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The important thing is not to panic.
Like that was even possible. My heart pounded erratically in my chest, radiating terror through my veins. I had been treading water in the dark of night for maybe ten minutes, but it might as well have been ten hours. The floaty chiffon gown that had seemed so light and airy when I had selected it for the Ryans' Casino Night now clung to my skin and tangled around my legs, threatening to pull me down. Down into the deep, dark depths of the ocean where who-knew-what disgusting, slimy, razor-toothed things were waiting to nibble on my toes and fingers and
No. No. No. It was going to be okay. It was, it was, it was. If I could just keep my eye on the Ryans' boat, everything would be fine. I could still hear the piano music drifting across the Caribbean Sea, could still make out the cheers as a guest won big at the card tables. As long as I could see the boat there was the possibility it might come back for me. I stared at the merrily twinkling lights on the deck as the vessel sailed back toward St. Barths and willed it to turn. Sent a silent panic signal to anyone who might care. Noelle. Upton. Kiran. Dash. Taylor. Tiffany. Someone please just realize I'm not there. Someone go looking for me. Someone, anyone, hear me.
I caught a stray shout and my heart leapt with hope. But the shout was followed by a peal of laughter. They were just obliviously going about their partying. Everyone I knew on the island was on that boat. And it was quickly floating out of reach.
The important thing is not to panic.
But the mantra wasn't working. Someone on that boat had tried to kill me. Someone had torn off the ridiculously expensive diamond necklace I'd been wearing Noelle's necklace and shoved me overboard into the frigid water. A slim, hooded figure. Average height. That was all I had seen after plunging into the sea and struggling to the surface. A hooded figure slinking away, the white trim on the black hood practically glowing in the moonlight. I couldn't tell if it was male or female, old or young, but I had my suspicions. Poppy Simon, Paige Ryan, or Sienna Marquez. They were all jealous of me. They all wanted Upton Giles, my new sort-of boyfriend. One of them clearly wanted him enough to murder me and get me out of the way.
And it looked like she was going to succeed.
I was not going to let her win. Whichever one of those psychos had done this was going to be sorely disappointed. I couldn't wait until she saw me alive. I was going to walk up to her and spit in her face. And right after I did that, I was getting the hell off of St. Barths. This place was pure evil. I would have been better off vacationing on the time-hopping torture island from Lost.
The skirt of my dress wrapped around my right ankle and held fast, restricting my movement. Without a second thought I reached for the zipper at the side of the gown and, my cold fingers trembling and slipping, managed to yank it down. After a brief struggle I was free of the thing. It floated off on the waves like a lazy sapphire-blue cloud bobbing in the wind. Instantly, I felt twenty pounds lighter, and proud of myself for having made such a wise decision. I took a deep breath and realized that I was moving my arms much faster than I needed to, so I forced myself to slow down. Soon my heart rate calmed and my breathing stabilized. This was much better. I was strong. I was an athlete. I could tread water like this for hours.
Maybe. How long could a person tread water, technically? I had no idea. It wasn't a fact I'd ever thought I would need to know, hailing as I did from a landlocked state. But here I was, little Reed Brennan of Croton, Pennsylvania, treading for her life, half naked in the Caribbean Sea.
How the hell had I gotten here?
"I picked the wrong guy," I answered aloud. "Again."
My voice sounded odd and unbearably lonely. I resolved not to talk anymore. But now that I'd started thinking of Upton, I couldn't stop. If only I had stuck to my original instinct and steered clear of him, none of this would be happening. But how could I have resisted a gorgeous, incredible, worldly British guy coming at me full force with all his talk of how different and amazing I was? I was only human. And yeah, maybe he had been with a lot of girls, but how was I supposed to know that one of them was going to turn out to be homicidal?
Come on, Reed. Try learning from experience.
I looked at the boat and my entire body jolted with terror. The lights were winking in and out on the horizon. Winking. Winking. Winking. And then they were gone.
I whirled around with a splash, searching the endless waterscape. There had to be another boat. A light. A buoy. Anything. But all I could see for miles was the deep blue of the ocean, lit by the thousands of stars overhead. No land, no vessels, nothing. Nothing but water. I was alone. Alone and adrift in the middle of nowhere.
No one was coming for me. I was going to drown out here. By myself. In the dark. They would never even find my body. I was going to drift out here forever at the bottom of the ocean.
No. Stop. Just stop.
I couldn't let myself go there. Couldn't think that way. No matter how true it felt in that moment, I could not start thinking the worst. I had survived so much. I could survive this. I just had to give my tired limbs a break. I took a deep breath and forced myself to lie back and float, even though it meant taking my eyes off the horizon. I would float for a few minutes, regain my strength, and then start treading again. It was going to be okay. It was all going to be okay.
