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Jason Ryan snagged his cell phone from the kitchen table, then fumbled to answer before the caller hung up. The muscles in his jaw tightened as he checked the ID. Great. So the long lost prodigal had finally decided to check in.
He took the call, skipping any formalities with his best friend and business partner. "Where are you, Garrett?"
"Listen, I just have a minute. Some things have come up, and I I need a few more days off."
"A few more days to do what?" Jason shoved the last file into his briefcase then slammed the lid shut. He didn't have time for more of Garrett's excuses. Not today.
"I can't tell you." His friend's voice faded in and out with the choppy connection.
"You can't or won't tell me? Come on, Garrett. I've put up with your excuses for weeks, and now you won't even answer my phone calls or respond to my emails. What am I supposed to do?"
"You don't understand"
"No " Jason let out a loud humph and started pacing the kitchen's mosaic tiled floor. "You're the one who doesn't understand, Garrett. I need you here. I just finished our final analysis of Simon's company and discovered another million dollars' worth of misappropriated funds. Do you realize how much work we have ahead of us?"
"I'm sorry, for everything, but I've gotten involved in something something serious."
"Tell me what's wrong, and I'll help you fix it," he insisted, trying to reason with his friend.
"I don't think this can be fixed."
Jason rubbed the back of his neck. He could read the aggravation in his friend's voice, but he wasn't buying the excuses anymore. They might have become close friends over the past seven years, but even that didn't make up for Garrett's recent erratic behavior. Or the fact he'd been AWOL from his job the past two weeks. "Convince me why I shouldn't terminate you."
"Because I need you to trust me."
Jason frowned. As far as he was concerned, trust wasn't one of his friend's fortes at the moment. "It's a woman, isn't it?"
"Yes. No. It's not what you think."
Jason felt the last thread of patience snap. Garrett's record with women was worse than his own. While a fourth date always seemed one date too close to commitment for Jason, Garrett rarely got past a second date before he was playing the field again.
"Come on, Garrett tell me what's going on." Jason rummaged through the kitchen cabinet for a bottle of aspirin to take the edge off the headache that had been brewing all morning. "Your mother called me yesterday, worried sick because she hadn't heard from you in over a week. Plus, I'm covering for you at work, even though I can't even tell anyone where you are or what you're doing because I don't know myself."
"Like I said, I can't tell you. Not yet, anyway."
"Then at least tell me where you are?"
There was a slight pause on the line. Jason downed the tablets with a glass of tap water. He set the empty glass in the sink, still awaiting an answer. "Garrett?"
"I'm in Pacific Cove, but nothing is secure not on-line not this call ."
Garrett's voice faded away.
"Garrett? Can you hear me?"
Even though the small coastal town was only twenty miles from his father's cabin, he hadn't been to Pacific Cove for years. What in the world was Garrett doing there?
"The connection is bad." Garrett's voice returned. "I'll call you again in a few days. I've got to go."
"Garrett, wait" The line went dead.
Jason braced his hands against the sides of the kitchen sink and stared off into the distance at Mt. Hood shimmering in the morning sunlight. If Garrett was involved with a woman, why all the secrecy? Nothing made sense. He grabbed his car keys and briefcase and headed out the front door of his downtown Portland condo. Knowing Garrett, he was sitting at a beachside cafe eating crab cakes and oyster shooters with some girl he'd fallen for.
Some dire emergency. More like another one of Gar-rett's romantic liaisons. Or at least it had better be.
Four days later
Four-year-old Lauryn tugged on her mother's hand, her mouth drawn into a deep frown.
"What's wrong, sweetie?" Danielle Corbett followed her daughter's gaze past the foot-tall sandcastle wall they'd just finished. Another few minutes and the structure would completely disappear into the shoreline.
"Someone's out there."
Lauryn pointed to the swirling gray-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean dancing beneath the yellow sunlight that glistened off clusters of jagged rocks.
Something orange flashed in the water.
Danielle's gaze shifted to the right, and she squinted against the glare of the water. Another flash of color rose then disappeared. She scanned the deserted shoreline for help. Mr. Johnson walked his golden retriever most mornings. Reagan Garland jogged on the days he worked the night shift. Today, there was no one.
