Authors: Jayne Rylon
nly slightly after
the ass crack of dawn, Archer blocked the past several sleepless hours from his mind. He verified the headcount of their boatload of guests for the morning’s two-tank SCUBA dive. Then he began double-checking the equipment. Sticking to routine ensured he never missed anything vital. After all, it was his job to guarantee no one interrupted the fun-and-sun portion of their vacation by dying on his watch.
As he worked, he surreptitiously observed each of the three buddy pairs he’d be going down with. How they set up their gear was a decent indication of how they would dive. At least, he’d found that to be true in the past.
One couple, a husband and wife team, had stacked their gear neatly so that the first thing they’d need was on top and the last at the bottom. They spoke quietly as they worked seamlessly, assisting each other with their wet suits before unhurriedly progressing through their own personal buddy checklists. As he watched, they verified today’s plans against their dive computers to ensure they wouldn’t exceed their no-decompression limits given the nitrogen load they’d taken on in their shore dives the day before.
Of course, Archer had already done the same thing before they’d left the shop. Still, he was glad they were independent divers and didn’t rely on his word for it.
They’d be fine.
Two brothers made up the second pair. They’d come to the dive shop yesterday afternoon asking plenty of questions about the boat, the tour size, the dive location, the depth of the sites they’d be visiting, typical currents in the area, notable marine life to look out for, and recent weather patterns. They had shared their religiously completed logbooks, which detailed over a hundred dives each, with the shop manager, too.
Archer wasn’t worried about them either.
The third set of guests… He shook his head. There were a couple like them in every bunch.
True, the diving here in Bonaire—a fairly dinky desert island off the coast of Venezuela in the Southern Caribbean, next door to Aruba and Curaçao—was some of the easiest and most beautiful in the world. It made it a great spot for newbies to put some experience under their weight-belts. He didn’t have any problem teaching the tadpoles good habits or helping them gain confidence in their emerging skills.
Unfortunately, this duo had enough experience to know better than some of the shit they were pulling already. They bickered, sniping at each other for losing this thing or that thing—extraneous, flashy doodads they probably didn’t know how to use anyway. Their jumbled gear spilled across the modest thirty-six-foot boat’s deck, causing Archer’s fellow divemaster, Tosin, to have to dodge it as he helped his own half-dozen divers on the other side of the vessel. The problem children had already dunked their boots in the camera-and-regulator-only rinse tank before anyone could stop them.
Archer could also tell by the bulges of lead stuffing the pockets of their buoyancy control devices relative to their average builds that they were about to go overboard with far too much weight. Some was necessary to keep divers down. That much could be dangerous. He mentally prepared himself to grab for them if they overcompensated for their inevitable negative buoyancy at depth by puffing up their BCD’s with an entire blimp’s worth of air, which would expand on the ascent, rocketing them toward the surface as if they were helium balloons slipping free from a toddler’s grasp.
Spending the day filling out incident reports and loading Mr. and Mrs. Yelly McYellington into a hyperbaric chamber after their lungs popped or they gave themselves the bends would not improve his pissy mood.
He kept trying to pretend today was exactly like the past 4,380 other days—give or take some—he’d done pretty much the same thing as this. Pencil lead snapped when he pressed too hard against his ratty clipboard mid check-off.
“Rough night?” Miguel winked as he took his place at the boat’s helm and curled his fingers around the wheel. Though he was the third divemaster onboard this morning, it was his turn to drive. He’d stay on the surface, assist any divers who aborted early for mechanical, health, or safety concerns, and make sure nobody surfside bothered their stuff.
Things could be worse, Archer acknowledged. At least he’d get to dive today.
He grunted. “You have no idea.”
Nor would they any time soon. Discussing serious personal matters in front of their clients was a no-no. Besides, he had to find the right time to come clean to his best friends about his sordid past.
