Killer Affair
Cindy Dees

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The great pressure of water all around her was terrifying. She opened her eyes, squinting against the violent sting of salt. But there was faint light above. She swam for it, her lungs burning. Her arms and legs were unbearably heavy, and she fought for all she was worth toward that flickering beacon of life.

It must have been only a few seconds, but each arm stroke, each desperate kick, each sluggish lurch toward the surface seemed to take an eternity. Her lungs were ready to explode and her eyes screamed their pain, but she fought on grimly.

And then she burst through to the surface, her head and shoulders erupting from the sea’s deathly embrace, breaking free to air and a deep, blessed gasp. She was alive.

She treaded water, turning in a slow circle to observe the debris littering the surface around her. Huge ocean swells bobbed her up and down in twilight’s last light. Now what the heck was she supposed to do? Her arms and legs were tiring fast. She paddled toward the nearest floating object, a large panel of metal lined with some sort of foam. Upon closer inspection, she saw it was the backseat of the airplane, a double-wide bench affair.

Whaddiya know. Those airplane seat cushions did float after all. She grabbed it and dragged her tired body across it. And as she glanced beyond the cushion, she spied something that tore a scream out of her hoarse throat.

A man’s face. Floating just below the surface of the water, pale and ghostlike, slipping away slowly into the abyss.

The pilot. Tom Something. Alicia had recommended him.

She lunged across the cushion, kicking wildly, and grabbed for him. She got a handful of his shirt. She pulled with all her might and managed to bring his face up to the surface. Lord, he was heavy. She rolled off the long cushion and wrestled awkwardly to shove it underneath the man’s back. She swallowed what seemed like gallons of salt water as she flailed frantically, trying to keep herself afloat, support the pilot’s dead weight and get the damned cushion under the guy. Finally, she got him draped awkwardly on his back across the cushion and situated herself in the water beside him with one arm thrown across his chest to keep him from rolling off.

Ahead, she saw a faint line of twinkling lights on the horizon. Was it land? Or was it no more than a hallucination born of her desperate desire to be safe?

She did a slow three-hundred-sixty degree turn timed with when the swells lifted her up high and saw nothing else in the descending vacuum of night. Just a long, uninterrupted line where the gray-black of the sea met the blue-black of the sky to the north and south. Far to the east, she made out flickers of distant lightning. Tropical Cyclone Kato was roaring toward them.

She’d been a fool to try to race the storm to Vanua Taru, but she’d really wanted to just get the job done and go home to safe, boring Chicago before this awful trip got any worse. One of her Secret Traveler colleagues, Zoë Conrad, had gotten involved with a resort owner accused of murder and they’d nearly died before the police figured out another man had done it. Her second colleague and good friend, Alicia Greco, had been kidnapped and nearly killed by the same murderer, a serial killer who was still at large. The way their luck had been going, she was next in line for some disaster to befall her. Apparently, trying to run away from that bad luck had led her straight into it. A plane crash of all things!

For lack of anything else to do or anywhere else to go, she aimed the pilot’s limp body at the lights and started kicking. She didn’t even know if he was alive or dead. But if their positions had been reversed, she’d have wanted him to take her body ashore and not leave it for the sharks and whatever else lurked beneath the sea.

How long she swam, up and down the enormous waves, on and on in a morass of fatigue and pain that clenched her entire body in its vise, she had no idea. She threw up a few times. Probably a combination of swallowed seawater and shock. She stopped to rest a couple of times, too, but each time the flashes of lightning behind her seemed closer. She had no idea how far the electrical charge of a lightning strike could travel underwater, but she bloody well didn’t want to find out the hard way. She dug deep and forced herself to get moving again.

True night fell quickly, the last vestiges of daylight wiped out by the encroaching storm bands of Kato. It was unbelievably dark out here. She could barely see her own hand in front of her face. Literally. Whenever she and Tom swooped down into the bottom of a trough and the line of shore lights was blocked, it seemed as if she’d been swallowed up by the depths of hell. But then the ocean would fling them dizzyingly, frighteningly high and she’d get a quick fix on her goal before being sucked down into the belly of the beast once more.