Grabbing Lauryn's hand, she ran toward her mother who had just finished gathering up their picnic supplies and handed her the beach bag. "Mom, there is a swimmer in distress. I need you to call 911 then take Lauryn with you up to the restaurant. Send someone for help, then wait for me there."
Not waiting for a response, Danielle hurried back into the surf, her tennis shoes soaking up the water and squishing beneath her sock-clad toes. Ignoring the Pacific Ocean's frigid temperature, she kept her focus on the figure as his head emerged gasping for air then vanished into the white foam.
A spray of water splashed her sun-chapped lips leaving behind its salty residue. Wiping the back of her hand against her mouth, Danielle trudged deeper into the ocean until she was only a few feet from the struggling body.
In an instant, he was gone.
Her toes barely touching the sandy bottom, Danielle searched the murky waters. Turning a full 360, her heart pounded frantically. Tufts of dark hair appeared at the surface. Diving into the water, she opened her eyes and aimed in the direction of the body. An eternity seemed to pass before the form appeared. This time he no longer struggled against the waves. An orange shirt hung off one shoulder. Heavy jeans hung like weights on his legs. Grabbing his shoulders, Danielle turned against the strengthening tide and headed for the surface.
Stay calm. Don'tpanic.
The emergency training course she'd taken last summer flashed before her. She took a deep breath and struggled to keep her head above the waves.
Pulling the man toward her, Danielle rested the back of his head against her chest. He lay limp in her arms. Please God, don't let me be too late. She checked the beach. It was empty.
One second at a time. One stroke at a time.
Pulling her free arm against the waves, Danielle pushed against the water until her feet touched the sand beneath her. The weight of the man grew heavy in her arms, but at least he wasn't fighting against her.
Danielle shivered, willing her body to keep swimming toward the shore, but even her training for this year's local triathlon hadn't prepared her for this. Underwater waves pushed against her legs. The sand sank beneath her feet making progress difficult. Ten more feet. She could see the edge of the water now. Five more feet.
Finally collapsing onto the wet sand, Danielle dragged the man far enough away from the incoming tide so that she could work unhindered. She looked to the deserted shoreline for help, worried that she didn't have time to wait for the paramedics to arrive, then gently shook his body. She felt for a pulse beneath his jawline and checked his breathing.
Danielle fought the alarm that rose in her chest as she placed the heel of her hand in the center of his chest and started chest compressions. A lock of dark hair rested against his forehead. Freckles scattered across his nose and cheeks. A small scar crossed his left eyebrow. He was somebody's son, brother, husband .
Lord, I need a miracle.
Danielle glanced up and drew out a labored sigh of relief at the man running toward her. Athletic build, dark blond hair Pale blue eyes met hers a moment later as he knelt on the sand across from her.
Danielle heard the urgency in his voice as she tried to catch her breath. Surely she was seeing things. Jason Ryan?
His gaze shifted from her face, to the body, then back to her again. "Danielle? Tell me what happened," he said, his expression full of questions.
There was no time to process the familiar features or the ten years that had passed since she'd last seen him. "I pulled him out of the water. I've tried CPR, but he doesn't have a pulse, and he's not breathing." Danielle felt her own heart pounding inside her chest. "My mother called 911 and has gone to the restaurant to get help."
He caught her gaze, then grabbed her hands, turning them over palms up. Danielle felt the air rush out of her lungs. They were covered with blood. "I don't think he drowned, Danielle. He's been shot."
Jason fought the panic as he tried to process the blood on Danielle's hands and the fact that he'd just found Garrett. But if there was any chance of saving his friend, they both were going to have to keep their focus.
Needing to find the source of the injury, he turned his friend on to his side where the blood had seeped onto the sand. Two holes punctuated his back, leaving dark circles of blood behind. No pulse. No heartbeat. A sickening feeling flooded through him. Garrett was dead.
"We can still save him." Sirens wailed in the distance as Danielle knelt in front of Garrett's lifeless body and began the chest compressions again.
"It's too late." Jason grabbed her hands a second time and pulled them against his chest. "There isn't anything you could have done to save him. There isn't anything anyone can do. He's already gone, Danielle."
