She’d missed the ocean. Pausing at the water’s edge, McKenna Nichols stared out over the rolling waves, letting the saltwater, the incoming breeze, and the cry of the gulls welcome her home. Nothing had changed since she last stood here, yet everything had. She let the scene renew her, while her gaze fell on the handful of beachcombers ambling at the water’s edge. A lone swimmer emerged and caught her eye.
Sea water dripping from his wetsuit, he stepped out of the rolling surf. Sand churned as he sprinted toward the beachside park’s public area. A face mask hung from his fingers. He’d tucked rubber flippers beneath an arm. His gait suggested something amiss, as if trouble drove him. He scanned the horizon, continued up the rise, then disappeared among the vehicles at the park’s perimeter.
Alarm bells chimed in McKenna’s head, as automatic as a fire drill, worry intruding like an uninvited guest. The ocean demanded respect. Ignoring its power brought trouble. Grim details from her husband Dane’s sea stories ripped through her imagination like a hook caught in a wind sail. She looked again for the swimmer, but he’d gone.
She redirected her attention to her six-year-old daughter who played close by in the silt of the incoming tide. Sydney jumped, splashing everything within a four-foot radius, leaving a trail of grit down the side of McKenna’s capris. She shivered and took her daughter’s hand, leading her to the slower current of a freshwater stream running through the oceanfront wayside. The creek’s mouth ended in a swirl of incoming tidal foam and provided a quieter place to play. “Try this, sweetie.”
Sydney stared into the clear ripples of the narrow waterway, her toes flashing pink. Feet still submerged, she plunked herself on the sandy bank and sifted through pebbles scattered along the surface, tiny rocks washed by a thousand tides.
Satisfied her daughter would be content for a few minutes, McKenna’s gaze again skimmed the park, seeking signs of the distraught swimmer. The beach’s serenity mocked her. Nothing appeared out of place. Like a kite without string, a gull fluttered, hovering in the gusts of wind, his squawk muted against the roar of the waves. A handful of climbers explored the rock piles surrounding the cove’s northern tip. Two shrieking girls hopped swells in the rolling Pacific, each jump making them wetter, their cold skin no doubt covered in goose bumps.
McKenna smiled, having done the same—before marriage, a child, and Dane’s departure. Countless journeys along this stretch of shoreline bounced around in her mind—every step imprinted with a different memory, each piece of gravel proof she’d come home.
Why do I feel as if I’m starting over?
Staring upward, she implored heaven to hear her cry. Today, though, God remained silent.
She circled back toward Sydney, her line of vision fixed on the footprint trails making paths to the pavement. Assorted sizes dotted the shore, hers and Sydney’s fresh in the wet sand, a larger groove pressed alongside a smaller one. The earlier swimmer’s prints sank deeper—his determined steps, his haste—eerie reminders she shouldn’t let down her guard.
She breathed deep, cleansing the ache in her middle, and let it out. The refreshing mist smelled of saltwater and seaweed. She welcomed the breeze’s reprieve like a long-lost treasure. The air brought renewal after the weeks of hot, dry, valley weather they’d endured until they’d moved here at the end of July. Nothing remained for her there anymore—journalism degree finished, her reputation as a photographer launched. Still packed in a box with his things, her husband’s engineering degree hid behind its green diploma cover, waiting to be used.
Would she ever stand on this beach and hold his hand again?
Sydney stood, moving out of the stream, and shuffled back to the ocean’s edge. The miniature ripples of the tide made fizzy, foaming noises at Sydney’s feet, their former strength now spent. She giggled and stomped the bubbling water as wave after wave washed over her ankles. Face lifted toward the wind, she shook her head, the mass of auburn curls bouncing in every direction. Amber eyes squinted as she sniffed the sea’s breeze.
McKenna forgot her earlier unease and basked in her daughter’s beauty. Sydney served as a souvenir from a different life—an ever-present reminder of the man who’d made her a mother and the family they’d been. She never tired of watching Sydney. Or thinking of Dane. What danger might he encounter today? She didn’t want to know. Yet she wished she could.
“Look, Sydney.” McKenna grabbed her daughter’s hand and led her to a large crab hurrying to rebury itself after exposure by a breaker. Loose debris shifted beneath the pincers as the crustacean struggled to disappear. McKenna stepped back and let the animal entertain Sydney’s curiosity.
Her daughter stared at the creature, flapping her hands from her wrists. She squatted to watch as the crab dug deeper. As if by magic, the sand stilled, a small hump the only evidence something hid beneath the surface. Sydney flapped harder, her excitement too difficult to contain.
