Authors: Cindy Gerard
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Contemporary, #Fiction
His weight slung on his good leg, he stared down at her as she settled into the kayak. “Joanna, I know you’re upset, but this is not the time to run off half-cocked. Did you hear the weather report this morning?”
“I heard it.”
“Then you know you’ve got no business out on the lake right now.”
Balancing her weight as the rippling water rocked the little craft against the dock’s wooden pilings, she ignored his concerned frown. “I’ll be back long before that front moves in tonight. I just need a little space, okay? Just a couple of hours of breathing room.”
She flipped her braid over her shoulder and made to push away.
Adam caught the end of her paddle and held her still in the water.
She glared at him. “I mean it, Dursky. I don’t need your flak.”
is for someone to paddle some sense into your obstinate little backside, since it’s obvious that’s what you’re thinking with. Use your head, girl!”
“I’m a big
,” she countered sarcastically. With a mighty tug, she jerked the paddle from his hand. “And you’re not my keeper.”
“That’s not to say you don’t need one,” he said, frowning at the sky, then at the vast expanse of blue-green water.
She thought she heard him mumble something about brick walls and blockheads, but short of jumping in after her, there was little he could do to stop her.
“Look . . . don’t worry about me,” she called as she dug in with deep strokes and set out across the bay. “I’ll be all right.”
Hours later, with night closing in and the lake boiling around her like a witch’s cauldron, she clung to that thought like a lifeline. “I’ll be all right,” she repeated again and again, as if saying so could make it true.
But as mistakes went, she knew this one ranked right up there among her biggest. This one just might get her killed.
The advertising brochures she’d had made up for next season referred to Kabetogama as “a remote and beautiful glacial lake.” The churning black water swirling around her kayak right now bore little resemblance to the placid vacation paradise the layout depicted. In the space of a heartbeat, the glass-smooth lake had begun to live up to the name the Ojibwe Indians had given it long ago: Kabetogama, lake of rough waters.
Since she’d grown up on Kabby, she knew its moods. She could read all the signs. She read them that morning, but devastated by Steve’s news, she’d ignored them. Another bright move in a string of monumental blunders, she thought as she fought to ride out another swell.
The storm had come up quickly, catching her far out on open water. She’d barely had time to haul her life vest out from under the hull and buckle it when the first swell hit, forcing her to make a decision. Turning back then had been out of the question. She was out too far. Whichever direction she decided to take—inland toward the north shore or east toward Jug Island—the distance had seemed insurmountable. She’d considered the wind and opted for Jug. Then she’d put her head down and stroked for her life as all hell broke loose around her.
Another huge wave slammed across her bow, another in a series of hundreds. Or was it thousands? She’d lost count, was past caring. Shifting her weight instinctively, she dug deep with the paddle and somehow set the struggling kayak right again.
Risking a swipe at her face, she brushed a rain-soaked swath of hair from her eyes so she could see. Ha. See what? There was nothing but black sky and angry water hammering at her from all sides. Nothing but raging, whitecapped swells and vicious wind battering her bow, trying to turn her, to push her backward and away from her destination. She was exhausted. Adrenaline alone wasn’t going to pull her through many more waves like that last one.
If she could just make it to Jug.
That thought sustained her. She had to be close. She had to be!
She thought of Adam, of the way he’d looked when she’d left him, of the things she’d said and of all the things she might never get to say to him, and suddenly in the midst of it all, nothing else mattered. Not the very real possibility that she’d lose the lodge, not the anguish and despair she’d felt over the loss of her father. What mattered was that she wanted to see Adam again.
“You are not going to die!” she shouted above the storm’s roar. “Not here. Not like this. Not alone.”
She’d hardly completed that thought when she was hit by another monstrous wall of water and a desperate yearning to be anywhere but on this damn lake!
Tears of frustration ran down her chilled cheeks, mingling with the downpour and the frigid spray. She fought her terror and the urge to let the storm take her. Panic wouldn’t help. Her stubbornness had dumped her into this mess. Now it could damn well drag her out of it.
“Hang on, dammit!” she demanded, praying the next stroke of the oar would be her last, the next slap against the kayak’s fragile hull would be the shore.
And then, without warning, the lake fell out from underneath her. The kayak dropped with a sickening thud into the belly of a swell, cracking hard with the impact.
The jolt stunned her, then she was sucked under. Clawing her way back up, she broke the surface, spitting water and gasping for air while the night around her exploded with the sound of rock scraping against wood. The kayak lurched forward, then flipped over on its side again.
She hit the water fighting for her life and came up coughing. Intense pain lanced through her body. Pain and relief. She’d hit rock. Solid, unsinkable rock. She’d made it!
Scrambling out of the kayak, she sank chest-deep in the murky water before her feet connected with the slippery floor of the lake bed. She broke free of the undertow and stumbled across the rocks toward safety, where she collapsed on the shore. Gasping for breath, barely aware of the sting of wet sand and sharp stones scraping her face and bare legs, she clung to the island like a lost child reunited with its mother.
The wind screamed. The rain pummeled. But it was the pain that kept her conscious . . . and the chill. It had crept into her blood through ice-cold limbs and settled deep. She lay there shivering until self-preservation instincts urged her to her knees. She knew she had to find shelter before shock set in.