How had this happened? He stared at the lifeless body of his friend, then stood up, his legs shaking at the realization. His last conversation with Garrett raced through his mind as he walked a few paces toward the sea trying to process what had just occurred.
"I knew him." He turned back toward her, guilt pounding through him. "I came to Pacific Cove to find him. He's a friend my business partner."
"I'm so sorry." Danielle looked up at him with those achingly familiar, big brown eyes. "I can't imagine losing someone this way."
"I didn't take him seriously when he told me he was in trouble." Jason knelt back down onto the sand across from her. "Now he's dead."
Danielle stood twenty yards from the bodydead and lying in a body bagshe'd pulled from the ocean. The early afternoon tide swept back and forth across the rocky shoreline, sand flowers fluttered in the wind and seagulls fought for scraps of food beside her, but she barely saw any of it. Instead, her arms were crossed tightly against her chest as she answered the barrage of questions from one of the police officers, while another officer talked to Jason. Where had she found the body? Had he been alive when she first saw him? Had there been any other witnesses at the scene?
Danielle shivered in the cold, trying to get her mind to focus, while absorbing the shock that a man was dead. Yes, she'd found him floating in the water. She thought he'd been alive when she pulled him out, but then they'd found the blood. There had been no heartbeat, no sign of breathing. And no, she hadn't seen anyone else on the beach at the time of the rescue except for Jason.
The officer tapped his pen against his notes. "One last question. Had you ever seen the victim before today?"
Danielle shook her head, wanting the interview to be over. Wishing she could erase the blank stare of the dead man's eyes looking back at her, the dark red stains on his back and the fact that her hands had been covered with his blood.
"I'm sorry. No I've never seen him before."
She barely heard the officer's instructions through her deafening thoughts. One of the officers would be in touch if they needed any more information. If she thought of anything else in the meantime, she needed to call the precinct. She gave him her contact information, then started walking away from the shoreline, wanting to get as far away as she could from the crime scene.
"Danielle?" Jason caught up to her. "Are you okay?"
"No, not really." Her clothes and shoes were soaked and she was shivering from the cold, but none of that seemed to matter. A man was dead.
"Do you need a ride home?"
She paused along the sandy trail leading toward the restaurant. She hadn't even stopped to think that far ahead.
"One of the paramedics let me use his phone to call my mom while he checked me out. I told her to take Lauryn home. If they were to see me soaking wet and shaken up like this, they'd both worry."
Besides that, the last thing she wanted was for either of them to have witnessed today's tragedy.
Danielle looked up into his turbulent blue eyes. She'd almost forgotten he didn't know. How much time had passed since the night she'd handed him her engagement ring back? Nine ten years ago. It seemed like a lifetime. "A lot can change in ten years. Lauryn's my daughter."
"So you're married?"
She bent down and picked up a white sand dollar half-buried in the ground and started brushing off the sand. "Quinton died in a motorcycle accident two years ago."
She let her thumb rub across the broken edge of the shell. Some days she felt the same way. Broken defeated. Other days she felt as if she'd finally found her way. Today she wasn't sure where she stood. "It's something I'm learning to live with."
"Listen, let me go with you up to the restaurant so you can dry off and get something warm to drink, then I'll drive you home. You've got to be chilled to the bone. They have a fireplace in the dining room."
A shiver spread through her as he spoke, and she nodded. Late October meant the average temperature on the coast barely rose above sixty degrees. Being wet in the wind made the cold even worse.
She turned around to take one last look at the body before they headed toward the restaurant. Officers and paramedics finished working the scene, along with the medical examiner who had recently arrived. The reality of what had just transpired hit her like a winter storm beating against the Pacific's rugged coastline. When her knees buckled beneath her, Jason caught her and drew her into his arms.
She let him hold her for a moment. Her head rested against his chest as she breathed in the smell of salt and seaweed, finding an unexpected security in his presence. He had been that for her once. Years before she'd even met Quinton.
"I'm sorry." She stepped back, suddenly self-conscious of her display of emotion to a man she'd purposely forgotten. "I just don't think I've ever been so scared. Everything happened so fast . I thought I could save him. I wanted so badly to save him."
"Hey, you don't have any reason to be sorry." He brushed away the tear sliding down her cheek with the back of his hand. "What you experienced today was traumatic."