The stars formed a close-knit blanket across the sky. I had never seen so many in my life. It was beautiful. If it was the last thing I saw, it wouldn't be so bad. I wondered what it would be like to drown. Whether it would hurt. I thought of Thomas Pearson and the awful manner in which he had died, murdered by a girl who claimed to love him. A crazy girl with a baseball bat. I wished he were here with me now. If I only had the chance, I would tell him how sorry I was. I would tell him that I hoped Ariana Osgood had done the deed quickly. That he didn't have too much time to be scared. Like me. I was going to have a lot of time to be scared...terrified...desperate...before I finally went.
My heart seized in panic as the reality of the situation slammed into my chest, and for a brief moment, I went under. Salty water filled my mouth and nostrils, and my lungs exploded with pain. I fought my way to the surface again, flailing and gasping for air. There was still nothing. Nothing but the ocean and the sky. Midnight blue as far as the eye could see. Stars everywhere, but nothing else. Nothing but the ripples atop the water. I was never going to be able to survive this. Never, never, never.
But somehow, I kept treading. Minutes passed. Hours. I had no idea how long I had been out there when my limbs started to feel impossibly heavy. When my mind started to grow so very tired. I tried to float again, and as I lay back my eyes fluttered closed. Instantly I saw a flash of Sabine DuLac, her face twisted with ire, and I felt her hands grab my shoulders and shove me down. I struggled against her, but the more I squirmed and writhed, the further I sank. She was pushing, pushing, pushing me down. I opened my eyes under the water and they stung from the salt. I could see nothing. Nothing but...a shadow. Something moving. Something dark. And it wasn't very far away.
My heart burst with fear. I clawed my way to the surface and heaved in a breath, flailing around in the ocean, trying to find whatever it was I had seen under the water. Was it a shark, or a harmless fish? A turtle? A dolphin? A whale? I had no idea how big or small it was. How far away or how near.
Suddenly I felt something slither around my ankle. I screamed and kicked and started to cry. My God, please don't let anything be down there. Please just let it be my paranoia taking over.
But there it was again. Something sliding across my toes. I screamed again and swam a few feet away, my tired muscles barely functioning. As if a few strokes were going to free me from a water dweller. If something out here wanted me as its midnight snack, it was pretty much going to have me.
I was sobbing now. Gulping for air. Afraid that at any second I would feel it again. Or worse, that I would feel jaws close around my foot. See a fin sailing ominously by. I gasped in a breath and started to choke. Water filled my mouth and throat and I spit it out, coughing, choking, struggling for air.
I had to get a grip. If I didn't, my panic attack was going to drown me.
Maybe it was nothing. Maybe I was just imagining things. Or maybe it was seaweed. Or even my dress. Maybe it was still nearby but had sunk below the surface.
I took a breath. Yes. That was it. I told myself it was just the dress. And even though I didn't completely believe it, my breathing started to return to normal.
But still, the tears came. And suddenly, I was thinking about Josh Hollis. Josh, who was back in the States, probably out to dinner or cuddling on the couch somewhere with his girlfriend, Ivy Slade. I imagined what he would do when he heard of my death. Would he cry? Scream? Throw a fit of despair? He'd already lost his best friend. Would losing me push him over the edge? Or was he falling in love with Ivy? Had he already forgotten me? Would the news of my death be just one more tragedy, a story they could tell their kids as they grew older, how daddy's old girlfriend drowned tragically off the coast of St. Barths?
I scoffed a laugh at the thought of Josh and Ivy as a married couple. Forget Josh. What would Upton do? Would he miss me? Or would he just move on to the next girl? Would he ever know that it was one of his deranged exes who had done this? Would he even care?
The guy had claimed he loved me. But if he was so in love with me, how could he have just left me in the Ryans' stateroom like that? We had gone down there to snag a little alone time and been caught half undressed by Mrs. Ryan and Poppy, one of Upton's many ex-hookups. But instead of staying with me and pep talking me out of my abject humiliation, he had gone after Poppy to make sure she was okay. Was he still with her right now? Had he even realized I was missing? Why hadn't he come to save me?
My chin dipped under the water and I surged up again. My arms were moving slower and slower. My eyes had closed. I was falling asleep. For a moment I fought against it, but I felt my lids growing heavy again. And then my nose was under. Heart panicking, I pushed up with all my might, but I barely got my chin above the surface.