McKenna grimaced at the hand motion, a self-stimulating behavior that helped Sydney process whatever was before her. Like a hummingbird’s wings, the flapping grew faster the more her daughter studied her subject. The action mimicked a camera clicked over and over, capturing every detail. McKenna accepted the action as part of her child’s persona, saddened that the calming affect the ocean possessed over her daughter couldn’t somehow erase all traces of the disorder with which she’d been born.
But that wasn’t to be, experts said. She reassured herself, knowing today Sydney played with abandon in the salty water, a pretty little girl whose delighted squeals pierced the air.
If only Dane could see her this way.
Glancing at the spot where she’d left her camera on its tripod, McKenna scouted out possible photo opportunities. Capturing the coastline’s beauty had prompted today’s jaunt, her first trek to the park since she’d returned to Newport.
Boulders rose like watchmen on either side of the small bay. The rugged terrain protected the area from the ocean’s fearsome power. Like a firecracker sparkling on the Fourth of July, the water’s crash against the granite sent spray fifteen feet in the air. Shots of the rocks and the waves, once matted and framed, would add a nice variety of prints to the work of other coastal artists at her gallery.
Dane would be proud—if he ever saw them.
“Aaah!” Sydney’s scream jolted McKenna out of her reverie. The swimmer she’d spotted before ran back toward the surf, his wetsuit re-zipped and face mask in place. His stride kicked up gravel as he swished by the child, spattering saltwater and grime on her shoulder. Sydney sprang to her feet, jumping up and down as if she’d been burned.
With her gaze directed to the tide line where the man had run, McKenna reached for her daughter. Several other beachcombers hurried toward the water’s edge, shaded their eyes with their hands, and pointed. She looked out over the waves, intent to see what others watched. A dark form broke the surface.
“It’s a harbor seal.” She lifted Sydney, quieting the child’s cries against her shoulder, and walked to where she could get a better view. Only then did she realize the dark image was an additional swimmer in a wetsuit a great distance from the shore, well beyond the protection of the inlet.
A beachcomber stopped and leaned on his cane. “Bad riptides on this beach.”
“He’s out too far.” A nearby woman raised shaking hands beside her head.
“Saw a novice drown here last spring.” The man stared at his feet, shuffling the sand as though wiping away the memory.
Fists clenched beneath her daughter’s legs as she drew Sydney closer in her arms, McKenna’s attention remained on the drama unfolding in the surf. Beads of sweat prickled her brow, breathing shallow.
The second swimmer paddled to the edge of the inlet, yelling something into the wind, his words carried away like brittle leaves falling from a storm-threatened tree.
The stranded man’s arms arced over the water, propelling him ahead of a giant wave. The breaker crashed in a spray of white, swallowing his form like a whale gulping krill. He bobbed up an instant later as if he were a tethered cork on a fishing line, a few feet further from where he’d been. He again swam toward the shore, his long, powerful arms reaching out over and over, stroke after stroke, yet he drew no closer.
“Someone call the Coast Guard!”
“Is there a phone at the lighthouse?”
“I’ve got my cell with me.”
“He’ll be gone before they arrive.”
“You might want to get your daughter out of here, ma’am.” An elderly woman touched McKenna’s arm. “This may turn out to be a tragedy.”
Wanting to run, but unable to move, McKenna prayed. “Help him, Lord. You have always been my heart’s anchor in times of trouble. Be his today. Now. Guide his strokes and give him strength to swim to shore.”
She set Sydney down, tears still wet on her daughter’s face, and led her back toward the tripod. If only she could remain calm while McKenna shot a few pictures. Hiccups brought a giggle, and Sydney sank into the sand, digging with her toes. McKenna whispered thanks.
Needing to keep busy, she picked up her camera, snapping pictures of the crowd as they waited for the dark figure to emerge from the blast of yet another wave. Her heart fluttered like a sandpiper skittering ahead of the swells, the seconds stretching to minutes as she held her breath.
Finally, the man’s head popped out of the water, face mask askew.
The second swimmer brandished arms above his head, as if trying to guide his friend toward shore. He threw out a rope, only to have it fall short and bounce into the water.
McKenna focused as quickly as she could and snapped the rescuer’s picture.
The struggling victim struck forward again, a yard ahead of yet one more surge. Several bystanders had waded into the water up to their waists, as if they might somehow reach the endangered man. Yet he remained a hundred feet beyond their grasp.
McKenna shuddered. How many times could someone be sucked under and still reemerge?