They pushed off the dock and headed through the muted peach-and-rose post-dawn for Klein Bonaire, an
dinky uninhabited blob of land less than a mile offshore from the main island. Protected by the curvature of Bonaire, it held plenty of opportunities for excursions. Most of the guests went shore diving on their own when unguided. The guys preferred to take them somewhere they couldn’t reach in the rusty white mini pick-up trucks that came standard with their condo rentals.
“She did look like a wild catch, you lucky bastard,” Tosin joked from where he meticulously verified everyone’s equipment set-up. Another set of eyes. He had their backs. Just like Archer and Miguel would have his. Focused, he thankfully didn’t read too much into Archer’s lack of a response. He turned on tanks, checked air pressure gauges, and helped a few people with rental gear clip their neon-yellow secondary regulators to the proper place for easy access in case anything went haywire with their primary.
Considering the three of them also serviced the equipment at the shop they currently worked for, Archer didn’t think that was likely. Never hurt to have a spare, though. Especially when you were more than a breath’s worth of a swim from the surface and counted on it to deliver your air supply.
Twelve guests, two divemasters, and one captain.
Archer, Tosin, and Miguel had worked for operations that ran much bigger ratios of clients to guides, but they preferred not to. This way they could make sure everyone had a safe, personalized experience.
Today, Archer’s group would be staying shallower than Tosin’s. That meant he had the less experienced people. Or in the case of his married couple, ones who preferred nicer light for capturing the best underwater photos and videos. The brothers had chosen a depth that would allow them to stay under the longest. Another smart choice, Archer thought.
If he only had a few days a year or every couple of years to dive while on vacation, he’d milk every one of them, too. Sounded like hell to him.
Different priorities for different folks. Everyone had their own reasons for the decisions they made. No different than him. At least that’s what he promised himself to assuage his guilt for not being honest with his two best friends about his life before they’d started exploring paradises together nearly a dozen years earlier. Twice for not telling them about how everything had changed overnight.
He’d confess…eventually. When he could convince himself that it didn’t matter and wouldn’t impact the partnership they’d built. Part of him screamed that wouldn’t be possible, not when he told them about the worst of it. About the unforgivable thing he’d done to
Archer couldn’t help himself. A vision of a young woman with hair fanned out around her and gorgeous eyes looking up at him as he made love to her flashed into his mind. It simultaneously turned him on and made him feel sick.
So he ignored any further ribbing from Miguel and Tosin. Let them think what they would. Sure, his date had wrung a few solid orgasms from him, but he’d already practically forgotten about that. God knew he could use a few more to relax him now.
What would he do if this whole existence disappeared? If he had to go back, he’d bleach out and die off like coral in ever-warming ocean waters. He wouldn’t be able to survive in those conditions.
Archer gripped the edge of the cabin and stuck his face into the wind, closing his eyes as he savored the strengthening sunrays and the salt spray pelting his cheeks. He wasn’t ready to let go.
Miguel interrupted his wandering thoughts with a low warning. “Archer, behind you.”
He snapped around, searching for the problem.
Married couple had finished getting ready. Without distractions, people sometimes had too much time on their hands. It seemed that was the case today, as they skimmed across the surface of the water toward their destination.
Another common occurrence.
“Need help?” He forced himself to smile as he approached the pair. Crouching down, he held on to the rinse tank at the center of the boat to keep his balance on the moving vessel.
“Sorry, I get nervous. Every time.” The wife swiped at a stray lock, putting it right back where it had started for only a millisecond before a gust slapped it over her eyes once more. Glamour had no place in diving. Skin-tight suits, wind-blown hair, an odd assortment of UV protection—hats, oversized sunglasses, rash guards—and mismatched towels. That’s what he considered their uniform.
Functional. Not too pretty. Definitely informal. Exactly the way he liked things.
Archer wondered if Banks would work some magic and keep him from having to wear an entirely different kind of suit for the first time in a decade. Or, God forbid, a tux. Could the man really pull off the legal and financial shit without dragging Archer back to the States in person?
Lost in thought, he hesitated too long in reassuring his charge. She’d progressed to biting her lip as her husband squeezed her knee. His friends had him covered as usual, though.