This was it. I had nothing left. I had done my best, but this was how I was going to die. I thought of my mother. Of how sad she would be. And my dad. He definitely wasn't going to take this well. I hoped my brother, Scott, would be there for them. The thought of the three of them alone together, without me, brought tears to my eyes and made my nose clog. I'm so sorry...but I can't do this anymore....
"There! I see something! Right over there! Shine the light!"
I closed my eyes. I was hallucinating. It was really over.
And slowly, I started to sink into the inky blue depths of the sea.
"Reed! Over here! I'm coming!"
I blinked. My brain told me I was hallucinating, but I raised my right hand just in case. The effort did me in, and instantly, I sank like a stone. Just before the water closed over my face, just before my eyes fluttered closed for the last time, I caught the briefest glimpse of a blond-haired boy tearing off his shirt and diving into the water.
Copyright © 2009 by Alloy Entertainment and Kieran Viola
Through the slats of the white vinyl blinds, I could see palm trees. They rustled in the wind, backdropped by an impossibly blue sky. Big puffy white clouds chased one another across the window and out of view. Somewhere nearby a bird chirped happily. Where the hell was I? Why was the window on the wrong side of the bed? What was that incessant beeping and why wouldn't it stop?
The brightness of the sun was too much. I turned my head away from the window and felt a tug on my neck, like something was stuck to the skin there. I reached my hand up to inspect and froze. Sitting at the end of my bed a hospital bed, I now realized with a jolt was Sawyer Hathaway, his hands clasped together under his chin. He was wearing a tuxedo shirt open over his bare chest, along with a pair of blue scrubs. His light blond hair was a tousled mess, as if it had air dried hours ago and not seen a comb since.
"Sawyer?" I croaked.
His gray eyes popped open and relief flooded his face. "You're awake." He stood up and moved so close to the head of the bed that I could see the flecks of brown in his irises. "Are you okay?"
As if that was even worth discussing. I simply stared up at him. "You saved my life."
A blush lit his chiseled cheeks. He gripped the metal guardrail at the side of my bed, his knuckles white. "How do you feel?"
"What's this thing on my neck?" I asked, lifting my hand.
I winced in pain and my arm dropped back down again. My muscles felt like lifeless bags of flour, as if I'd spent an entire day in the weight room at Easton. I tried to move my legs. Same thing.
"I can't move," I whimpered, closing my eyes.
"You were treading water for three hours," Sawyer said.
"Three hours?" My eyes popped open again. "How did you even find me?"
Sawyer pulled his chair from the foot of the bed and sat right next to me. He clasped his hands and rested his elbows on his thighs, leaning forward.
"When Upton couldn't find you at the party he got worried and sent everyone out to search the boat," he explained. His voice sounded pinched. Like he was fighting for control."No one could find you anywhere and Noelle lost it. Her dad insisted that the police send out search boats, and we all grabbed whatever boats we could find and searched too." He unclasped his hands and rubbed them over his knees. "I was in a boat with Noelle and my dad and brother, so it's not like it was just me who saved you."
"Please," I said, my heart welling as I remembered the fear, the sadness, the resignation. "I was just about to give up. If it wasn't for you..." I took a deep, broken breath. "Thank you, Sawyer."
His face lit up. For a moment it looked like he was trying to squash it, but the smile won out. Sawyer Hathaway looked me in the eye and smiled. It was only the second time I'd seen him do that since I'd arrived on the island. It was a very nice smile.
"You're welcome," he said simply.
"What time is it?" I asked. "Actually...what day is it?"
Sawyer smirked. "It's December twenty-seventh. And it's a little after three. You've been sleeping all day."
I took a deep breath. I felt like I could sleep for ten days.
A hefty nurse with dark skin and long black hair stepped into the room, wearing a starchy-looking pink uniform. She widened her eyes at us, then angled her head back into the hallway.
When she walked back into the room, she was followed by two police officers, one of them black, the other white. They were both tall, the black man broad and muscular, while his counterpart was more wiry. Both had stern, no-nonsense looks on their faces that made me instantly feel as if I was in trouble. They wore light blue polo shirts with blue shorts that showed their knees and leg hair, and sort of undermined their authority. I glanced at Sawyer, who had sat up straight at their entrance. His gaze was fixed on the cops.
"Good afternoon, Miss Brennan!" the nurse said in a Caribbean accent, walking around to the far side of my bed, across from Sawyer. "We are very happy to see you up and awake!"