At some point, the pilot groaned and moved a bit. He was alive, then. Her exhaustion was such that she barely had time to register exultation that she wasn’t entirely alone out here in the vast ocean. She didn’t even particularly like water. She’d grown up on a farm in central Illinois, about as far from oceans as it got.

But in a flash, the Pacific Ocean had become her entire world, her entire existence. Just her and the cold, seductive embrace of the sea, slowly, inexorably sucking the life out of her. Well, the unconscious pilot was here, too. But at the moment, he was still little more than deadweight.

With dogged determination, fighting for both of their lives, she plowed on, pitting her tiny will against the massive expanse of ocean all around her.

That line of lights might possibly be drawing a little closer, but it could also totally be her imagination. And then, all of a sudden, she became aware of a black silhouette on the horizon. A jagged hump above the line of lights. Land.

Relief coursed through her, making her limbs warm and weak. Not far, now. She became aware that she was sobbing, breathing in ineffective gasps, but she didn’t care. Almostthere. Almost safe. With renewed strength, she swam on, using her free arm to paddle while she kicked the fiery spaghetti that was her legs.

Finally, she heard waves breaking nearby and smelled the green, living scent of land. She was close to shore now. Something banged into her foot, startling her. It was rough. Oh, God. Was that a shark? To be this close to land and be attacked now….

She kicked furiously. Again, something banged into her feet, hard.

Then enlightenment broke across her mind. That was sand dragging against her toes! She tried to stand up, but the bottom past the sandbar was still a bit too deep. She paddled on a few more yards and was able to stand up between waves this time, her chin barely out of the water. She pushed off the bottom and swam a little more. In a few seconds, she was able to walk between sets of waves. When the breakers weren’t rolling in, the water was no more than chest-deep. But when the angry surf caught them up and flung them forward, she guessed the water was ten-feet deep beneath them.

The good news was the waves pushed the pilot’s makeshift raft shoreward in front of her. The even better news was a sandy beach stretched before them. They wouldn’t be dashed to death against rocks tonight. A violent undertow of waves rushing back out to sea sucked at her legs and lower torso. It was all she could do to hang on to Tom’s raft and ride the surface waves to shore.

But then she could stand up, no more than thigh-deep. Even when a big wave came in, she was able to jump into it and land mostly back on her feet. She dragged Tom the last few feet to shore on his floating pallet. Without the sea’s buoyancy to hold him, he abruptly was unbelievably heavy. But she had to get him far enough out of the water so he wouldn’t drown.

Using the piece of metal backing still attached to the cushion as a sort of sled, she dug in her heels and leaned back, pulling on his inert form with all her strength. By inches, she managed to wrestle him up the beach to what seemed a safe distance from the water.

They’d made it.

Relief making her even shakier than she already was, she knelt down on her hands and knees to check him for injuries. Not that there was a whole lot she could do about it even if she had found something wrong with him, but it seemed like the thing to do. She ran her hands over his bare legs…they were muscular and hard. Under the tattered remnants of his short-sleeved shirt, the guy had an impressive set of shoulders. She didn’t find any obvious broken bones or cuts.

The guy sure was in great shape—and shaped great. Were she not so exhausted, hardly able to keep her eyes open, she’d have enjoyed drinking her fill of the sight of him. As it was, a thrill of…something…tingled through her palms and throughout her body at touching him like this. It was terribly personal. So…intimate.

Despite getting felt up by her, he remained unconscious. A head injury, maybe? She pressed her ear to his chest to listen to his heart, and its beat was a slow, steady thump beneath her ear. Stymied as to what to do for him, her own exhaustion finally overcame her. Shivering, she stretched out on the warm sand beside him, pressing the length of her body against his solid, reassuring heat. Mmm. Nice. She laid her head on his shoulder. Whether she passed out or merely fell asleep she couldn’t say as the darkness closed in around her, sucking her down, down, into nothingness.

