As an Inspirational Romantic Suspense author, Katy Lee writes higher-purpose stories in high-speed worlds. Through her writing, ministries, and teaching, she dedicates her life to sharing tales of love, from the greatest love story ever told to those sweet romantic stories of falling in love. Katy and her husband are born New Englanders, but have been known to travel at the drop of a hat along with their three children. But www.KatyLeeBooks.com is where you can find Katy anytime.
Drug Enforcement Agent Owen Matthews gripped the wheel of his rented sports boat as he coasted through the North Atlantic at barely half-throttle. The Maine island town of Stepping Stones urged Owen to rush forward to the safety of its shores, but his newly acquired phobia of boats wouldn’t let him speed up even one knot. At this rate the sun would be gone before he arrived at his next assignment.
“What we do for friends,” Owen mumbled through clenched teeth, thinking about his old academy roommate, and the island’s sheriff, Wesley Grant. Even though Wes chose small-town law enforcement and Owen took the federal route with the DEA down to the Mexican border, the two of them kept in touch.
Wes had called, needing Owen’s undercover expertise to take down a recent marijuana problem at Stepping Stones High School. No job was too dangerous or too far for Owen when it came to extinguishing the distribution of illegal mind-altering substances. Even if the job brought him back to these Maine waters where he vowed never to go again.
Owens quashed away the sickening memory. He’d let the guilt return later, but for now he had a job to do. He steered his focus back to the few facts Wes gave him about the case, specifically on how the drugs appeared about six months ago, soon after two new residents moved to Stepping Stones.
Wes was a good cop, but he probably didn’t want to believe a fellow islander could ever bring such harm down on one of his own. Since Owen grew up on the mainland and not with these people, he could offer a more unbiased investigation of all the inhabitants, new and old.
Plus, Owen knew firsthand how the ones closest to us had the power to destroy us—he knew this not because he’d been on the receiving end, but because of the people he’d destroyed. His past offenses convinced him that every islander was capable and a suspect—including the owner of the fishing boat coming at him.
At first, the vessel bobbed alongside a huge rock and lighthouse up ahead, but when it shot off like a bullet, Owen questioned its hurry. Was its retreat an innocent maneuver or had Owen intruded on an illegal happening of some kind?
He kept his undercover status in mind and prepared to make all neighborly with the captain of the…. He strained to read the name of the fishing boat scrawled on its hull.
The Rita Ann.
A harmless enough name. Although typically, a drug trafficker wouldn’t be advertising its wares on its exterior for the world to see. Owen observed more of the rusty, white fishing boat with its tall, lit masthead. A rule follower, it would seem with his adequate safety equipment. But, if one was carrying illegal cargo, it would be in their best interest to keep their light bulbs in working order. Why risk the chance of being pulled over?
Owen searched the dark pilothouse windows for the captain, but only the reflection of the setting sun glinted back at him. He sped up a little to close in, waving his hand high, and slowed to an idle to wait for the lone figure at the wheel to wave back.
Instead, the Rita Ann increased its speed and changed its course—directly on him.
Stunned, Owen’s hand slipped off the gear shift. This couldn’t be happening. Not again. The sun was setting, but he could still be seen. The last time it had been pitch dark. This didn’t make sense.
Snap out of it, Matthews! He ordered himself to reengage, but his stiff hands might as well have been petrified wood. He had to move, but visions of a past splintering boat flying sky-high immobilized his reflexes. Six years of time dissolved into this moment as he relived his first crash.
No, he denied for history to repeat itself. Move! Now!
A surge of adrenaline pushed him to hit the reverse. He blasted back out of the Rita Ann’s path. The fishing boat jetted past him without an acknowledgment.
Owen questioned if the driver had seen him or not. How could he not, though? He watched The Rita Ann chug out to sea. Owen forced his hand to turn the wheel to follow. He would flag it down to find out, but first, he would need to speed up to catch it.
Duty called and Owen’s previous driving-with-caution vaulted to the wind as he kicked up his speed a notch, then another and another. The front bow parted the rolling waves into a frothy wake as he set his sights on the Rita Ann. His attention drilled straight ahead, until a gray object flew past him on his starboard side. Immediately another followed. Owen’s head whipped from side to side in confusion.
They were flat rocks, smaller, less visible than the large one with the lighthouse. The sight of the solid, unmovable masses caused him to slam back the throttle, jolting the craft to a rumbling crawl.
