Diamond Bay by Linda Howard

  Even tied together, the two strips weren’t enough. He began chewing again, tore off two more strips, then tied them to the other two. The best he could manage was to sling the strip over his back, bring it around under his armpit and tie it in a tight loop over his shoulder. Then he folded the remnant of his cutoffs into a pad and slipped it under the loop, positioning it over the wound. It was a clumsy bandage at best, but his head was swimming, and deadly lethargy was creeping into his limbs. Grimly Sabin pushed both sensations away, staring fixedly at the stars in an effort to orient himself. He wasn’t going to give up; he could float, and he could manage to swim for short periods of time. It might take a while, but unless a shark got him, he was damned well going to make it to shore. He rolled onto his back and rested for a few minutes before he began the slow, agonizing process of swimming to shore.

  IT WAS A hot night, even for mid-July in central Florida. Rachel Jones had automatically adjusted her habits to the weather, taking it easy, either doing her chores early in the morning or putting them off until late afternoon. She had been up at sunrise, hoeing the weeds out of her small vegetable garden, feeding the geese, washing her car. When the temperature soared into the nineties she moved inside and put a load of clothes in the washer, then settled down for a few hours of research and planning for the journalism course she had agreed to teach at night in Gainesville when the fall quarter began. With the ceiling fan whirring serenely overhead, her dark hair pinned on top of her head, and wearing only a tank top and an old pair of shorts, Rachel was comfortable despite the heat. A glass of iced tea sat constantly beside her elbow, and she sipped at it as she read.

  The geese honked peacefully as they waddled from one section of grass to the other, herded by Ebenezer Duck, the cantankerous old leader. Once there was an uproar when Ebenezer and Joe, the dog, got into a dispute over which one had the right to the patch of cool green grass beneath the oleander shrub. Rachel went to the screen door and shouted at her rambunctious pets to be quiet, and that was the most exciting event of the day. That was the way most of her days went during the summer. Things picked up during the fall, when the tourist season began and her two souvenir shops in Treasure Island and Tarpon Springs began doing a lively trade. With the journalism course her days would be even busier than usual, but the summers were a time for relaxing. She worked intermittently on her third book, feeling no great pressure to finish it, since her deadline wasn’t until Christmas and she was well ahead of schedule. Rachel’s energy was deceptive, because she managed to accomplish so much without ever seeming to hurry.

  She was at home here, her roots deep in the sandy soil. The house she lived in had been her grandfather’s, and the land had been in the family for a hundred and fifty years. The house had been remodeled in the fifties and no longer resembled the original frame structure. When Rachel had moved in she had renovated the inside, but the place still gave her a sense of permanency. She knew the house and the land surrounding it as well as she knew her own face in the mirror. Probably better, because Rachel wasn’t given to staring at herself. She knew the tall pine thicket in front of her and the rolling grassland at her back, every hill and tree and bush. A path wound through the pines and down to the beach where the Gulf waters rolled in. The beach was undeveloped here, partly because of the unusual roughness of the shore, partly because the beachfront property was owned by people who had had it for generations and weren’t inclined to see condominiums and motels rise in their faces. This was prime cattle country; Rachel’s property was almost surrounded by a huge ranch, owned by John Rafferty, and Rafferty was as reluctant as she to sell any land for development.

  The beach was Rachel’s special haven, a place for walking and thinking and finding peace in the relentless, eternal surge of the water. It was called Diamond Bay because of the way the light splintered on the waves as they crashed over the underwater boulders that lined the mouth of the little bay. The water shimmied and glittered like thousands of diamonds as it rolled to shore. Her grandfather had taught her to swim in Diamond Bay; sometimes it seemed as if her life had begun in the turquoise water.

  Certainly the bay had been the center of the golden days of her childhood, when a visit to Gramps’s had been the most fun a young Rachel could imagine. Then her mother died when Rachel was twelve, and the bay became her permanent home. There was something about the ocean that had eased the sharpness of her grief and taught her acceptance. She’d had Gramps, too, and even now the thought of him brought a smile to her face. What a wonderful old man he’d been! He had never been too busy or too embarrassed to answer the sometimes awkward questions an adolescent girl could ask, and had given her the freedom to test her wings while still keeping her solidly grounded in common sense. He had died the year she’d finished college, but even death had met him on his own terms. He had been tired and ill and ready to die, and he’d done it with such humor and acceptance that Rachel had even felt a sort of peace at his going. She had grieved, yes, but the grief had been tempered by the knowledge that it was what he had wanted.

  The old house had stood empty then, while Rachel pursued her career as an investigative reporter in Miami. She had met and married B. B. Jones, and life had been good. B.B. had been more than a husband, he had been a friend, and they had thought they had the world on a string. Then B.B.’s violent death had ended that dream and left Rachel a widow at the age of twenty-five. She quit her job and returned here to the bay, once again finding solace in the unending sea. She had been crippled emotionally, but time and the peaceful life had healed her. Still, she felt no urge to return to the fast-paced life she’d led before. This was home, and she was happy with what she was doing now. The two souvenir stores provided an adequate living, and she supplemented her income by writing an occasional article as well as the adventure books that had done so surprisingly well.