As another huge wave slammed his body, Rudy Taylor resisted its power when it plunged him toward the ocean floor. He kicked with precision to the surface, strength draining with each effort. Though he’d considered himself strong and capable, his energy would soon be spent if he kept fighting against this undertow. Zigzagging in the direction of the beach had proven futile. The last breaker had taken one of his flippers. Now only one leg propelled him forward with any efficiency. As he reached the surface, he gasped for air. A few more waves like those last ones, and he wouldn’t survive. If he did, his swimming buddy, Kurt, would throttle him anyway.
He was too experienced a diver for such an amateur mistake. How had he not noticed the water carrying him this far out to sea? Absorbed in exploring the underwater life here, he’d left Kurt behind in the cove and forgotten to exercise caution. He rested for a moment, lungs burning from the exertion. He waited for the next breaker. He’d swim with it, hoping its power would carry him closer to shore.
Lord, help me swim. I’m out of strength.
Inhaling as much air as he could, Rudy dipped below the surface. The churning water around him made it impossible to breathe, but dropping too low in the surf caught him in the riptide. He couldn’t see he’d made much progress, but as the roller washed over him and spiraled his body down to the ocean floor again, the sting of a submerged rock jabbed his side. He reached for the protruding slab. The water sucked at him, trying to tow him further into the sea. The weight of the wetsuit pulled against him. His legs cramped. As the tug of the breaker ebbed, he made one final attempt, plunging forward, swimming as hard as his weakened body could manage.
Lungs screaming for air, Rudy stretched his hand out, grazing the sea floor. An underwater rise, higher than the rest of the sandy bottom, collided with his knees. Mustering all his strength, he propelled himself forward from the mound with a swift kick, resurfacing. The angry water bubbled around him, as if it sought prey, its drag yanking at his legs and ankles. He advanced a few more yards. His legs threatened to surrender to the cramps, but he willed his feet to kick harder. He swam with deliberate, long strokes—the noise deafening, the surf’s foam blinding. Taking a couple of deep breaths, he forced his arms to move in rhythm, body parallel to where the breakers churned along the shoreline. Always swim parallel to the shore in a rip tide. The warning pounded his subconscious.
An unexpected figure rose out of the surf, its black outline unfocused as Rudy struggled to see. A man, not ten feet from where he bobbed, faced him—Kurt. His friend reached forward and offered his hand, pulling him upright.
“Thought you almost bought the farm, buddy.” Reflecting the tension of the last few minutes, Kurt’s eyes narrowed as though scolding a small child. “This cove has a reputation for widow makers.” He spat into the water. “What were you doing out so far?”
“I wasn’t—” Rudy’s breath came in gasps and sputters, “—thinking.”
“You’ve got that right. I went ashore assuming you’d left the water, only to find you beyond the cove.” Kurt steadied him with his arm. “Let’s get to shore. I can’t take any more excitement.”
“Sounds good.” Rudy leaned into the warmth of his rescuer. Gazing toward the beach, he noticed a small crowd of people dispersing in pairs and triplets, individuals who must have gathered to witness his ordeal. A woman with a camera caught his eye. Her lithe form scrambled toward a young child who jumped up and down in short bursts of energy, hands flapping wildly at the wrists. He stared, the scene dredging up images from his past. He shook away the memories and sat down on the sand, putting his head between his knees. Fatigue messed with his mind.
The phrase, though not much, proved all he could manage. As Kurt headed toward the parking lot, Rudy took several deep breaths and let his body recoup from the nightmarish swim. Glancing around, he again saw the woman rocking the little girl in a musical rhythm. Something had frightened the child.
His gaze spanned the beach. No one lingered except him, a tired man in a black wetsuit. But to a small child, he might well be a creature from a sinister lagoon. He remembered another who’d seen him that way. Perhaps he could help.
McKenna replaced her camera on the tripod and reached for her daughter. Sydney’s fright returned as the swimmers emerged from the water, looking every bit the part of aliens in a sci-fi flick. One man straightened, mask and black wetsuit covering him from head to foot. The other sat, head in his hands. Seeing the men through the child’s eyes, McKenna scooped Sydney up to prevent another meltdown and sang to calm her, backing away from the water. “Old MacDonald had a farm…”
Body trembling against McKenna’s shoulder, Sydney quieted, but her gaze remained on the black blob as the man walked up the beach.
The second swimmer stood, glanced their way, and stopped before proceeding up the beach a few more feet. Cautious. Careful. He waved.
McKenna arched a brow.
