you do it right.'
Maddy lifted the base of the flag and helped Luke to heave it into the back of the truck. 'Is it really?' She gave a half-laugh, unable to disguise the wistful tone.
After a year spent rehabbing her granny's cottage, plus the lifeguarding and waitressing shifts all summer at the Bay, and most evenings given over to creating her silk paintings, she hadn't had time for romance. And she was pretty sure she'd never had hot sex. Did luke-warm count?
Maddy frowned as they wrestled the second flag into the truck together. The wind sliced through her jacket and made her nipples pebble in reflex.
Come to think of it, it was probably a miracle her bits hadn't dried up and died from lack of use. Or maybe they had. How would she know?
After Steve had stormed out last summer, accusing her of being more interested in her silk designs than she'd ever been in him, she hadn't quite been able to deny it.
Even after spending every spare hour in her makeshift studio, the silk work hadn't required nearly as much maintenance as Steve. And, okay, maybe it couldn't give her an orgasm, but it had come close when she'd completed the first of the designs inspired by the seascape at Smugglers Pointand Steve hadn't been very reliable in the orgasm department either. Which only made it all the more pathetic that she'd put up with him for so long, and agonised over their breakup for months.
She shuddered and plunged her hands into her jacket pockets, hunching against the wind. Still, at least she'd taken her brother Callum's advice for once and hadn't made the mistake of taking Steve backor lending him the money he'd begged for, which she knew perfectly well she'd never see again.
The death of her libido and the loss of a warm body to snuggle up to at nightand wake up with in the morninghad been a small price to pay for her self-respect. Even if it hadn't felt that way at the time. She needed to stop taking in losers and strays, as Callum liked to call them, and persuading herself she could fix them. Cal might be the last person on earth to give anyone relationship advice, given that he'd never had one that lasted more than a nanosecond to her knowledge, but he'd been right about that. While their parents' never-ending marital breakdown had turned Cal into a rampant womaniser with serious commitment issues, it had turned her into Little Miss Fixit.
Steve had just been one more in a small but pitiful band of boyfriendsdating right back to Eddie Mayer, who'd kissed her at the school disco and then conned her out of her lunch moneywho'd taken everything she had to give and given her nothing in return. She'd decided over the long winter months that this year she was turning over a new leaf. She had celebrated her twenty-fourth birthday two weeks ago, which meant it was way past time to stop making the same mistake over and over again.
This year there would be no more Miss Pushover. No more Miss Nice Guy. And no more Miss Fixit. This year she was going to be the one who took control and got what she wanted.
The one doing the using. Unfortunately, they were already ten months into the new year, and she'd yet to find a single candidate willing to be used.
'Hey, that's weird. Where'd he go?'
Tearing her thoughts away from her disastrous love life, Maddy noticed the sharp frown on Luke's handsome face as he stared at the horizon.
Her stomach plunged and the concern that had pawed at the back of her mind all afternoon leapt at her throat like a rabid dog.
'Did he come past us?' Luke murmured, far too nonchalantly.
Unzipping her jacket and dropping it on the wet sand, Maddy grasped the rescue board leaning against the truck.
'No, he didn't,' she shouted over her shoulder as she jogged towards the surf, frantically scanning the waves. The frigid water lapped at the ankles exposed by her full-body wetsuit as she waded into the shallows.
'I'll call it in,' Luke shouted beside her as he drew level, his own board under his arm and the coastguard walkie-talkie at his ear. 'We'll have to get the chopper out.'
'No, wait. There's his board.' She pointed, spotting the vibrant yellow flash in the turbulent waves. Her stomach hit bottom as she realised the dark shape draped across it wasn't moving. 'I've got it.'
Luke shouted something back, but the sound was lost as Maddy hurdled the incoming surf and dived cleanly into the water. The rescue board torpedoed her into the rising swell as she went under. Within seconds, the tug and pull of the tide had drained her energy and she was riding the board through the waves on autopilot. Luckily, the injured surfer wasn't too far out, the waves bearing him towards shore, but as the salt water scoured her eyes and she drew ragged breaths trying to conserve her strength, she saw him move his head. A vivid red stain stood out against his pale cheek.
She redoubled her efforts, fighting the churning water, the distance telescoping as her arms and shoulders began to ache and her legs numbed.
Reaching him at last, she shoved the rescue board under his torso.
