Authors: Elle James
ECKER COULDN’T STOP the surge of anger radiating through his body. Yeah, he didn’t know what he’d been thinking, swimming at midnight when riptide warnings had been all over the radio earlier that day and the colored flag had been flown on the lifeguard stands. But he couldn’t sit around his beach cottage, wide awake, guilt-ridden, lusting after a woman on the anniversary of his wife’s death. He’d walked out onto his deck wanting to shout to the heavens
Why didn’t I die?
No matter how many times he reiterated those words, he still had no answer. With so much pent up frustration and energy locked inside, he’d walked down the steps, his chest pinched, his throat tight.
He’d kept walking until his feet hit the wet sand. Then he ran, splashing through the waves, and dove into the ocean. Swimming hard, his arms pounded the water, his feet churned behind him. In the back of his mind, he must have thought the salt water and waves were the only thing that could wash the old memories from his head. If he swam faster, he didn’t have time to think about the image of his wife’s dead body lying on the side of the road, that maybe it would fade and he could move on with living his empty life. Yes, Allison’s image faded.
And yet, no matter how hard he pushed himself, Roxi’s curvy body and smiling face never left his consciousness. Her silky blond hair a man could wrap his fingers in, those perky breasts barely encased in that impossible tank top and the rounded curve of her bottom twitching side to side in the frayed denim cutoffs, played over and over in his mind like a continuous rerun of a movie.
When his lungs burned for oxygen and his arms and legs couldn’t take it anymore, he slowed to a stop and he treaded water. By that time he’d been far from shore, the water as choppy and seeming to be as disturbed as he was. Then he’d heard the distant rapid-fire barking of a dog. He’d squinted, trying to make out the animal in the bright moonlight. It appeared to be a German Shepherd. The only German Shepherd he knew along this stretch of the beach belonged to the pretty blond bar owner so firmly rooted in his head. Decker searched for what had upset the dog only to see someone swimming toward him.
Some of the dog’s panic seeped into Decker’s gut, and he’d started toward the head bobbing just above the surface, arms cleaving the water in steady strokes, propelling him toward her.
He’d been stunned to realize Roxi was out swimming. He’d started back to shore on a course to intercept the woman, only to find the current was working against him. No matter how hard he swam he wasn’t getting any closer to the shore, but Roxi was getting closer to him.
The sea grew choppier and he only caught brief glimpses of her, recognizing when she’d come to the realization that she was in trouble. Roxi turned and swam with the current, angling toward the shore, her strokes slowing the longer she swam. When she’d stopped, Decker finally caught up to her.
Having used up most of his strength to chase his memories away, he feared he wouldn’t have any left to help her to shore. But the bar owner was tougher than he’d assumed. With only a little help and encouragement, she’d swum with him all the way back to terra firma.
Now that they were safely on shore, he couldn’t hold back the rush of relief and the release of fear that she might not have made it back. It all bubbled up with the anger he’d had with himself, and he let it loose on her. “Why were you swimming when you knew damn well there was a riptide?”
She stared up at him, her eyes rounding, a film of tears glazing them, reflecting the moon shining down on her wet skin. A shuddering sob rose from her throat. She raised a hand to her mouth, but her shoulders shook. The sob turned into a giggle, the giggle into laughter, catching on yet another sob. “I thought I could save you.” Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes as she shook her head and reached to touch his arm. “Instead, you saved me.”
Decker frowned. “Save me? From what?”
She sniffed and brushed the salty water and tears from her cheeks. “The riptide.”
When her words sank in, his gut clenched. “You weren’t out swimming for fun?”
Roxi shook her head. “No. I saw you go in. When you didn’t stop swimming out, I shouted…several times. I couldn’t let you keep going.”
“What were you going to do had you caught up to me?”
Draping an arm across her eyes, she lay still in the sand. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
He raked a hand through his wet hair. “Are you always this impulsive?”
“Damn, Roxi,” he said. “Didn’t anyone teach you that riptides are dangerous?”