  This summer was almost exactly like all the other summers she had ever spent at Diamond Bay, except it was hotter. The heat and humidity were almost stifling, and some days she felt like doing nothing more strenuous than lying in the hammock and fanning herself. Sundown brought some relief, but even that was relative. The night brought a light breeze from the Gulf to cool her heated skin, but it was still too hot to sleep. She had already taken a cool shower, and now she sat on the front porch swing in the dark, lazily keeping the swing moving with occasional movements of her foot. The chains squeaked in time with the chirping of crickets and the croaking of frogs; Joe lay on the porch in front of the screen door, dozing and dreaming his doggy dreams. Rachel closed her eyes, enjoying the breeze on her face and thinking of what she would do the next day: pretty much what she had done today, and the day before, but she didn’t mind the repetition. She had enjoyed the old days of excitement, filled with the peculiar seductive power of danger, yet now she also enjoyed the peace of her present life.

  Even though she wore only panties and a man’s oversize white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up and first three buttons open, she could still feel small beads of sweat forming between her breasts. The heat made her restless, and finally she got to her feet. “I’m going for a walk,” she told the dog, who flicked an ear at her but didn’t open his eyes.

  Rachel hadn’t really expected him to join her; Joe wasn’t a friendly dog, not even with her. He was independent and antisocial, backing away from an outstretched hand with his hackles raised and teeth showing. She thought he must have been mistreated before he’d shown up in her yard a few years before, but they had formed a truce. She fed him, and he filled the role of guard dog. He still wouldn’t allow her to pet him, but he would come instantly to her side if a stranger drove up, and stand there glaring at the intruder until he either decided there was no danger, or the stranger left. If Rachel worked in her garden, Joe was usually close by. It was a partnership based on mutual respect, and both were satisfied with it.

  He really had it easy, Rachel thought as she cut across the yard and took the path that wound down th
rough the tall pines to the beach. He wasn’t often called on as a guard; few people came to her house, except for the postman. She was at the dead end of an unpaved road that cut through Rafferty’s property and hers was the only house. John Rafferty was her only neighbor, and he wasn’t the type to drop in for a chat. Honey Mayfield, the local veterinarian, some- times came by after a call at the Rafferty ranch, and they had developed a rather close friendship, but other than that Rachel was pretty much left alone, which was one reason she felt comfortable roaming around at night wearing only her underwear and a shirt.

  The path sloped down a very gradual incline through the pine thicket. The stars were bright and heavy in the sky, and Rachel had walked the path since childhood, so she didn’t bother with a flashlight. Even in the pines she could still see well enough to find her way. It was a quarter of a mile from the house to the beach, an easy walk. She liked walking the beach at night; it was her favorite time to listen to the ocean’s power, when the waves were black except for their pearly foam tops. It was also low tide, and Rachel preferred the beach at low tide. It was at low tide that the ocean pulled back to reveal the treasures it had brought in to leave on the sand, like a love offering. She had collected a lot of sea treasures at low tide, and never ceased marveling at the wonders the turquoise Gulf brought to her feet.

  It was a beautiful night, moonless and cloudless, and the stars were brighter than she had seen them in years, their light refracted on the waves like countless diamonds. Diamond Bay. It had been well named. The beach was narrow and uneven, with clumps of weeds growing along the edge, and the mouth of the bay was lined with jagged rocks that were especially dangerous at low tide, but for all its imperfections the bay created magic with its combination of light and water. She could stand and watch the glittering water for hours, spellbound by the power and beauty of the ocean.

  The gritty sand cooled her bare feet, and she dug her toes deeper. The breeze gusted momentarily, lifting her hair away from her face, and Rachel inhaled the clean salt air. There was only herself and the ocean.

  The breeze changed directions, flirting with her, blowing strands of hair across her face. She put up her hand to push her hair out of her eyes and paused in mid-motion, her eyebrows drawing together fractionally as she stared at the water. She could have sworn she’d seen something. Just for a moment there had been a flash of movement, but now her straining eyes picked up nothing but the rhythmic surge of the waves. Perhaps it had been only a fish, or a large piece of driftwood. She wanted to find a really good piece for a flower arrangement, so she walked to the edge of the waves, pushing her hair back so it wouldn’t obscure her vision.

  There it was again, bobbing in the water! She took an eager step forward, wetting her feet in the foamy surf. Then the dark object moved again and took on a funny shape. The sheen of the silvery starlight made it look just like an arm, flailing weakly forward, like a tired swimmer struggling for coordination. A muscled arm, at that, and the dark bulk beside it could be a head.

  Realization burst, and Rachel’s entire body tingled with electricity. She was in the water before she realized it, surging through the waves toward the struggling man. The water impeded her progress, the waves pushing her back with increasing strength; the tide was just beginning to come back in. The man sank from view, and a hoarse cry burst from her throat. Wildly she splashed toward him, the water up to her breasts now, the waves crashing into her face. Where was he? The black water gave no hint of his location. She reached the spot where she had last seen him, but her frantically searching hands came up empty.

