She descends through the mist, the weight of her tank rolling along her spine, the smooth motor of her fins cutting silently through the water.
She is looking for the wreck’s debris field, the pieces of its battered puzzle emerging through the murky haze, and the clouds of sand and silt that have kept the ship’s bones hidden for so long will part like smoke.
But something is wrong.
The strange color of the water is her first warning—a purplish black, bearing no resemblance to any ocean she has ever dived beneath. When she slides her hands through this water, it feels thick and warm, which the sea never is at such depths. She swims on, diving deeper, her weight belt fighting her body’s natural buoyancy. Where is the bottom? She should have reached it by now. Her bearings lost, she looks the only way she can, side to side, her vision restricted by the small window of her mask. She is desperate for some marker to ground her, the towline to the boat or telltale humps to signal the ocean floor. It is as if she has been set adrift in space, an eternity of nothingness around her, no edges, no corners, just endless dark and the curdling certainty that she is alone in the universe.
She reaches for her gauge to check her oxygen and sees the impossible—only a hundred pounds left; just a few minutes in the water and the tank is nearly drained. Blood rushes to her scalp, panic surges. She has to turn around, go back, go up.
Rising, she is relieved for a glorious second to feel her body obey; then fear returns. She swims harder, hands clawing as they race toward the glowing surface, as if she is buried in dirt and trying to dig out.
But she knows she swims too fast. Her joints ache. She has to slow down, but still her arms and legs continue to fight, even as excruciating pain tears through her elbows and wrists.
If she can just get back to the boat, back to the top.
If she can just breathe.
Key Largo, Florida
Liv bolts upright, her chest squeezed like a fist. She needs a breath, just one, but there’s no air, only hollow wheezing. She reaches into the dark and slaps at the nightstand, finding the drawer pull and tugging hard, sending the clutter of shells and hair clips inside it skidding to the edge like unbelted children in a swerving car. When her fingers finally land on her inhaler, she shoves the cylinder into her mouth and sucks in as she depresses the top, relief shuddering through her to feel the rescue of air.
She falls back against the headboard, blinking into the black, and waits for her breathing to slow.
Stupid, awful dream. Third time this week. Whit would surely blame the leftover Thai she devoured shortly before ten, or the cup of mocha chip she indulged in afterward.
She reaches out for the long compass of her husband’s sleeping body, but her fingers land on the empty mattress.
She feels for her phone and clicks it to life.
He did return from dinner with Phil Edwards, didn’t he?
Or did she just dream the crash of him coming into their bedroom, the groan of the bed when he fell on it, still dressed, the two thumps of his shoes hitting the floor? What about when he rolled against her and reached up under her T-shirt, wanting to make love, then falling asleep before he could get her underwear off?
She scans the dark, listening. The familiar clanging of metal blows through the screens, the telltale clamoring of movement on the boat, then the frothy growl of Theo’s propellers spinning to life.
She kicks herself free of the sheet and lands on the cool Mexican tile of their bedroom floor, knotting her red hair as she rushes down the hall to the living room. Through the sliders, beyond the line of palms that separate the lanai from the concrete of the dock, she can see him on the upper deck of their thirty-foot dive boat.
She yanks the door open, no time to close it behind her. The humid air clings to her bare legs, a curtain of moisture, as if she’s stepped through a giant spiderweb.
“Whit!” She yells as she runs down the steps, terrified he won’t hear her over the whir of the motor. “Whit!”
Miraculously he turns and sees her, a drowsy, pleased smile spreading across his face. He’s wearing only a pair of boxers. Her immediate thought: Please, God, don’t let him fall in. Sober, he is the strongest, surest swimmer she knows; drunk, he will sink like a stone, and with his six-three and two hundred twenty pounds, his rescue will be impossible for her small frame.
“Avast, me beauty!” He swings his glass high, sending a necklace of liquor arching through the dock lights, and her pulse quickens.
He only speaks pirate when there’s bad news.
The concrete is damp and prickly under her bare feet. “Whit, what are you doing?”
“I thought I’d take the old girl out for a moonlight ride. Join me?” His blue eyes are wild, wolfish.
“There’s no moon,” she says, as if the correction might deter him. “And you’re not even dressed.”
“Right you are, lass.” He tugs a faded Marlins cap off the throttle handle and snaps it over his tousled blond hair, giving her a satisfied grin. “Better?”
She rushes onto the boat and climbs the ladder to the flybridge, feeling the tremors of panic soften when she arrives at the helm. This close, she could lunge for the ignition if she had to—but the current of dread still sizzles in the muggy air. A nearly drained bottle of scotch sits by the wheel, the amber liquid shuddering with the vibration of the engine. He’s done something foolish, but what? The possible transgressions race through her: An impulsive purchase they don’t need? The coltish blond he flirted with at Rachael and Daniel’s solstice party? Has he totaled the van . . . ?