She dropped her arm to her side, her brows furrowing. “I know about riptides. I’ve lived on this island a lot longer than you.”
“Yet you swam out to save a man who is almost twice your size in an area with notoriously dangerous currents.” Decker’s lips thinned into a straight line. “Unbelievable.”
“I didn’t plan on getting caught in the tide. I didn’t plan anything. I just couldn’t let you…I couldn’t stand by and do nothing, when you…” She closed her eyes and draped her arm over them again. “Whatever. Go away. I don’t need you telling me what to do.” Then under her breath she muttered, “It never fails. No good deed goes unpunished.”
Roxi lay against the wet sand, her hair a tangled mess, her heaving chest slowly relaxing into steady breathing.
Sitting beside her, Decker stared at the brave, stupid, incredibly beautiful woman whose wet tank top emphasized the pucker of her nipples beneath her white lacy bra. She was the reason he’d gone into the ocean in the first place. Her perky, happy, no-nonsense work at the bar had captured his attention the first time he’d entered and hadn’t let go for the entire summer he’d been at the cape.
Now, lying in the moonlight, her hair a mess, her body covered in sticky salt water and clumps of sand, she’d never been more beautiful.
His groin tightened and he fought the urge to touch her, to feel how soft her skin was when he wasn’t trying to save her from drowning in a riptide.
Her eyes blinked open. “Why are you still here?”
“I didn’t want to leave you alone.”
“I’m not alone.” She turned her head to the dog lying in the sand beside her. “I have Otis.”
A smile pulled at Decker’s lips. “You do have Otis. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have known you were out there.” He reached across her body to ruffle the dog’s head.
Roxi’s brows furrowed. “Hey, Otis. You’re supposed to protect me from the enemy, not join the other side.”
“Oh, so now I’m the enemy?” Decker chuckled and the sound faded at the thought that she considered him the enemy. “Why am I the enemy?”
“All men are the enemy,” she said, her voice little more than a sigh. “Especially the ones who want to take advantage of a girl walking by herself.”
Her words jolted his gut. “And I’m taking advantage of you?”
Her lips twisted. “You’re hovering over me like a vulture looking for his next meal.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to hover.” He flopped down on his back in the sand and stared up at the sky.
Otis rose up on all fours and walked around Roxi to lie down beside Decker.
Roxi snorted. “Traitor.”
Decker raised tired arms. “I had nothing to do with it. Dogs like me. So sue me.” He dropped a hand onto Otis’s fur and rubbed him. “Is he always this friendly?”
“Not to men.”
He angled his head to stare at her. “Have you got something against men?”
“No,” she said, a little too quickly and rolled onto her side to face him. “You know why
swam out in a riptide, but you didn’t tell me why
“No, I didn’t.” Decker stared up at the sky, the full moon shining brightly down on them, wrapping them in a surreal world where nothing else existed but the sand, the ocean, and the two people lying on the beach. Oh, and the dog panting in his face.
“Well?” Roxi pushed up on one elbow.
“Well what?” Decker didn’t face her, but could see the intent expression on her face in his peripheral vision.
“You looked like a shark was after you, and you could swim all the way to France to get away from it.”
He shrugged, the gritty sand rubbing against his skin. “Maybe a shark
“Did it have anything to do with celebrating your Alive Day?” she asked softly. For a long moment she stared down at him. When he didn’t answer, she dropped to her back and faced the moon. “You don’t have to answer. Some things don’t bear remembering.”
Her words hit home, and his chest swelled with all the emotion he’d tried to swim out of his system but hadn’t quite managed to do. Now, too tired to fight it, he let it wash over him, filling every cell in his body. “I should have died that day.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. But my wife did.” There, he said it. He told her something he didn’t share with anyone who hadn’t known him at the time of the accident.
“Sucks, doesn’t it?” Roxi said, her voice soft.