Eyes on them, he removed his headgear and unzipped his wetsuit. Lean muscle peeked from behind the zipper. He walked closer, halting within ten feet of where they stood, and spoke. “Did I frighten you?” He waited, keeping his distance.
Sydney buried her face in McKenna’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry. I probably seem very scary when I’m dressed all in black.”
McKenna looked at the man and smiled, feeling a faint twitter in her heart as she took in the stranger’s jade green eyes and copper-colored hair.
“I’m Rudy Taylor.” His broad grin drew dimples on either side of his mouth. He stuck out his hand, and McKenna moved closer. Returning the grasp with her free hand, she felt the man’s strength rippling through his arm. Interesting. Dane’s grip emitted that same kind of power.
“I’m McKenna. This is Sydney.” She studied the man’s features. “I took pictures of you, um, swimming to shore. I’m glad you’re all right. You had me worried for several minutes.”
“I was kind of worried myself.” Rudy’s smile spread like a sun rising, a lopsided grin teasing his dimples. “I had no idea the undercurrent here was so strong. I’m usually more careful about such things.”
“Several people told me to get my daughter out of here because they were certain you were going to drown.”
Not to mention my own concerns.
“Another wave and I would have. I prayed for help, and the next minute I found a rock to grab.”
“You had me praying, too.”
His eyes widened. “Appreciate it.”
McKenna shifted Sydney to her other side and rolled her head to relieve the cramp spreading across her shoulders. “Want down, honey?”
Please say yes.
Sydney shook her head with a vigorous no.
Of course not.
“I’m Rudy, Sydney.” The man angled around to where Sydney still hid her face on McKenna’s shoulder, keeping a safe distance away. “Don’t be scared.”
Sydney peeked up at him, lifting her head by inches. When she had straightened enough to sit in McKenna’s arms, she gaped at the man as she had at the crab, her eyes transfixed in a cold, blank stare—appearing to analyze his face, wetsuit, and words. She dropped her gaze to McKenna’s necklace and played with the beads.
“Won’t talk to me, huh?” Rudy glanced back to McKenna, tugging on the collar of his wet suit. He rubbed the reddened skin, as if his circulation needed warming.
“Words and language are very difficult.” McKenna dreaded explaining her circumstances as she had to so many others for what seemed like the millionth time.
“With strangers?” Rudy inclined his head, piercing her with his gaze. “Or is speaking part of a larger problem?”
McKenna stared into the man’s earnest face, wanting to trust him with the truth, though not certain why. He seemed genuine in his attempt to help. “She’s autistic.”
“I guessed as much.”
His response startled McKenna.
He must have read the surprise in her face. “I considered speech pathology as a career before I became a biologist. Autism is one of the areas I investigated. But now I work part-time out of the Hatfield Marine Science Center when I’m not prowling in the water, trying to drown myself, and scaring little girls and their mothers.” His eyebrows lifted, face expectant, as if he waited for her reaction.
McKenna resisted the temptation to laugh, aching to set Sydney down. Though the child was small for her six years, she still sat like a lump in McKenna’s arms. “I should let you go. You’re cold and probably tired. I’m sure you’d like to get going somewhere nice and warm.” She extended her free hand. “I wish you well.” When he returned the gesture, McKenna pivoted toward her tripod, Sydney still on her hip.
“McKenna?” Rudy’s voice sounded hesitant, and she turned once more. “Did you say you were taking pictures?”
“I was doing a photo shoot for my gallery when your friend dashed into the water.” McKenna’s face grew warm. “I don’t normally photograph someone’s tragedy.”
Rudy glanced down at his feet as if he were embarrassed, then gazed at her, his mouth set in an amused smile. “I’d like to see those pictures you took of me almost drowning. Believe it or not, I also teach safety to scuba divers.”
“You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
This guy must have a death wish.
“No, I’m not.” Rudy grew sober, his green eyes narrowed as if she’d slapped him. “Even professionals make mistakes. Those pictures could be grim reminders of what might have been. Showing my mistakes to someone less experienced might save their life.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
Rudy’s grin returned. “Could you email me some of them?”
“Sure.” McKenna fumbled in her bag for a notepad and pen. “Write your address here.” She waited as he wrote down the information, intrigued by his muscular shoulders and well-formed biceps. Little wonder he’d been able to swim to shore.
“Let me pay you something for your trouble.”
“Let’s see if anything I took came out, and then, maybe, we can discuss a fee.” She dropped the notepad into her tote.
“Understood. I’m glad I’m alive so you can collect.”
“I’ll bet you are.” McKenna ignored the odd fluttering in her abdomen. Something about this guy left her flustered, and she didn’t know why.