Tom roused slowly. His first sensation was of a splitting headache. And then pain. Grinding slowly through his entire body. He must’ve gone on a hell of a bender to feel this bad. He was wet. And lying in sand. He struggled to sort through the fog enveloping him. Something heavy was sprawled across him.

And that something was soft. Curvy. Intensely feminine. Hello. He made a habit of never picking up women when he went on a binge. He hated not remembering anything about them the morning after, not their name, nor where he’d met them or even what they’d done together. But apparently he’d broken his rule.

He lifted his impossibly heavy arm and looped it around the woman’s tiny waist. Her toes tickled his shins, and her head rested on his shoulder. She felt small against him. Fragile. That was odd. He never went for the petite, delicate ones. They usually made him feel big and awkward and clumsy.

He cracked one eye open. The sky overhead was black. Turbulent. Looked like bad weather brewing. Groggy recollection swam through his head, half-understood. Something about a storm coming.

His brain might not be working, but his ears were. A sound not of the night registered. The ocean was rumbling like a ticked-off Rottweiler to his left. But this noise came from his right. From the shoreside. A rhythmic whoosh of sand, too slow for someone walking at normal speed. But if that person were creeping cautiously toward a threat of some kind, the measured noises were about right.

Instinct roared through him. Danger!

The man crouched in the shadows, stunned. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing! After all the publicity, all the news coverage, this pair in front of him had the temerity to roll around like a couple of savages on a beach?

For the past few weeks—ever since the last cleansing of souls he’d undertaken—the beaches he prowled had been satisfyingly deserted. Pure. This part of the world was unbelievably sinful. Tucked far away from most of the world, the South Pacific attracted people who wanted to hide their dirty affairs.

The woman in front of him moved, draping herself even more blatantly across her lover. Rage exploded behind his eyes, sending ice picks of unbearable agony through his skull. He grabbed his head with both hands to keep it from splitting in two.

Must. Stop. The. Pain.

He fumbled at his waist blindly, feeling for God’s instrument of punishment. His palm caressed the form-fitted rubber grip, his loyal and trusty friend. His vision cleared, and the sinners—all but naked—writhed before him.

Usually, he waited until they were lost in the throes of their sin, but these two were taking too long, and the pain in his head…ah, God, the pain…he couldn’t take it anymore….

He moved farther out of the shadow of the trees, one cautious step at a time.

Tom struggled to rip away the gauze obscuring his brain, to bring himself to full battle alert. But his head wouldn’t cooperate. And his body responded even more sluggishly. He flailed against the awful feeling of paralysis gripping him.

Threat! He didn’t question the intuition. It had saved his neck and his clients’ more times than he could count. If only his body and mind would obey him…he silently cursed himself.

With effort, he managed to slit his right eye open enough to make out a pale ankle protruding from a khaki pant leg. It was hairy. Male, then. Caucasian. Easing forward, rolling from heel to toe with each careful step, like a hunter stalking his prey.

The screaming voice of caution in Tom’s head was deafening. Trouble! Warning! Wake up! But still, his mind and body steadfastly refused to answer the call. He felt drugged, unable to swim free of the haze of it.

The feet stopped maybe six feet away.

Below the crashing noise of the sea, a male voice muttered something just beyond the edge of Tom’s hearing, syllables that didn’t quite form meaning in his sluggish mind. But the tone of voice was unmistakably hostile, dripping in vitriol.

Tom forcibly readied himself for action, ordering his muscles into a state of relaxed readiness. He was probably deluding himself that they would react with any semblance of speed or accuracy to his commands. But his threat-response training had been drilled into him so deeply over the years that even now, barely conscious, mind and body went through the motions.

The woman, perhaps because of his arm tightening about her waist, moved against him, a sinuous, sexy stretch across his sprawled body that would have riveted him had it not been for those feet paused in the sand so close.
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