His eyes stung and a knot formed in his throat. He hadn’t shed a tear over his loss, feeling numb more than anything else. Afraid if he let his emotions take over, he’d lose control and never find his way back.
“Sometimes dying seems the easier way out,” she said, her tone stronger. “Then you don’t have to feel the pain over and over again.”
“Yeah.” Decker turned toward Roxi, realizing she wasn’t talking about his pain. Her gaze fixed on the moon as if seeing into the past, not the bright round orb hanging in the sky.
“What’s your story?” he asked. “Who did you lose?”
She snorted. “It doesn’t matter. What’s past is past. We have to continue breathing until we take our last breath, don’t we?” Roxi pushed to a sitting position. “Well, thanks for helping me back to shore.”
Decker rolled to his feet before she did and extended his hand.
She stared at it and shook her head. “Thanks, but I don’t need anyone.”
Decker frowned. She hadn’t said she didn’t need
, she’d said she didn’t need
. “We all need a hand once in a while. Take it. Your legs will be like jelly after that swim. Mine are.”
“I’m tougher than I look.” She pushed to her feet, staggered and would have fallen if Decker hadn’t reached out and pulled her against him.
Her soft curves fit against his hard plains, reminding him of what he’d been missing in his life.
God, he’d loved Allison. She’d been beautiful with her short cap of rich brown hair, and dark brown eyes. At five feet five inches, her body was slim, almost too thin and her big eyes had always reminded him of a homeless puppy who needed to be protected, cared for and loved unconditionally. He’d failed her by not keeping her safe from harm. Allison had been one of the kindest, gentlest souls he’d ever met. He hadn’t deserved her, and he’d lost her.
Now he stared down at the curvy woman in his arms, shorter than Allison, but more solidly built, her muscles toned from exercise and hard work, her skin lightly tanned and eyes such a bright blue they rivaled the shine of the moon. Her lips were full and lush, and all he could think about in that moment was kissing them.
His head lowered.
Roxi’s eyelids drooped and her stiff body melted into his, her gaze shifting lower. Before he could kiss her, she leaned up on her toes and pressed her lips to his in a brief kiss.
Decker’s arms tightened around her and he deepened the kiss.
Her hands slid up his chest and locked around the back of his neck, tugging him closer.
He swept his tongue across her salty lips. When she let out a soft gasp, he plunged past her teeth to sweep the length of her tongue in a ravenous caress. He couldn’t get enough. His groin tightened and his erection pressed into her belly.
Roxi’s body stiffened in an instant, and she went from warm and pliant in his arms to shoving against his chest, pushing hard enough he let go and staggered backward, still holding her to keep his balance.
“Let go of me,” she whispered.
“Okay.” When he was steady on his feet, he released her.
She stepped out of reach, wobbling and sat hard in the sand.
“What’s wrong?” he squatted on his haunches in front of her. “Did I hurt you?”
“No.” She brushed strands of hair out of her eyes. “Just leave me alone.”
He shook his head. “Not until I see you home safely.”
“I can make it on my own, thank you.”
“I know. But after nearly causing you to drown, I feel responsible for you.”
“Well, don’t.” She stood, swaying slightly. “I have Otis.”
Decker brushed his hand over the dog’s fur. “Yes, you do. But I’m not taking no for an answer.”
“Suit yourself. But don’t kiss me.” Roxi pressed the back of her hand over her mouth, her eyes still wide, almost scared.
Had he done that to her? “You kissed me first.”
Her hand fell to her side. “It won’t happen again.” She spun toward the bar. “Come, Otis.”
Roxi walked away, her footsteps more steady with each step.
How she did it, Decker didn’t know. His legs were like jelly and exhaustion tugged at every muscle in his body. Had she not come after him when she did, had Otis not been with Roxi, barking so loudly, Decker might be floating out to sea, too far out to swim back and too tired to fight the current. Hell, had Roxi not shown up, he might not have cared enough to make it back to shore. In more ways than one, Roxi had saved his life.