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Drug Enforcement agent Owen Matthews gripped the wheel of his rented sports boat as he coasted through the North Atlantic at barely half throttle. The Maine island town of Stepping Stones urged Owen to rush forward to the safety of its shores, but his newly acquired phobia of boats wouldn't let him speed up even one knot. At this rate the sun would be gone before he arrived at his next assignment.
"What we do for friends," Owen mumbled through clenched teeth, thinking about his old academy roommate, and the island's sheriff, Wesley Grant. Even though Wes had chosen small-town law enforcement and Owen had taken the federal route with the DEA down to the Mexican border, the two kept in touch.
Wes had called, needing Owen's undercover expertise to take down a recent marijuana problem at Stepping Stones High School. No job was too dangerous or too far for Owen when it came to extinguishing the distribution of illegal mindaltering substances. Even if the job brought him back to these Maine waters, where his guilt ran deep and he'd vowed never to go again.
Owen inhaled the old and familiar salty air and cringed. He needed to get off this boat. He needed to get this job done and get back to Texas where he belonged.
He steered his focus to the few facts Wes had given him about the case, specifically on how the drugs had appeared about six months ago, soon after two new residents had moved to Stepping Stones.
Wes was a good cop, but he probably didn't want to believe a fellow islander could ever bring such harm down on one of his own. Since Owen grew up on the mainland and not with these people, he could offer a more unbiased investigation of all the inhabitants, new and old.
Plus, Owen knew firsthand how the ones closest to us had the power to destroy us. And he knew this not because he'd been on the receiving end, but because of the people he'd destroyed. His past offenses convinced him that anyone could be a suspectincluding the owner of the fishing boat coming at him.
At first, the vessel bobbed alongside a huge rock and lighthouse up ahead. When it shot off like a bullet, Owen questioned its hurry. Was its retreat an innocent maneuver, or had Owen intruded on an illegal happening of some kind?
He kept his undercover status in mind and prepared to make all neighborly with the captain of the He strained to read the name of the fishing boat scrawled on its hull.
The Rita Ann.
A harmless enough name. Although typically a drug trafficker wouldn't be advertising its wares on its exterior for the world to see. Owen observed more of the rusty, white fishing boat with its tall, lit masthead. A rule follower, it would seem, with his adequate safety equipment. But if one were carrying illegal cargo, it would be in his best interest to keep the lightbulbs in working order. Why risk the chance of being pulled over?
Owen searched the tinted pilothouse windows for the captain, but only the reflection of the setting sun glinted back at him. He closed in, waving his hand high, then slowed to an idle to wait for a response.
Instead, the Rita Ann increased its speed and changed its coursedirectly at him.
Stunned, Owen felt his hand slip off the gearshift. This couldn't be happening. Not again. The sun was setting, but he could still be seen. The last time it had been pitch-dark. This didn't make sense.
Snap out of it, Matthews! He ordered himself to reengage, but his stiff hands might as well have been petrified wood. He had to move, but past visions of a splintering boat flying sky-high immobilized his reflexes. Six years of time dissolved into this moment as he relived his first crash.
No. He wouldn't let history repeat itself. Move! Now!
A surge of adrenaline pushed him to hit Reverse. He blasted back out of the Rita Ann's path. The fishing boat jetted past him without an acknowledgment.
Owen questioned whether the driver had seen him or not. How could he not, though? He watched the Rita Ann chug out to sea. Owen forced his hand to turn the wheel to follow. He would flag it down to find out, but first he would need to speed up to catch it.
Duty called, and Owen's previous driving-with-caution vaulted to the wind. He kicked up his speed a notch, then another and another. The front bow parted the rolling waves into a frothy wake as he set his sights on the Rita Ann.
With his attention drilled straight ahead, he nearly missed a gray object flying past him on his starboard side. Immediately another followed. Owen's head whipped from side to side while his mind registered what they were.
He slowed a bit to identify them as flat rocks, smaller, less visible than the large one with the lighthouse on it. Some even submerged. The sight of the solid, unmovable masses caused him to slam back the throttle, jolting the craft to a rumbling crawl.
The Rita Ann raced on ahead without him.