"Thank you," I replied, keeping one eye on the cops while she wrapped a blood pressure gauge around my upper arm. I realized for the first time that I was wearing a thin hospital gown, underpants, and nothing else. No bra to speak of. Then I realized with a start that when Sawyer had saved me I had been floating in the water in nothing but a tiny pair of black undies and an even skimpier strapless bra. My face burned, wondering how much, exactly, he, Graham, and Mr. Hathaway had seen.
"Miss Brennan, I'm Officer Marshall; this is Officer Gravois," the white policeman said, pulling a small notebook out of the pocket of his shirt as he nodded at his partner. "How are you feeling?"
"Okay. Tired," I replied.
He smiled slightly, but his partner maintained his dire expression. "That's understandable. But when you feel up to it, we'd like to ask you a few questions about your accident," Officer Marshall said.
Accident? I felt an instant flash of shock and anger. The nurse removed the blood pressure gauge with a loud rip and I struggled to push myself up onto my elbows. The pain in my muscles was excruciating, but I managed to get there. Again, the bandage on my neck pulled at my skin, and I placed my hand over it, trying to calm a burning sensation beneath the dressing.
"I can talk about it now, thanks, and it wasn't an accident," I said. "I was pushed."
"What?" Sawyer blurted.
"Pushed?" the nurse echoed.
"Excuse me?" Officer Gravois asked dubiously, speaking for the first time. He had a French-Caribbean accent, like the nurse did, which somehow made him sound even more condescending than he looked.
"Someone on the boat tried to kill me," I said firmly. "They tore off my necklace and shoved me overboard."
I winced, remembering the priceless jewels Noelle had lent me. Jewels that were now lost forever. That explained the burning sensation on my neck. The bandage must have been covering a cut left by all those diamonds and sapphires.
"Someone shoved you," Officer Marshall said flatly.
Their doubt shot under my skin and I pushed myself up higher. The nurse procured some pillows from a closet at the foot of the bed and pushed them behind me, helping me to sit up.
"All I remember is this musky smell...like cologne or perfume," I said. "And then someone ripped off my necklace and pushed me. That's how I got this cut." I turned my head so they could see the bandage. "Whoever did this is a thief and a murderer."
"That would be attempted murderer," Officer Gravois corrected with a chuckle. His partner hid a smile behind his hand. I noticed he was holding a pencil, but had yet to write down anything in his trusty notebook.
"You don't believe me?" I demanded.
"Perhaps you are confused," Officer Gravois said. "Or perhaps you feel embarrassed because the entire St. Barths police force was sent out looking for you for hours. You want to make it seem as if you are a victim, not a mere...what is the word...klutz?"
Okay. Now I was pissed.
"I'm not a klutz! Someone wants me dead. How can you not believe me?"
"You were drinking, no?" Officer Gravois said.
Suddenly I felt even more alone than I had out in the open ocean. I needed help. Someone was trying to kill me and these were the people who were supposed to help. It was their job. But apparently they were too lazy to do their job and preferred instead to mock me. Desperation burbled up in my veins, making my heart race like I'd downed ten cups of espresso.
"Actually, no," I spat. "I had one glass of champagne. If I were drunk enough to imagine this entire thing, do you really think I could have treaded water for that long?"
"It wasn't that long," Officer Marshall said, flipping the pages in his notebook to check it. "It was only about three and a half hours."
"That's a long time!" Sawyer and I said in unison.
I glanced at Sawyer, grateful that I had someone on my side. The cops looked at each other, clearly amused by our overly dramatic antics.
"Look, you don't understand. This isn't the first time," I said, growing more frustrated. "First, someone spooked my horse and almost sent me headlong over a cliff. Then my Jet Ski went haywire and exploded, and now this. Someone on the island is after me."
My heart pounded as I told the story. I realized with a start that whoever was after me would probably try again. No. Not probably. Definitely. They'd already tried three times, so clearly, they were determined to get the job done. I swallowed hard, trying to dampen my fear.
"Miss Brennan, you must calm down," the nurse said, touching her fingertips to my arm. "You need your rest."
"I'll rest if you tell these guys to listen to me," I blurted.
"What's going on here?"
Mr. Lange's booming voice filled the room as he stormed in, followed by Noelle and Upton. I had never seen a more welcome sight in my life. Not only did the jackass police look instantly intimidated by Noelle's father, but Noelle and Upton's mere presence made me feel safe.
"We're just interviewing Miss Brennan, sir," one of the officers said. But I wasn't paying attention, because I was too busy staring at Upton and wishing I could touch him. Suddenly, more than anything, I just needed to cuddle into his arms and stay there for about ten years. But the room was so full now, he couldn't even get close enough to me to touch my hand. He and Noelle hung back near the foot of the bed while the nurse changed my IV bag. Noelle looked at me like she just wanted to hug me. I knew the feeling.