Despite his height and sturdy build, her husband looks fragile, something glued and not yet dried, and it scares her.
She can hear the tremble of uncertainty in her voice. “Love, shut her down and come back to bed. You need sleep.”
“God, I love this boat.” He drops into the captain’s chair and swivels around, his expression wistful as he scans the controls. “Do you realize that we could chart our entire life together on this boat, Red? That every moment of significance for us happened right here?”
She nods, nostalgia falling like a shawl over her too, snug and warm. Even now, beneath the diesel fumes, she can still find the scent of rusted metal and warm rubber, the intoxicating smells of a perfect dive.
But when Whit lifts his gaze to find hers, his eyes crackle with lust—it’s not their early memories of treasure hunting that he’s recalling.
“The first time I kissed you was on this boat,” he says. “The first time I held that gorgeous hair in my hands.” He opens his huge palms and closes them in fists. “Christ, I couldn’t get deep enough inside you.”
His eyes slide down her body, drinking her in, and the familiar tug of longing pulls at the space below her stomach, the weight of wanting his words could always coax from her like a fever.
But despite desire, impatience burns. She just wants it over with—wants to know what he’s done. Let it be something small, something easily and quickly repairable. They have only two weeks before they are scheduled to begin their next mission in North Carolina, the one Whit has promised will bring them the success their recent salvage missions haven’t.
“Whit, please.” She’s begging now. “What’s wrong?”
He spins the chair back around and lands under the glare of the spotlight. For a blissful moment, she thinks the crescent of purple under his right eye is a trick of the night, a reflection from the surface of the canal, and her heart holds for a second before it crashes.
“My God, your face!”
“It’s not so bad,” he says cheerfully. “Feel worse for the table.”
“You should be putting ice on it.”
“Good idea.” He slams his tumbler against his eye and winces. “Shit.”
She tries to help guide the glass to the worst of the bruise, but he waves her off. “It was all a big misunderstanding.” His voice is conversational, as if she might actually enjoy this story. “Phil and I were waiting for our beers, and this knucklehead next to us accuses Phil of stealing his seat, so I tried to—”
Phil? Blood rushes to her forehead. “Whit, please just tell me you didn’t let our project archaeologist see you get into a bar fight.”
He squints his uninjured eye. “I don’t think he saw much after that unfortunate pop to the side of his face.”
“He got hit?”
“It was just a tap, really. I doubt he’ll need more than a couple stitches. Serves him right for having such a lousy swing.”
“Whit!” Liv claps both hands over her mouth, sure if she doesn’t she will let go a scream that will draw every one of their neighbors out of bed.
They have spent months putting together this salvage project of the Siren, a blockade runner buried off the coast of Wilmington that sank with a fortune in her hold, and he has blown it up in a single night. All the pieces they’ve secured, the beach house in Topsail that is to be their base of operations, already rented. A seventy-eight-foot commercial dive boat, already chartered.
Panic sends her heart into a gallop, thumping hard against her ribs. “What are we supposed to do without an on-site archaeologist?”
Whit tugs off his cap and tosses it behind him. “We’ll just hire someone else.”
“Who? There isn’t anyone left on the planet who’ll put up with you!”
“Then you’re stuck with me, lass.” His eyes flash wickedly. “Let’s go below and I’ll shiver your timbers.”
“Aye, so be I,” he growls playfully, yanking her into his lap and getting a bite on her neck before she wriggles free and moves for the ladder. “Red, wait.”
She hears the engine go quiet, but she is already back down and across the deck, training her eyes on the water and trying to find focus in the calm surface.
Two weeks. Maybe there is still a chance they can find someone else to take over the PA role in that time, even on such short notice. It would have to be someone familiar, with a good reputation. Someone who could step right in, no handholding. Someone who could keep Whit straight, keep him coloring in the lines, as Sam used to say—
Gooseflesh flares up her bare arms. She grabs herself and rubs hard, afraid Whit will see the tiny, traitorous bumps.
She takes a seat on the bench and waits for him to descend the ladder. “What about Sam?” she asks.
Whit’s eyes cool, the teasing cornflower blue darkening to pewter.
“He used to be one of the best marine archaeologists out there, Whit.”
“Until he went back to law school.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s washed his hands of the field completely.”
Whit stares down at her with disbelief. “Felder left, Red. He left you—he left us. He made it clear he wanted out.”
“That was nine years ago. Maybe he’s let that all go.”
No wonder he continues to look at her as if she’s lost her mind. Sam who believed sentimentality was a character flaw; Sam who could—and did—turn off emotions like car engines?
Still she presses on. “Maybe he’s forgiven us.”
“Forgiven us?” Whit frowns at her. “What the hell did we ever do to need his forgiveness?”
We fell in love, Liv wants to say but doesn’t—and she doesn’t need to. Whit’s eyes find hers and flash with understanding.
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