It wasn't the fact that he let her go that choked him, but rather that he could have had a disastrous collision if he had been a few scant feet more to his left.
At least no one was in the boat with me this time. Owen blew out a breath of anger at his stupidity. I have no business being out on these waters. Not even for a job.
With tighter fists than before, he gripped the steering wheel again. In an anxious cold sweat, Owen drifted with the tiniest bit of gas sent to the engine. In such a slow motion, he realized more and more of the rocks protruded up from the ocean floor around him, leading up to the island of Stepping Stones.
The island apparently got its name from these rocks. The lighthouse was built on the largest of them, while the others dotted a sporadic path. A beautiful scene for a painting, but in reality the rocks posed a deadly threat to boats cruising their way up the coast of New England. How the ferry could dock here was beyond him. Maybe that's why it only came in once a week. Too risky with these formidable pieces of stone that required a wide berth.
Owen slowly made his way back to the lighthouse. As he approached, something red and gold caught his attention. It looked like a person's hair fluttering on the sea breeze. Upon closer inspection he saw the strands belonged to a woman.
She lay motionless on the rock. His mind reeled with concern. Was she injured?
Owen swung his gaze back at the departing Rita Ann. Perhaps the woman had been hurt by the same hands that piloted the boat. That would explain the hasty departure. Had someone on the Rita Ann dumped her there? Thrown her overboard? Owen's stomach twisted at the thought. Time was critical if that was the case.
He steadied his gaze on her, but from his vantage point all he could make out was her shock of long red hair, glinting with gold in the sun's rays. The tresses fanned out against the rock like the rays themselves. He leaned over the steering wheel as if that would get him closer faster.
With the engine of his boat chugging, he hoped she would hear him approach and lift her head or wave a hand, but she didn't. Not even when his boat sidled up to the rock and bobbed idly in the waves.
"Miss?" he called out over the rattling engine. "Miss, do you need help?"
No answer. No movement, either.
Owen cleared his throat and tried again louder. When that turned out the same, the words deathly still crossed his mind. Apprehension niggled at the back of his neck. He rubbed it and the horrid thought away and called out again. "Miss?" he yelled forcefully, but he couldn't deny the waver of uncertainty in his voice.
He hadn't seen someone this still since his wife, Rebecca, lay in the sand, paramedics going through the motions of saving her only because he begged them not to stop. Owen's throat filled with a golf ball-size blockage. He shot a jittery gaze toward the island, willing someone else to come help this woman.
The docks glimmered in the sunlight, waiting for his boat to find its place beside them for the night. Oh, how he wanted to do just that. To allow someone else better qualified to help her. He was good at chasing bad guys, not rescuing women. But not one person came into his view. Not one fisherman. Not one loitering teenager. No one at all stood on the pier for him to wave at for assistance.
Owen cut the engine. It has to be me. He dropped his shoulders as he dropped anchor.
He thought about radioing for help, but maybe the woman was just in a deep sleep. Just in case she was hurt, though, Owen grabbed the lifesaving equipment stored in the rear stern under the padded seats. He yanked open the compartment to find a first-aid kit and blanket, along with life vests. He scooped up the blanket and kit and went port side, reaching out to grab at the crusty barnacle-covered stone.
Swells rocked the woman in and out of his view. With every rise and sway of his boat, he caught sight of her one-piece red-and-blue bathing suit. He thought it was a mishmash of flowers or something but didn't concentrate enough on it to be sure. His full attention was given to the state of the woman's wellness. In a quick scan, his eyes followed from her bathing suit down her long, muscular limbs of milky white to a set of small feet sprawled motionless.
"I'm coming, okay?" he assured her loudly as he threw his load up on the rock and hoisted his body to follow. Please be sleeping. "Don't move. You may have a neck injury." Like Rebecca when she was thrown.
The woman didn't move. Not even to acknowledge his presence. He watched for any sign of a twitch or breathing as he scraped along the sharp barnacles. Pain sliced through his palms and bare forearms. He used the discomfort to propel him up and forward, but was glad for the protection of his denim jeans. Lying flat, he came face-to-face with the still, delicate features of the woman. Long, light lashes rested on pale freckled cheeks. He hesitated to touch her. Would he find her asleep? Dead? Had his rescue not come in time?