Tosin piped up. “No worries. If you don’t do this every day, it’s easy to get rusty. But you’ll be diving with the best. I guarantee when you put your mask in the water and take a peek at the reef below you, your nerves will disappear. Besides, Archer is willing to hold your hand the whole way if you need some extra reassurance.”
Great, he didn’t need his ass kicked by a jealous husband today. Usually they saved that line for the single ladies. And meant it. Diving with a woman was probably the most intimate experience he’d ever had with one. Fortunately, this husband chuckled, confident in his bond with his wife and seemingly grateful for the divemasters putting her at ease.
Archer wondered what it would be like to have that sort of relationship.
He, Tosin, and Miguel had never stayed in one place long enough to try. Being pinned down like that sounded like torture, except for one or two things—like, say, decent home cooking—they might be missing out on. It had seemed like an easy sacrifice before.
Suddenly, he was second-guessing everything.
Damn his father.
Even from the grave, the bastard had the power to fuck with Archer’s head.
Tosin gave him a kick in the ass.
Nervous lady. Right. Archer shook his head, probably making his dark hair stick up worse than it already had been. He didn’t give a shit about that. “Tosin’s right. You’re prepared. I watched you set up. Why don’t we go over the dive plan as a group?”
Head in the game once more, he gathered his six charges around and spoke loudly enough to be heard over the engine. “This is going to be a nice and easy dive at one of our favorite sites, Knife. The boat will be moored in about fifteen feet of water. Sandy bottom. We’re going to head out over the ridge of the reef, where the sea floor begins to slope down. I’ll drop to about fifty feet or so and judge the current. It’s usually going east from here, so we’ll likely turn right, keeping the reef on that side of us. Stay with your buddies, wherever you’re comfortable. I’ll be using a very conservative profile. As long as you let me be the deepest person on the dive and the farthest ahead, you’ll be all set, even if you aren’t confident in reading your computers or the battery goes out or whatever.”
He’d added that last part for his problematic pair.
“Whoever hits eighteen-hundred PSI first will signal to me using the half-tank sign.” As a reminder, Archer demonstrated, putting one hand up and the other across the top so that it made something like a T. “At that point, the whole group will turn around. We’ll ascend—
Extra pointed stare at the disaster duo there.
Unfortunately, they were digging around in their pockets, not paying attention.
“Stay around twenty to thirty feet deep and put the reef on your left for the return swim. The current will be in our favor, helping us back to the boat with less exertion in a shorter amount of time. Plus, the decreased pressure at the shallower depth will ensure we make it there with plenty of air left. Feel free to use it to explore the area beneath the boat. Tosin and Miguel spotted a seahorse and a frogfish in that exact location last week. We may get lucky. I’ll be sure to point out anything of interest so you can take pictures or come in for a closer look.
“When you’re down to about eight hundred pounds of air, I’ll send you up to the base of the boat’s mooring line to do your safety stop. Stay for three minutes at fifteen feet. Your computer will count it down for you. Then ascend nice and easy to the boat. Miguel will be waiting to help you out. As always, please remember this is a protected marine reserve. Do not touch anything. Keep your distance from the reef, especially the soft corals. Don’t harass the animals. And definitely leave only bubbles behind.”
With a plan in place, his nervous diver seemed more relaxed. Good thing, since they’d reached the mooring pin. A buoy connected by a line to a concrete slab carefully placed on the sea floor allowed the boat to stay in one place without dropping an anchor that could tear up the reef.
Miguel and Tosin were securing a rope to the mooring pin. Archer checked his tank one last time, ducked into his BCD, snapped himself in, tightened the straps, and headed for the platform at the back of the boat. His gear seemed heavier than usual. Or maybe he was simply off balance. He hated to admit, even to himself, that he might be reeling from the news Banks had given him.
He slipped on his fins and mask then waited for the all clear from Miguel. When his friend flashed the sign, Archer turned to his group and said, “I’ll be waiting in the water when you’re ready. Miguel will help you if you need anything prior to entry.”