The Rita Ann raced on ahead without him.
It wasn’t the fact that he let her go that choked him, but rather the fact that he could have had a disastrous collision if he had been a few scant feet more to his left.
At least no one was in the boat with me this time. Owen blew out a breath of angry expletives about his stupidity. I have no business being out on these waters. Not even for a job.
With tighter fists than before, he gripped the steering wheel again. In an anxious cold-sweat, Owen drifted with the tiniest bit of gas sent to the engine. In such a slow motion, he realized more and more of these rocks protruded up from the ocean floor around him, leading up to the island of Stepping Stones.
The island apparently got its name from these rocks. The lighthouse itself was built on the largest of them while the others dotted a sporadic path. A beautiful scene for a painting, but in reality, these rocks posed a deadly threat to boats cruising their way up the coast of New England. How the ferry could dock here was beyond him. Maybe that’s why it only came in once a week. Too risky with these formidable pieces of stone that required a wide berth.
Owen made his way back to the rock with the lighthouse. As he approached, something red and gold caught his attention. His rubberneck told him it was a woman.
She lay motionless on the rock, the only part of her moving was a strand of her hair fluttering on the sea breeze. His mind reeled with concern. Was she injured?
Owen swung his gaze back at the departing Rita Ann. Perhaps the woman was hurt by the same hands that piloted the boat. That would explain the hasty departure. Had someone on the Rita Ann dumped her here? Thrown her overboard? Owen’s stomach twisted at the thought. Time was critical if that was the case.
He steadied his gaze on her, but from his vantage point all he could make out was her shock of long, red hair glinting with gold in the sun’s rays. The tresses fanned out against the rock like the rays themselves. He leaned over the steering wheel as if that would get him closer, faster.
With the engine of his boat chugging, he hoped she would hear him approach and lift her head or wave a hand, but she didn’t. Not even when his boat sidled up to the rock and lapped idly in the waves.
“Miss?” he called out over the rattling engine. “Miss, do you need help?”
No answer. No movement, either
Owen cleared his throat and tried again, louder. When that turned out the same, the words ‘deathly still’ crossed his mind. Apprehension niggled at the back of his neck. He rubbed it away with the horrid thought and called out again. “Miss?” he yelled forcefully, but couldn’t deny the waver of uncertainty in his voice.
He hadn’t seen someone this still since his wife, Rebecca, lay in the sand, paramedics going through the motions of saving her only because he begged them not to stop. Owen’s throat filled with a golf-sized blockage. He shot a jittery gaze toward the island, willing someone else to come help this woman.
The docks in miniature glimmered in the sunlight, waiting for his boat to find its place beside them for the night. Oh, how he wanted to do just that. To allow someone else better qualified to help her. He was good at chasing bad guys, not rescuing women. But not one person came into his view. Not one fisherman. Not one loitering teenager. No one at all stood on the pier for him to wave at for assistance.
Owen cut the engine. It has to be me. He dropped his shoulders as he dropped anchor.
He thought about radioing for help, maybe the woman was just in a deep sleep. Just in case she was hurt, though, Owen grabbed the life-saving equipment stored in the rear stern under the padded seats. He yanked open the compartment to find a first-aid kit and blanket, along with life vests. He scooped up the blanket and kit and went portside, reaching out to grab at the crusty barnacle-covered stone.
Swells rocked the woman in and out of his view. With every rise and sway of his boat he caught sight of her one-piece, red and blue bathing suit. He thought it was a mishmash of flowers or something, but didn’t concentrate enough on it to be sure. His full attention was given to the state of the woman’s wellness. In a quick scan, his eyes followed from her bathing suit down her long, muscular limbs of milky white to a set of small feet sprawled motionless.
“I’m coming, okay?” he assured her loudly as he threw his load up on the rock and hoisted his body to follow. Please be sleeping, he thought but said, “Don’t move. You may have a neck injury.” Like Rebecca when she was thrown.
The woman didn’t move. Not even to acknowledge his presence. He watched for any sign of a twinge or breathing as he scraped along the sharp barnacles. Pain sliced through his palms and bared forearms. He used the discomfort to propel him up and forward, but glad for the protection of his denim jeans. Lying flat, he came face-to-face with the still, delicate features of the woman. Long, light lashes rested on pale, freckled cheeks. He hesitated to touch her. Would he find her asleep? Dead? Had his rescue not come in time?