'I've got you; don't worry,' she yelled.
She grappled with the Velcro strap attaching his ankle to his board as a five-footer barrelled down on them. She heard a groan as blood seeped from the surfer's hairline and flowed over his sculpted cheekbone.
Concentrate. Undo the strap.
She shoved his surfboard free and wrapped her arm across him, just as the wave crashed on top of them with a deafening roar.
For a split second fear froze her as the wave sucked them down. But then the training took over. She fisted her fingers on the rescue board, her cheek pressed against his torso and kicked hard. They surfaced together, breaking back into the heaving sound and fury of the angry sea. It took Maddy a moment to orientate herself, then she paddled furiously, riding the swell as she clung to the stranger's prone body. The shore seemed a million miles away, her legs so rubbery she could barely move them, her chest screaming with the effort to draw a decent breath. She pushed the panic down and kept going.
After what seemed like several millennia, a large hand grasped her arm and hauled her upright. She squinted through the stinging salt, saw Luke's dark blond hair plastered to his head.
'It's all right; I've got him,' he yelled. 'Stand up; you can walk from here.'
Her legs shook, trembling uncontrollably as she struggled to lock her knees. How could she not have realised they were almost ashore? She hugged herself as Luke dragged the rescue board with the surfer onto the sand, then knelt beside him.
She approached in a groggy haze of exhaustion as Lukewho was much better qualified than her in pulmonary respiration techniquesexamined their patient. Instead of putting the surfer in the recovery position, Luke manoeuvred him onto the waiting spinal board and fastened the Velcro strap across his chest.
'He's breathing. No need to resuscitate him.' Luke shot a quick grin over his shoulder. 'Should come round in a second. Probably took a crack on the head from his board.' Luke tilted back on his haunches. 'The paramedics can check him out properly once they arrive. Keep him strapped down just in case.' He got off his knees and stood up. 'I'll go get you both a rescue blanket to keep you warm till they get here.'
Maddy shoved the straggles of hair out of her eyes as Luke strolled off towards the truck. Despite the thump of panic still closing her throat and the brutal sting of salt in her eyes, heat coiled low in her belly as she stared down at the man she'd saved.
She tilted her head to one side, transfixed.
Maybe he wasn't classically handsome like Luke, but the dramatic slash of dark brows, high hollow cheekbones and the rough stubble accentuating a strong jaw gave him a raw pagan beauty that had Maddy's breath catching. Her gaze wandered down. Broad shoulders, a perfectly defined six-pack and long, leanly muscled flanks were exquisitely showcased by the sleek black wetsuit. The heat coiled tighter.
She shuddered, although she didn't feel remotely chilled any more, and noticed the faint blue tinge around his sensual lips. A deep moan rumbled up his chest and he moved, straining against the strap.
Maddy jerked. What was she doing? Ogling him as if he were a stripper at a hen party. The poor guy was hurt and probably freezing to death. She dropped to her knees, placed her hand against his cheek. Rough stubble abraided her palm and sent another inappropriate jolt of heat through her. She ignored it.
'It's okay,' she said, the words coming out on a breathy whisper. Mortified, she paused. Boy, did she need to kick-start her love life again if she was now lusting after strangersand unconscious ones at that.
'You're okay. Don't move,' she murmured, touching his forehead to brush back the thick, wavy locks falling over his brow. The blood that had been gushing in the sea had slowed to a sluggish crawl, seeping out of a narrow gash below his hairline.
She pressed her thumb to it and his eyes snapped open. Her pulse pummelled her neck as she stared into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. The brilliant turquoise of his irises contrasted with the bloodshot whites, and looked so pure and dazzling it reminded her of an old fifties postcard of the Caribbean Sea, the colour too rich to be real.
His brow creased as he tried to rise and came to a jerking halt, his body confined by the strap.
'What the ?' The expletive came out on a gruff whisper. 'Who tied me down?'
She placed her palm on his upper arm, hoping to reassure him. Unfortunately, the feel of the rock-hard bicep bunching under her fingertips had the opposite effect on her. 'I did,' she blurted out. 'It's for your own good.'
The magnificent blue eyes narrowed. 'Who the hell are you?'
Her skin flushed hot despite the chill and the spitting drizzle of autumn rain. 'I'm one of the lifeguards on Wildwater Bay. We had to bring you in. You hit your head.'