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"Fifty bucks says I finish first!"
Chris Hampton squinted against her racing sailboat's bow spray to eye her nearest competitor.
A few yards away and slightly astern, Dave Mitchell's identical Laser sailboat clipped through the bay waves, gaining. Sitting sideways, he leaned backward to keep the sail upright and full of wind. He grinned over his broad shoulder at her, his brown ponytail flying like a banner. "You don't stand a chance!"
A gust of wind snatched her laugh. She adjusted the tiller. "Put your money where your mouth is!"
"Make it a hundred and you're on!"
Chris loosened the main sheet to put more curve in the sail. Her Laser had the wind behind her and wallowed a little in the light chop of the inlet feeding into Galveston Bay. Another spray of water leaped up onto her back, soaking her black-and-royal-blue wet suit, chilling her. She blew water droplets from her nose and settled down to her sailing. Dave had beaten her twice this season. Let him win this last race of the series and lose a Ben Franklin? No way.
Just a hundred yards to the final buoy and then the sprint for the finish. Dave was the closest sailor, but a few yards behind him lurked the kid called Ferret. Ferret not only had his namesake's sharp features and close-set eyes, he had a habit of weaseling between boats. The kid was a born tactician and Chris didn't underestimate him. Behind them, the rest of the racers jockeyed for better wind. At the buoy she'd just cornered, the committee boat, a twenty-five-foot cabin cruiser, signaled the race course's ending point.
Chris ducked her head to look under the Laser's boom at the big orange buoy marking the final leg. Fair running, but she'd have her hands full once she rounded the marker. She'd take the wind almost directly on the nose in a close beat to the finish.
She glanced over at Dave. His Laser skimmed easily beside hers and she was beginning to see more of his back than his side as he drew even. Come on, she goaded him. I'm going to bury you right here in this race.
One boat length. That's all she needed. Heart pounding, she nudged her boat a little further to starboard, closer to Dave. A fresh wind gust cooled the side of her neck. She tightened the main just a touch as the wind strengthened. Her little sailboat leaped ahead as Dave fell back. He was slowing to tack, but she'd chance a spill to gain some distance in the turn.
The buoy sped toward her. As her boat came even with it, she pulled on the tiller and ducked while switching sides of the boat. The sail's boom swung over her head into position on the port side. She yanked the mainsheet taut as the Laser pivoted, stalled and lifted its starboard side — where Chris now perched — out of the water. Chris leaned backward, fighting not to fall forward as the boat tipped her into a standing position.
"Come on, baby!" she coaxed.
The light sailboat hovered on edge, perfectly balanced. Chris braced her feet on the gunwale and leaned farther back. The boat couldn't take another inch. For a split second, Chris felt the boat tip past the sweet spot.
The wind eased. The Laser paused, then dropped back onto her bottom. Chris scrambled to adjust her weight. The sail snapped twice, then caught the breeze. The Laser shot away from the buoy.
"Woohoo!" she heard Ferret yell. "Bitchin' corner!" Chris grinned, adrenaline surging. The fastest turn she'd ever tried. And the luckiest. She glanced back. Dave's hull rocked bottom-up. He was out of their little match race. Easy hundred bucks for her. Ferret's Laser shot past Dave's bobbing head and executed a picture-perfect tack.
Now it was just her against Ferret for the finish. She tightened the main, trying to get a little more speed out of the Laser. The boat had her shoulder in, really cranking, nipping through the little wave tops. The finish mark was only a couple hundred yards away.
The high whine of a small powerboat's outboard engine, like a giant mosquito, cut through the rushing wind. Chris glanced around but saw nothing. It wasn't the committee boat, which had a gutsier inboard. Just somebody out on the inlet for a joy ride. The next moment, Ferret shouted something incomprehensible. She'd gotten too far ahead to hear him. She licked the salt from her lips and glanced again. Nothing but the committee boat, horn blowing. She ducked to look under the sail and froze.
A power runabout, maybe twice her boat's length and much, much heavier, sped toward her. A hundred yards away but closing fast on an intercept course.
Her heart lurched. If she dropped the sail, she'd stop but couldn't maneuver. The runabout, a flash of red-and-white fiberglass against blue sky and water, bore down, engine screaming. The driver frantically waved his arms, yelling. Chris caught the word "steering," but nothing else.
"Kill the motor!" Ferret shouted. "Hit the kill switch!" Chris had to change direction. A tack wouldn't do it. It'd have to be a dangerous jibe, letting the wind completely control the boom's movement and position. She turned the Laser away from the wind. The little boat pivoted its nose toward the runabout, then back toward Ferret.
"Come on!" she shouted at the wind. A gust caught the mainsail. Chris ducked. The boom snapped from port to starboard with killing speed. The Laser lurched, then heeled over. Pointed back toward the other racers, it slowly started moving.
A flash of red. The driver's voice, high-pitched, shouted. She glanced over. The runabout had been headed toward her forward position. Now it veered toward her again. Its bow grew quickly as it bore down on her. The driver's thin face stretched wide in a grimace of fear. Her fingers fumbled for her life jacket's straps. She yanked the vest off. A sickening gust of gasoline-scented air rushed over her. Her gut clenched. He was going to hit her. She didn't stand a chance.
Cool water shocked her skin, tore her breath away. She stroked hard for the bottom. Water filled her ears, blunted her hearing, but overhead, fiberglass thudded and cracked on fiberglass. Instinctively, she ducked. The runabout's sharp-bladed propeller churned and roared over the little sailboat, chewing it up.