“Miss, can you hear me? Are you hurt? Do you need help?”
His hand reached for the curve of her neck and gently felt for her pulse on skin, icy cold. She moaned and her heart’s life-beating sound brought Owen a mix of relief and elation. She may be hurt, but at least she was alive. Thank you, L-Lord, Owen’s reflexive prayer of thanksgiving had him wiping an old bitter aftertaste from his salty lips.
“God had nothing to do with saving this girl,” he muttered. “God’s not here. I’m here.”
His blunder stumped him for a moment before he launched into the rescue. Owen reached for the scratchy, wool blanket behind him and stretched it over her arms and chest to warm her. Instantly, her eyes flashed wide and another short sound deep in her throat escaped her pale lips. A moan of pain? he wondered. A quick jerk of her head triggered him to brace her just in case.
“Miss?” He gripped both sides of her face and peered into stark, gray eyes, as gray as the stone she lay on. Fear shone up at him. “Don’t move. You could have a spinal injury. Can you tell me if you hurt anywhere?”
She struggled beneath the blanket, arms fumbling and pushing with a strength that caught him off guard. Owen pressed her arms down and shushed her. He couldn’t safely move her to the boat like this.
She moaned again, more forceful, louder. It didn’t sound like a moan of pain now, but rather anger. She was mad at him? For helping her? She shoved harder at the blanket between them. Her lips parted for the loudest most forceful sound yet. It sounded like the word off without the pronunciations of the f’s. It took him a second before her word hit him like a left hook to his gut.
Owen jumped away from the muffled sounds he would recognize anywhere. They were the same kind of sounds his son made when he tried to speak—ever since he lost his hearing the night he’d nearly drowned in the crash.
This woman wasn’t injured at all. She didn’t answer him because, like his son, she was deaf.
Miriam Hunter fumbled under the attack of a strong-armed man. The scare tactics to be rid of her had turned physical. Ever since she arrived here, the islanders had made it known she wasn’t wanted. First, the nasty notes and emails, then the late night crank calls, and now this…this assault.
How dare this guy sneak up on her out in this secluded place? At the one place she could fully get away from their angry stares. As though it was her fault drugs had come to their precious island.
Just because the marijuana showed up after she arrived didn’t mean she brought it with her. The bag of marijuana found in her office had been placed there by one of the very townspeople who wanted her gone—perhaps even by this guy leaning over her.
Angrily, Miriam heaved at the heavy material scratching her skin. She didn’t have to think twice as to why he covered her with it. He might as well have sealed her lips with duct tape. She strained against him to free her hands—her voice. He wouldn’t understand a word she signed, but it would make her feel better to put him in his place. She wouldn’t sit here and allow him to silence her. She pushed at him again, but his strength wouldn’t relent.
Who was this guy? Miriam didn’t recognize him as a parent. He seemed too young to have a child in high school. Thirty-two, tops. His dark cropped hair screamed short, clean-cut military, not shaggy, salt-drenched fisherman.
But the eyes….
She stilled to study the rich black currant irises inches from her face. Sharp and assessing eyes, not accusing and vindictive. She thought they held a message of caring, but before she could decipher clearly, all emotion dipped behind their onyx surface like the secrets of the drink, safely hidden beneath murky depths.
His tensed lips moved, too close for her to read. Then as much as she abhorred talking, Miriam broke her vow and opened her mouth to tell him to get off.
The look on his cleanly shaven face abruptly changed from determination to…shock? Her deafness surprised him? If he didn’t know she was deaf then he wasn’t from Stepping Stones. He was a stranger—and she was alone on a rock in the ocean with him.
Every self-defense move Miriam learned in college jumped to attention in her head. She tried to recall if there was a maneuver for when someone had you pinned under a blanket. Never did she think those tactics would be used, but perhaps this was the moment God prepared her for through all those classes. Stay with me, Father, she signed her prayer of petition in her head because her hands were still secured under the blanket. Give me strength and the knowledge to break away. She mindfully pulled out the scripture tucked in her heart for times of darkness.
Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Miriam used the words from Isaiah 41to hurl all her strength at the man again. This time, he jolted back as though she’d burned him. Without waiting another second, she sat up, flung off the blanket, and scooted back.
He fell onto his haunches, hands raised up in surrender, but her flight reflex still had her retreating farther away until she reached the edge of the rock. Her heart raced, pounding adrenaline through her head and body. Even being deaf, she could hear it coursing through her.
