Friday, August 31, 7:15 P.M.
One final lap and she'd quit.
Corra cut through the water, savoring the warmth left over from a day's worth of the sun's brilliance.
She braced her legs against the wall and spun over on her back to admire the tapestry above. A thousand stars winked an invitation to forget she was earthbound.
Xantrope's reputation for breathtaking beauty made her vacation choice easy this year. The land boasted brilliant flora, and the citizens were friendly. Though the island lay close to home, she'd never taken the hundred-mile trip. Two days in, and Xantrope still lived up to her expectations.
Corra sighed, closed her eyes and let the water buoy her. She'd face Jamaica and her problems in a couple of weeks.
A small splash disturbed the velvety liquid, but she was too lazy to lift her lids. Probably someone who also had insomnia and needed a swim to tire them to the point of sleep. She raised her head. Nobody in sight. Perhaps she was mistaken.
The tangle of trees and shrubs, designed to simulate the wild, blocked most of the light from the adjoining path. If she let her thoughts run free, the vegetation easily took on the appearance of a pack of zombies, poised to pounce and devour her flesh.
The secluded pool, which had seemed so inviting when she discovered it, now made her uneasy by its stillness. She rolled her eyes at her thoughts and let reality assert itself. Yards away, other vacationers lounged in their rooms, sated from dinner at the seafood buffet. She ought to stop watching so many horror movies and reading those blood-and-gore books.
The surface of the water broke around the outline of a man.
What the heck?
She prepared to voice her outrage, but before she uttered a word, he clamped her ankles, and flung her to the side in an attempt to keel her over.
He pinned her from behind, chafing her skin. Then he grabbed a fistful of her hair and forced her face down. Foamy bubbles escaped on both sides of her head. The water, which had always represented a source of life to Corra, now carried the possibility of death.
She kicked at her attacker and flailed her arms, desperate for air. Her limbs dragged, weakened by the earlier exercise and their struggle. A flurry of bubbles left her nostrils, but she dared not inhale. He dragged her head back and submerged it again. Water flooded her nose and rushed down her throat.
In a do or die attempt, she heaved her butt out of the water and tried to swing her body around.
It was a waste of energy.
This man intended to kill her.
Damn this headful of hair!
Her lungs gave out, activating a sea of froth, which added to the frenzied churning created by their thrashing limbs. She gulped and her throat closed, cutting off her breath. A frantic rhythm pulsed in her ears and pain spread in her chest.
Her heart or lungs would stop in seconds.
Her eyes closed and she drifted to where the darkness waited.
She floated free of the restraining pressure.
Maybe someone will save me if I'm...
Friday, August 31, 7:20 P.M.
Lucky. She was damned lucky he happened along when he did.
Phillip processed the scene in front of him. He had seen the result of many crimes, but not ‘in-the-act’ like this. A few feet away, a heavyset man forced a struggling woman under the water.
He commanded his feet to move, and peeled toward the pool, shouting as he went. The attacker swam to the edge, pulled himself out and took off down the strip of paving stones.
Phillip’s muscles bunched, the policeman in him took charge, urging him to give chase, but the woman demanded his help. She floated facedown, moving in tandem with the water. Her dark swimsuit acted as a beacon, drawing him to her.
He shucked off his shoes and dove into the pool, pushing to get to the center before she drowned. Upon reaching her, he gripped her shoulder, and turned her over.
Using a one handed backstroke, he supported her weight and maneuvered her to the steps. He climbed out—clumsy under her weight—and laid her on the tiles. Her face reflected the nothingness of deep sleep.
He pushed her head to the side, allowing water to escape. Next, he tilted her head back, opened her mouth and pinched her nose. Taking a deep breath, he covered her mouth with his. He let the air flow out in strong puffs, and then put his ear next to her mouth.
No warmth, no hitching of the breath. Nothing.
He lifted her wrist and checked her pulse. Was that a faint beat? Hard to tell. Twice, he performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before her chest lifted and a sound emerged from her throat. She was choking. He grabbed her shoulders and lifted, turning her to the side. As water leaked from her mouth onto the tiles, she coughed and gurgled. He supported her, waiting while she cleared her lungs. Her shoulders jerked and she pressed a hand to her throat.
Again, he shifted her so she sat up straighter. It was then she started gouging his skin, and screaming, but only hoarse cries emerged from her throat.
“Don’t worry, he’s gone.” He captured her wrists and lowered his voice. “He’s gone.”
Deprived of the chance to shred his skin with her nails, she hacked some more, and glared at him from beneath a sodden puff of hair.
He waited for her to speak.
She spat out a quick string of words. “What the heck you think you’re doing?”
“Other than saving your life, you mean?”
She cleared her throat, rubbed her neck and inched sideways from him. “That’s what you call it?”
“I wasn’t the one trying to drown you. He got away.”
She squinted at him in silence, and apparently decided to believe him. “He escaped?”
Phillip nodded. “Obviously, you don’t know who it was.”
“No, I don’t,” she whispered. “I…I don’t live here. Why would he…”
He shrugged, now conscious of his wet clothing, and the shivers that rocked her. A towel lay in one of the lounge chairs to their right. He arranged it around her shoulders before he helped her stand.
“We should get you to a doctor and notify the police,” he said, while slipping into his shoes.
She shrank out of his reach. “I don’t need the police.”
Was that a trace of fear in her eyes?
“Lady, someone just tried to kill you.”
She waved him away, and relaxed her facial features. “I’ll be fine in a minute.”