She turned and opened her eyes to stinging salt and murky, silty water. Torn pieces of her Laser drifted down. The sail eased and billowed like a giant jellyfish, tugged toward the bottom by the wrenched mast. The runabout's roar faded, lowered an octave, then quit. Her life jacket floated idly on the surface, its stuffing protruding from the blade-sliced neoprene.
Chris stroked upward. Surfacing, she sucked in air and shook the water from her stinging eyes. Her body trembled, hungry for air and warmth.
"Chris!" someone shouted. "Chris!"
She raised her arm, kept it up like a beacon. "I'm okay!" The committee boat moved cautiously toward her. Its pilot killed his engine as he drew near and pivoted the boat. When the swim ladder came into view, she side-stroked over and climbed onto the platform.
"Not hurt?" Gus Perkins asked, giving her a hand into the open cockpit. He held her shoulders for a moment in his gnarled hands as his gaze swept her head to toe.
"Nah. Scared. But that's it." She shrugged him off, then shoved aside a boat hook and a stack of flags so she could collapse on the vinyl bench and concentrate on breathing. Her eyes watered when she sniffed and salt water shot up her nose. She cleared her throat. "Where'd that guy come from?"
Gus's weather-beaten face screwed itself into even more wrinkles as he hoisted the blue-and-white checkedAbandon Race flag. "Hell if I know. Guys like him shouldn't have a boat. Didn't know how to kill the engine. Dangerous bastard."
Chris tried to comb her fingers through her tangled hair. "I agree completely. Let's go have a chat with him."
"Wait just a minute. Let's make sure you're all right."
"Well, you might think so, but you nearly got killed, so let's just take a minute here." Gus disappeared into the cruiser's tiny cabin and came back with a massive towel.
"Dry off some. Take it easy."
Chris took the towel. "I'm really — "
"Let's make sure you're all right." He grabbed his navy Houston Astros cap off his head, ran his hand over his bald head and replaced the cap. "Let's wait for the police."
The cruiser bobbed soothingly. The runabout, now dead in the water, its bow gouged and scraped, drifted aimlessly. Its driver clutched his face with his hands. The Lasers, race abandoned, rushed back to the clubhouse like a flock of scared seabirds. Dave and Ferret were tacking their way over to the cruiser.
Chris scrubbed her face with the surprisingly soft towel. Gus was right. Relax. She breathed deep, the towel covering her face. Her heart, she realized now, still raced. Her arms and legs still tingled. Adrenaline. Reaction. Reflex. The sailboat would be settling into the inlet's mud bottom, shattered.
As she would be, had she not jumped.
Her chest abruptly warmed. Not now, she told herself. No crying. It was all over and she was safe. What would be the point in crying? It was bad enough her hands were shaking. Why did she suddenly feel so weak? She took another deep breath from the towel.
Only then did she recognize the scent. Peaches. Like the sachets her mother had used. Her parents' house had smelled like peaches until Chris had turned eleven, when she and her sister had gone to live with Granddad.
Chris dragged the towel from her face and mopped the back of her neck. No wonder she felt weak. She didn't need another reminder of that loss. She'd had a reminder every day growing up, every day she'd gone downstairs to have breakfast with Granddad and Natalie — his beloved "real" granddaughter — and confronted his resentment. His message was clear: You're not flesh and blood. You're not welcome here.
At least Natalie had always treated Chris like a real sister. Chris was ten when Natalie surprised their parents by being carried to term. Natalie, though impressionable, had never picked up their grandfather's disdain for Chris.
Chris tossed the towel on the seat. Screw self-pity, she thought. Her adoptive parents' love, when they were alive, had more than made up for the old man's attitude when they were gone. And she'd become stronger, more focused, from constantly battling to live the life she wanted. Her life with her grandfather was just the luck of the draw. She wiped a rivulet of salt water from her temple. Chris believed in making her own luck. Like she had ten minutes ago.
"Galveston's here," Gus said from his captain's chair. Chris watched the green-and-white Galveston Bay police boat glide up to the dead runabout. One cop eased the boat near the red-striped runabout and the other rigged lines to lash the two boats together.
The driver looked up then. Even at fifty yards' distance, she saw how thin he was. How shaken up. His white face a mask frozen with that same grimace of fear. Dread oozed through her stomach and lifted bile into her throat.
"You still want to go over and give that guy a piece of your mind?" Gus asked.
The thought of listening to the man's stammering apology sent a shiver down her spine. What good would it do to hear him say he was sorry? It wouldn't erase what had happened. Chris shook her head. "I just want to go home."
She couldn't, though. She had to give her statement to the police first, then watch a salvage crew pluck her destroyed boat from the inlet's waters while she stood hugging herself against a delayed onset of the shakes. The runabout driver, the police told her, would be severely fined for operator neglect. Because neither competency tests nor licenses were required for powerboat use, as Chris well knew, the driver would be free to take his runabout onto the bay again whenever he wanted, after he took the U.S. Coast Guard's Power Squadron course. Like defensive driving, but with a better chance of actually teaching the violator something he didn't know.
After finishing up with the authorities, she walked outside the racing club, where Dave sat on the porch step, waiting for his ride home. "Stick a fork in me," she told him.
He stood as she joined him. "Think he'll pay for the Laser?"