Shaking with fatigue and cold, she struggled to her feet, shrugged out of the life vest, and beached the kayak more securely. When the storm cleared, she would need it to get back home. At this moment she wasn’t taking any bets on when that would be.
Leaning heavily against a peeling birch tree, she caught her breath and squinted into the blackness to get her bearings. She knew Jug well in the daylight. As a child, she’d spent many happy summer hours visiting the island. It had been her special, secret place and was nearly as familiar to her as the area around her north shore lodge. But in pitch-black night and punishing rain, the island was uncharted ground.
Finally, she decided on a route and chanced it. She hiked for what seemed like an hour. Realistically, she knew it couldn’t have been more than minutes. Jug was a relatively small island, but she could have easily taken the wrong path. In the dark, one rock looked like another, each stand of trees like the last. Disheartened, she was about to retrace her steps when the pale silhouette of the cabin took shape.
“Thank you,” she whispered heavenward, and heaved a shivering sigh of relief.
Weathered by time and the elements, the faded white structure, its pine steps sagging and gray-shingled roof dotted with moss, beckoned like an old friend.
Propelled by the prospect of the dry interior, she quickened her pace. Impatience and exhaustion made her careless. She stumbled over a rock and went down, hard. She cried out as swift, explicit pain shot through her right hand.
Curling into a ball, she clamped her hand to her breast, biting back a wave of nausea. She didn’t need to see to know she’d broken it.
Hot tears burned her eyes. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” she railed, giving in to the anger but not the pain.
That same anger forced her to her feet. Brushing wet leaves and twigs from her face and tangled hair, she started out again. Shivering violently but employing infinitely more care this time, she maneuvered the slippery path to the cabin. Her joints were stiff with cold and her palm already blessedly numb as she reached the rickety porch steps.
She climbed to the top step and swayed heavily against the railing. Too miserable to focus on anything but escaping the cold, she turned the doorknob, put her shoulder to the door, and fell inside.
He was a cop. He’d survived a war. He’d killed men . . . reluctantly, dutifully. Through it all he’d never laid a hand on a woman in anger. Yet tonight, as he fought the lake and the storm, Adam swore to God that if he didn’t drown out there, and if he found that little redheaded whelp in one piece, he was going to derive intense personal satisfaction from tearing her apart limb by freckled limb!
Then he was going to pick up the pieces, gather her close, and give thanks to the powers that be that she was alive.
she was alive.
She will be
, he told himself, as if challenging the other possibility would negate it. She had to be alive.
He hated feeling this helpless. He hated this leaky boat and its short-cycling motor. The icy rain and darkness hampering his vision added to his frustration. His ignorance of the lake compounded the fear that he wouldn’t find her. There were dozens of islands, miles of shoreline where she could have sought shelter. He had set a course for only one, Jug Island.
He’d pinned all his hopes on a brief conversation they’d had one night, when, sounding a little wistful, she’d told him about the cabin on Jug Island. Before she’d caught herself, she’d let it slip that when she was a child, Jug had been a haven of sorts whenever she’d felt threatened.
She’d definitely felt threatened today. That was why she’d run. Her promised two hours had come and gone, then the storm had shown up. She hadn’t. He hadn’t been able to stay at the lodge and do nothing any longer. He’d gassed up one of her leaky tubs and thrown everything he could think of—food, dry clothes, first-aid supplies, a sleeping bag—into a waterproof duffel. After snagging the map of the lake from the boathouse wall, he’d ignored the swells hammering up over the dock and headed for Jug.
It was a damn fine time to find out he hated the water!
Rain or lake water, he could no longer tell which, beat against his raincoat and slapped him in the face as the small motorboat chopped with agonizing slowness through the pounding swells. More than once, when he was swallowed by the gaping jaws of a wave, he was certain it would be his body that someone would find washed up on a remote shore come morning.
Fear for Joanna urged him on. On to where, he was no longer certain. It had been an hour since he’d seen anything but black. He’d long ago lost his sense of direction.
Swearing into the wind, he looked around, and for a brief, teasing moment a window opened up ahead of him. In that elusive instant he caught the outline of a tree-studded shoreline. Gunning the complaining motor, he made a mad dash toward the spot, taking advantage of the only break he’d gotten since night had descended.
The boat lurched forward for several long, frustrating minutes. He was beginning to think he’d missed his mark when he hit land with a serrated screech of wood against rock. The boat plowed recklessly onto the shore, then skidded to an abrupt stop, throwing him headlong over the bow.
He lay flat on his back, trying to catch his breath as the bed of rocks bit into his back and the icy rain pelted his face and slithered down his neck. Rolling onto all fours, he shook his head to clear it and came nose to nose with the one thing that could still his thundering heart and ease the burning ache in his thigh—a bright red kayak beached in the underbrush.
He’d found her.
Relief, when it swamped him, was too strong, too consuming. He closed his eyes and willed anger to take its place.
She was going to pay royally for what she’d put him through. The rough water, the wet and cold, the danger to his own life that her stupid, fly-off-the-handle nonsense had placed him in.