“You don’t say.”
Her posturing did not fool him. For some reason, she wanted to avoid the police.
He raised his eyebrows and let his gaze roam over the arched brows, dark eyes and full lips. Water weighed down her hair, her chin lifted in defiance, and a near-petulant expression sat on her face; still, she made a striking picture. Independent, royal and stubborn were words that came to mind as he studied her.
He tried another tack. “Complications do arise from near-drowning, you know.”
She moved from one foot to the other and drew the towel closer to her body. “Like what?”
“Pneumonia, infection, brain damage.”
Arms akimbo, she asked, “Do I look retarded?”
“Some symptoms show up within forty-eight hours.” He smiled. “I can’t say whether or not you’re normal, since we’ve just met.”
She drew herself up, opened her mouth, and coughed. He suspected it wasn’t what she planned originally, but he used the opportunity to get her into her flip-flops and moving toward the main path.
“Sorry,” she gasped, when her coughing stopped.
Ignoring her attempts at politeness, he continued toward the nurses’ station. He found it easily, having stayed on the property during prior visits to the island.
The examination did not take long and the nurse pronounced her fit, but echoed Phillip’s suggestion that she ring the doctor on call as a precaution. The woman ignored their advice.
At Phillip’s insistence, they left the main building and headed to her room, which she reluctantly told him was close to the pool. On the way past an outdoor bar, he ordered a glass of cognac, and gave it to her at the entrance to her room.
“You should drink this. It’ll warm you up and calm you down.”
Despite the fright shadowing her eyes, her lips curved at his quip.
The carved ackee on the door displayed her room number, and he wondered whether she’d be safe. From her sidelong glances at him, she still had doubts about his innocence, and who could blame her?
His attention strayed to the silver doorstop. She’d left her room open while she had a swim? She’d struck him as cautious and sensible. Now he had to rethink that.
She followed his gaze, and pointed in the direction of the pool. “I didn’t plan to be in the water for long.”
“All the same, you can’t swim and watch your room door at the same time.”
Lines of displeasure creased her forehead. “You’re right, but this island is supposed to be safe. Isn’t their crime rate the lowest in the Caribbean?”
“Odd things happen.”
She pulled the towel close, which reminded him that it was bad form to have her standing around half-naked after her experience.
“Mind if I check your room?”
Her cocked eyebrow and puckered lips asked whether he’d gone mad.
He grimaced to hide a smile. Irony of ironies; she thought it okay to leave her room unprotected, but had a problem with him doing a security check. “I want to make sure nobody slipped inside.”
She pushed the door, a not-quite-sour expression in place. “Sure, go ahead.”
He made a swift, but thorough sweep of the two rooms. They mirrored his, except they were decorated in different shades of color. He secured the bathroom window, then tested and locked both sides of the sliding door.
She stood in the passage, clutching the goblet and waiting for him to finish. Wrapped in the towel, with her hair still dripping, she reminded him of a teenager. However, she had to be in her late twenties, at least.
While he eyed her, she stared at his chest, where the thin cotton dribbled and clung to his skin.
After she had her fill, she met his eyes, frowning as though seeing him for the first time. Undoubtedly, the color of his irises under the light puzzled her. At the quirk of his lips, a dusky flush colored her skin.
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Since you won’t let me notify the police, we should at least tell the hotel security what’s happened.”
“In case you forgot, you nearly lost your life.”
She licked her lips, glanced outside and let out her breath. “The man is gone, and nobody’s in here, so I don’t see the point.”
“And what’s going to stop him coming back if you don’t take the necessary precaution?”
She cupped her palms around the glass. “How is he going to find me?”
“The same way he did before.”
That took the wind out of her sail. She slumped against the wall. “Okay fine. I’ll call the hotel security.”
He told himself to be content with that. Her safety was not his business, but his instincts told him she needed protection. Had she lied about not knowing the identity of the man who assaulted her? It would be interesting to find out, as her reaction made little sense.
“I’ll go change my clothes and meet you back here,” he said.
She shook her head. “You must have other things to do.”
“I’m on vacation,” he said, which was not the entire truth.
“You go make the call. I’ll be right back.”
He stood in the corridor, and she held on to the door. Her brows pulled together, hinting that suspicion continued to plague her. “Remind me again. How do I know you didn’t try to kill me?”
He gave her a full smile. “You don’t. You were out cold, remember?”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Think about it while I’m gone.” He turned to leave, but hesitated. “By the way, what’s your name?”
“Coretta.” She paused, angled her head toward him, and a facetious light shone in her eyes. “But my friends call me Corra.”
He admired her spunk. After her ordeal, she should have been a wreck, but there she stood giving him backchat.
He raised a hand to smooth the cloud of hair surrounding her face, but let it fall. As much as he wanted to do so, he didn’t have the right to touch: not her high cheekbones, soft lips, or the long lashes now hiding her eyes.
He wondered if any man had the right, and what motive anyone had to kill her. Curiosity turned to resolve. He’d nose around and see what he unearthed.
“Do what I asked,” he said, before leaving her.
He returned to the pool, where he covered the entire area, squinting for clues under the light. An instant before he gave up, he spotted a sliver of an object, nestled against the walkway.
He picked it up and hurried toward a lamp post. He held the frayed, moist toothpick up to the light. Maybe it meant nothing, or he could choose to believe what his gut told him.
Someone had Corra under surveillance before the attack.
Instead of going to his room to dry off, he went in search of the head of the hotel security team.
-End of Excerpt-