  The waves would wash him toward the beach. She turned and staggered back toward shore and saw him again for a moment before his head disappeared beneath the water once more. She struck out, swimming strongly, and two seconds later her hand closed on thick hair. Fiercely she jerked his head above the water, but he was limp, his eyes closed. “Don’t you die on me!” she ordered between clenched teeth, catching him under the shoulders and towing him in. Twice the incoming tide knocked her feet out from under her, and each time she thought she would drown before she could struggle free of the man’s confining weight.

  Then she was in water to her knees, and he sagged limply. She tugged until he was mostly out of the water, then fell on her hands and knees in the sand, coughing and gasping. Every muscle trembling with reaction, she crawled over to him.


  HE WAS NAKED. Her mind barely registered that fact before it was pushed aside by more urgent matters. She was still gasping for air herself, but she forced herself to hold her breath while she put her hand on his chest to detect a heartbeat, or the up and down movement of breathing. He was still, too still. She could find no hint of life in him, and his skin was so cool….

  Of course it was cool! She brought herself up sharply, shaking her head to clear it of the cobwebs of fatigue. He’d been in the water for God only knew how long, but he’d been swimming, however weakly, the first time she’d seen him, and she was letting precious seconds tick past when she should be acting.

  It took every ounce of strength she had to roll him onto his stomach, because he wasn’t a small man, and the bright starlight revealed that he was solid muscle. Panting, she straddled him and began the rhythmic push-pull action that would stimulate his lungs. That was another thing her grandfather had taught her, and taught her well. Her arms and hands were strong from the gardening and swimming she did, and she worked on the man until she was rewarded by a choking cough and a stream of water gushing out of his mouth.

  “There you go,” she breathed, not ceasing her efforts. He went into a paroxysm of coughing, his body heaving beneath her; then he groaned hoarsely and shuddered before going limp.

  Rachel quickly rolled him onto his back again, bending anxiously over him. His breathing was audible now. It was too rapid and too ragged, but he was definitely breathing. His eyes were closed, and his head rolled to the side when she shook him. He was unconscious.

  She sank back on her heels, shivering as the ocean breeze went right through the wet shirt she wore, and stared at the dark head that rested on the sand. Only then did she notice the clumsy binding around his shoulder. She reached to pull it away, thinking that perhaps it was the remnants of the shirt he’d been wearing when he suffered whatever accident had cast him into the ocean. But the wet fabric beneath her fingers was denim, too heavy for a shirt in this weather, and it had been tied into a knot. She pulled at it again, and part of the fabric came away. It had been folded into a pad and shoved under the knot, and high on his shoulder was a wound, a round, obscene mouth where there shouldn’t have been one, showing black in the colorless light.

  Rachel stared at the wound, her mind jolting with realization. He’d been shot! She’d seen too many gunshot wounds not to recognize one, even in the pale light of the stars that reduced everything to silvery gleam and black shadows. Her head whipped around and she stared out to sea, straining her eyes to see the telltale pinpoint of light that would warn of a boat, but there was nothing. All her senses were alert, her nerves tingling, and she was instantly wary. People didn’t get shot without reason, and it was logical to assume that whoever had shot him the first time would be willing to do so again.

  He had to have help, but there was no way she could throw him over her shoulder and carry him up to the house. She stood, scanning the dark sea again to make certain she hadn’t missed anything, but the expanse of water was empty. She would have to leave him here, at least for as long as it would take her to run up to the house and back.

  Once the decision was made Rachel didn’t vacillate. Bending, she grasped the man under his shoulders and dug her heels into the sand, grunting with the effort as she pulled him far enough out of the water that the incoming tide wouldn’t lap around him before she could get back. Even in the depths of unconsciousness he felt the pain she caused him by tugging on his wounded shoulder and gave a low, hoarse moan. Rachel winced an
d felt her eyes burn momentarily, but it was something she had to do. When she judged that he was far enough up the beach she let his shoulders down on the sand as easily as she could, muttering a breathless apology to him even though she knew he couldn’t hear her. “I’ll be right back,” she assured him, touching his wet face briefly. Then she ran.

  Normally the path up the beach and through the stand of pines seemed like a fairly short one, but tonight it stretched endlessly ahead of her. She ran, not caring about stubbing her bare toes on exposed roots, heedless of the small branches that caught at her shirt. One such limb was strong enough to catch her shirt, halting her flight in mid-step. Rachel threw her entire weight against the fabric, too frantic to pause to untangle it. With a sodden ripping sound the shirt tore, and she was free to resume her wild plunge up the slope.

  The welcoming lights of her small house were a beacon in the night, the house an oasis of safety and familiarity, but something had gone very wrong, and she couldn’t shut herself inside its refuge. The life of the man on the beach depended on her.

  Joe had heard her coming. He stood on the edge of the porch with his hackles raised and a low, rumbling growl issuing from his throat. She could see him silhouetted by the porch light as she sprinted across the yard, but she didn’t have time to calm him down. If he bit her, he bit her. She would worry about that later. But Joe didn’t even glance at her as she bounded up the steps and slammed the screen door back on its hinges. He remained on guard, facing the pines and the beach, every muscle quivering as he placed himself between Rachel and whatever had sent her flying through the night.

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