He hadn’t moved from his place but spoke again. Miriam studied his lips as her breathing steadied. He said something about kelp. She shook her head in confusion and a bit of annoyance. People always thought deaf people could read lips. She supposed she could read them half the time, but that left a lot of room for confusion, which is why she usually traveled with her interpreter—except in the afternoon when she swam out to the lighthouse to be alone. Never did she think she would need Nick way out here.
The stranger’s tall, lean frame bent to pick up a box labeled with the symbol of a red cross. He held it up to her and clarity came swiftly.
He hadn’t said kelp. He’d said help. He thought she needed help.
But why? What gave him the idea in the first place?
Miriam searched the island and knew it to be about 500 yards away. Not a huge distance for a former competitive open-water swimmer like herself. But this man wouldn’t know she swam out to the lighthouse for exercise each day. He probably thought only a stranded and injured person would be this far from land.
Miriam supposed she could try to speak aloud to explain, but a long time ago, she vowed only to use her voice when absolutely necessary. And giving this stranger her personal information wasn’t necessary.
In fact, the only thing necessary was to get off this rock quickly. Miriam didn’t believe she faced any danger from him anymore, but she also wasn’t inclined to be friendly.
She cagily followed his movements to the other side of the rock where his boat anchored.
He gestured with his hand for her to climb in, pointing toward the island.
Before thinking, she naturally lifted her hands to sign. After the first few signs, stating she would swim back, she stopped and waved her hands to say forget it. He wouldn’t understand anyway. She stood on her edge, still keeping him in her sight while preparing to dive in. But before her feet left the ground, Miriam gazed back at him one last time, and froze.
His hand pointed to his chest, then rose to the side of his temple. She watched his index finger slowly point up toward the sky. “I understand,” he signed.
She nearly stumbled off the rock. He knew her language? Would he say more? She waited, hating herself because deep down she hoped he would. How quickly she willingly trusted this man just because he understood her.
For so long, though, she’d been a foreigner in this world that was supposed to be her home, desperately seeking companionship. Now she stood face-to-face with the one thing she sought after. Forever on the lookout for someone like her, or someone who understood her. Or at least wanted to try.
Poor Nick earned his pay, and then some. But there were only so many current events and primetime television shows to talk about with one person.
Begrudgingly, Miriam knew her traitorous face was lit in anticipation of finding a friend, but even so, she tried her hardest to be nonchalant about the situation. Tentatively, she raised her hands and swirled her fingers in circles. “You sign?” she asked in her language.
His eyes darkened to those murky depths again. He gave one negative shake to his head and averted his gaze past her shoulder.
He didn’t sign.
Miriam did her best to express a lack of caring with a blasé shrug even though disappointment washed over her like a cold wave. Then her mind stumped on the man’s answer to her question. If he wasn’t able to sign, then how did he understand her enough to answer her?
Unless, he did understand her, and didn’t want to talk to her.
Fine…whatever, she dismissed him with a wave of her hand and lifted off the rock in one clean arc. If that was the way he wanted to be, then he was no friend she wanted.
Miriam sliced through the cold water with precision, letting it cool off her temper, amazed her anger could still boil over so easily. She thought God had helped her with that unwanted emotion a long time ago, but sometimes her anger reared its ugly head and reminded her she still had some things to contend with.
Another day, she told herself…again. She wondered if there ever was a good time to reopen old wounds. She thought not, but especially not right now.
She was in the midst of a troubling drug investigation. She had a drug supplier to find. Making friends and digging into her past were at the bottom of her list.
In fact, her past was one thing better left buried. Nothing good could come out of unearthing those dreams—or rather nightmares. Miriam trembled and it had nothing to do with the frigid northern waters she swam in.
The unnatural bulging eyes of those old nightmares stared at her from behind her closed eyelids; a large hand and a flash of something gold blinded her. Images as real today as they were at ten years old. She pushed through her strokes as she pushed the childhood terrors down into the dark abyss.
Mother always said they were a figment of a childish imagination. Except children weren’t supposed to be imagining such horrifying things.
No, I can’t go there. She swam faster, pushed harder. Her hands sliced through the water, jetting her forward. Miriam had a feeling if she continued to delve deeper into that nightmare, she would never emerge. Not even the dark-haired rescuer she left in her wake would be able to save her from the dangers of that watery grave.