"Harassing her is what it sounded like," Mr. Lange replied, crossing his arms over his chest. His handsome face was red with anger, the little lines around his mouth deeper than usual as he frowned. He glanced over at Sawyer and me. "What's going on?"
"Reed told them she was pushed off the boat and they don't believe her," Sawyer said matter-of-factly.
"Pushed?" Noelle asked. She walked over to me now, practically shoving the nurse aside. Her long brown hair tumbled down her back in unwashed waves and she wore a plain white T-shirt, black shorts, and zero makeup. The most basic outfit I'd ever seen on her. "Who pushed you?"
"I don't know," I replied, my voice sounding small. "But I saw a...someone in a hooded jacket," I said, suddenly recalling. I glared at the officers. "I saw them moving away from the railing when I broke the surface."
"Can you describe this person?" Officer Marshall asked, his pencil at the ready. He cast a sidelong glance at Mr. Lange, as if he wanted to make sure Noelle's dad saw him doing his job.
"No," I said. "I couldn't make out their face from the water."
The nurse slunk out behind the officers' backs.
"You have to admit, it sounds a bit far-fetched," Officer Marshall said, looking at Noelle's father.
Mr. Lange took a step closer to the officers. "If the girl says she was pushed, she was pushed. I expect you to take her accusation seriously."
The two officers glanced at each other over Mr. Lange's shoulder. I could tell they were still doubtful, but they finally acquiesced.
"Yes, sir. Of course," Officer Marshall said. "Of course there will be a full investigation."
"Good," Mr. Lange said. "I'll be calling your supervisor to make sure your department is aware of the gravity of the situation."
Officer Gravois's jaw clenched. I could tell he did not like the sound of this, and I was glad. Glad that he was unhappy. He looked over at me and attempted a smile. "Get some rest, Miss Brennan. We're glad you're all right."
Yeah. Sure you are. More like you're pissed off that I just created actual work for you to do.
The two cops left the room and we could hear them bitching to each other in French all the way down the hall. Mr. Lange whipped out his cell phone and speed dialed someone, his lips set in a tight line.
"I'm going to go speak to the doctors," he said, holding the phone away from his ear for a moment. "Someone should be in here checking you out right now." As he walked out he barked into the phone. "Get me the St. Barths police department. Now."
"Thanks," I called after him meekly. Finally, Noelle, Upton, Sawyer, and I were alone.
"That's Daddy. Always multitasking," Noelle joked.
"He doesn't have to do all this," I said, a bit awed by his concern for and defense of me.
"Sure he does. He likes to be in control," Noelle said with a shrug.
Like father, like daughter. I heard him pause to talk to some people out in the hallway and recognized Taylor Bell's voice. I glanced at Noelle quizzically.
"A bunch of people came to make sure you were okay," she explained. "Dash, Kiran, Taylor, Tiff, Amberly, Gage, West..."
All my friends from Easton. Even Gage Coolidge, who usually called me Farm Girl. And Amberly, who was closer to frenemy than friend. Of course Poppy, Paige, Sienna, and Daniel, Paige's brother, hadn't shown. Why was I not surprised?
"You guys believe me, right?" I asked, looking around at my friends.
"Of course," Sawyer replied.
My heart welled with gratitude. I was about to thank him, but then Upton walked over and paused next to his chair. "You mind, mate?" he said.
Sawyer glanced at him, hesitated, then got up, pushing the chair toward the wall with the back of his legs without a word. Upton leaned over and kissed my lips, running his hand over my forehead before dropping right down in Sawyer's vacated seat.
"Just calm down and get some rest," he said, clasping my hand in both of his. His deep voice and sexy English accent sent a pleasant thrill down my spine. The first pleasant sensation I'd had since I woke up. "We can deal with all of this later. Right now you just have to take care of yourself."
"Okay," I said, my voice full. "I'm so glad you guys are here," I added, glancing at Noelle.
"We're not going anywhere," Noelle replied, pulling up another chair from under the window. "Just try to get some sleep."
I nodded and leaned back into the pillows, clinging to Upton's hand. A sense of peace came over me and I felt my eyelids growing heavy. Everything was going to be okay. Upton and Noelle would take care of me. And Sawyer. Sawyer had saved me. I wouldn't even be here if not for him. Plus, he believed me. He was the only one other than Mr. Lange who had actually said he believed me.
I forced my tired eyes open, intending to thank him again, but when I glanced around the room, he was already gone.
Copyright © 2009 by Alloy Entertainment and Kieran Viola