"Miss, can you hear me? Are you hurt? Do you need help?"
His hand reached for the curve of her neck and gently felt for her pulse on icy-cold skin. She moaned, and her heart's life-beating sound brought Owen a mix of relief and elation. She might be hurt, but at least she was alive. Thank you, Lord, Owen's reflexive prayer of thanksgiving had him wiping an old bitter aftertaste from his salty lips.
"God had nothing to do with saving this girl," he muttered. "God's not here. I'm here."
Owen reached for the scratchy wool blanket behind him and stretched it over her arms and chest to warm her. Instantly, her eyes flashed open wide and another short sound deep in her throat escaped her pale lips. A moan of pain? A quick jerk of her head triggered him to brace her in case.
"Miss?" He gripped both sides of her face and peered into stark gray eyes, as gray as the stone she lay on. Fear shone up at him. "Don't move. You could have a spinal injury. Can you tell me if you hurt anywhere?"
She struggled beneath the blanket, arms fumbling and pushing with a strength that caught him off guard. Owen pressed her arms down and shushed her. He couldn't safely move her to the boat like this.
She moaned again, more forcefully, louder. It didn't sound like a moan of pain now, but rather anger. She was mad at him? For helping her? She shoved harder at the blanket between them. Her lips parted for the loudest, most forceful sound yet. It sounded like the word "off without the pronunciation of thefs. It took him a second before her word hit him like a left hook to his gut.
Owen jumped away from the muffled sounds he would recognize anywhere. They were the same kind of sounds his son made when he tried to speakever since he'd lost his hearing the night he'd nearly drowned in the crash.
This woman wasn't injured at all. She didn't answer him because, like his son, she was deaf.
Miriam Hunter fumbled under the attack of a strong-armed man. The scare tactics to get rid of her had turned physical. Ever since she'd arrived, the islanders had made it known she wasn't wanted. First, the nasty notes and emails, then the late-night crank calls. And now this this assault.
How dare this guy sneak up on her in this secluded place? The one place she could fully get away from their angry stares. As though it was her fault drugs had come to their precious island.
Just because the marijuana showed up after she arrived didn't mean she'd brought it with her. The bag of marijuana found in her office had been placed there by one of the very townspeople who wanted her goneperhaps even by this guy leaning over her.
Angrily, Miriam heaved at the heavy material scratching her skin. She didn't have to think twice as to why he'd covered her with it. He might as well have sealed her lips with duct tape. She strained against him to free her handsher voice. He wouldn't understand a word she signed, but it would make her feel better to put him in his place. She wouldn't sit here and allow him to silence her. She pushed at him again, but his strength wouldn't relent.
Who is this guy? Miriam didn't recognize him as a parent. He seemed too young to have a child in high school. Thirty-two, tops. His dark cropped hair screamed military, not shaggy, salt-drenched fisherman.
But the eyes.
She stilled to study the rich black-currant irises inches from her face. Sharp and assessing eyes, not accusing and vindictive. She thought they held a message of caring, but before she could decipher it clearly, all emotion dipped behind their onyx surface like the secrets of the sea, safely hidden beneath murky depths.
His tensed lips moved, too close for her to read. Then as much as she abhorred talking, Miriam broke her vow and opened her mouth to tell him to get off.
The look on his clean-shaven face abruptly changed from determination to shock? Her deafness surprised him? If he didn't know she was deaf, then he wasn't from Stepping Stones. He was a strangerand she was alone on a rock in the ocean with him.
Every self-defense move Miriam had learned in college jumped to attention in her head. She tried to recall if there was a maneuver for when someone had you pinned under a blanket. Never did she think those tactics would be used, but perhaps this was the moment God had prepared her for through all those classes. Stay with me, Father, she signed her prayer of petition in her head because her hands were still secured under the blanket. Give me strength and the knowledge to break away. She mindfully pulled out the scripture tucked in her heart for times of darkness.
Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Miriam used the words from Isaiah 41 to hurl all her strength at the man again. This time, he jolted back as though she'd burned him. Without waiting another second, she sat up, flung off the blanket and scooted back.