If Erica Peck were a gambler, she would’ve laid good money that nothing could ever get her in the waters of the North Atlantic again.
The snub-nose .38 special now trained on her would have lost her that bet.
“Come on, Joey, I can’t go in the water.” Can’t, not won’t. Huge difference.
“You can and you will, Erica. I need those diamonds. We’ve been through this. Alive or dead, it’s your choice.” Joey Camparo waved the gun like an effeminate decorator describing his “vision,” what with his new designer clothing that screamed of too many subscriptions to men’s magazines and a high-priced personal tailor. None of which he’d had when they’d dated.
She would have thought he’d pick a bigger gun, though.
“Go get it.” The gun stopped circling, aimed dead-on at her heart. The late afternoon sun glinted off the metal like a beacon.
How could he do this to her? He couldn’t be mad over their break-up—he was the one who’d cheated. She hadn’t even kept the ring so he couldn’t want revenge. He knew what he was asking.
Which meant there was a lot more going on than she knew. The sweat on his upper lip confirmed it. Joey never sweated.
“In.” The gun circled again. Tighter.
She didn’t have a choice. You can do this, Erica.
She pushed the mind-numbing fear aside, lowered herself to the swim deck, pulled her scuba mask into place, and slithered into the cold waters of the thirty-ninth latitude.
Adjusting the regulator in her mouth, Erica took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and lowered her head.
Taking a bullet might be easier.
As the ocean closed over her, blocking out any sound but her breathing, Erica fought the panic and opened her eyes, pulling herself down the dive line. It was only seventy-five feet to the artificial reef. Tons of divers visited this site. She, herself, had been here years ago with her brothers.
Now she was here all alone.
Except for the slimy monster on the deck above.
What had Joey gotten himself into? And why drag her into it?
Her life’s air bubbling in front of her, frothing the water as it enfolded her in its claustrophobic embrace, Erica took another deep breath. It didn’t help. She re-positioned the mask, fiddled with the regulator and tried to enjoy the scenery, but images from Jaws kept thrusting their way to the front of her brain.
I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. She’d try any mantra to get through this.
The line slid through her hands as she lowered herself into the depths. Okay, maybe seventy-five feet wasn’t “the depths” to regular divers, but she’d never been alone this deep. Hell, she never went in ocean water higher than her knees anymore.
The wet suit insulated her from the drop in temperature but nothing could hide the fact that the sunlight dimmed with each foot she descended.
Black sea bass zipped past, the thin orange striping on their snouts flickering in the flash of her dive light. A lion mane jellyfish drifted off the far edge of the reef. Great. The world’s largest jellyfish—rarely seen at this latitude—picked today to take a vacation. Perfect.
Just beyond flipper-reach was what was left of the SS Minnow, an old lobster boat sunk by the US Fish and Wildlife Department. It shouldn’t be hard to find Joey’s diamonds then get herself the hell out of here. She could do this.
She had to do this.
As her fins fluttered near the wreck, scamp and porgies swam above the barnacles and mussels claiming it. Starfish and white star coral covered the hull. A lobster disappeared inside a hole when she got too close.
This should be beautiful. It should give her a sense of awe.
Instead, it almost paralyzed her.
Ever since The Incident it was never safe to go back in the water, no matter the incentive—until Joey’s gun made it the safer option.
She examined every possible crevice, though she drew the line at poking any place she couldn’t see. Pinching crustaceans liked little hidey-holes and her fingers did not. The mollusk colony snapped shut as she passed, colorful anemones hid their vulnerable parts, and crabs scuttled out of her way. But after twenty-five minutes, her search yielded no diamonds.
Air tank at the return point, Erica turned toward the dive line. Joey was going to be pissed.
Well, he shouldn’t have put the diamonds in Grampa’s turn. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know her grandfather’s last wishes; he’d been there when the will was read.
Of course, he’d also known her fear of the ocean. Probably figured it was a safe bet Grampa’s ashes would never make it to the dive site.
It wasn’t the first time Joey had underestimated her. That had been when he’d thought he could schmooze his cheating ass out of a broken engagement with gifts and roses and phone calls.
Her brothers had known what he was. They’d tried to tell her, but she’d defended Joey every time. She’d wanted to find someone whose life’s work wasn’t tied to the sea, so when Mr. National Account Manager had rented a slip at their marina and swept her off her feet, she hadn’t put up a fuss.
And now he’d betrayed her yet again.
As she reached fifteen feet, dozens of reddish-brown cunners swam by, sparkling blue and olive green where they crossed the stream of sunlight cutting into the water. She paused to rid the nitrogen build-up in her body. She didn’t need to add the bends to today’s list of fun adventures.
More sea bass and blackfish followed, schooling around her, an occasional bump here and there. She flinched—yeah, yeah, they weren’t man-eaters, but man-eaters ate them, right?
God, she was pathetic. Twenty-eight years in this neck of the ocean and she still couldn’t put the terror of open water behind her. No wonder her brothers patted her affectionately on the head any time she argued she could run the marina as well as they could. Not that she’d wanted to, but that she could.
“Sure, Erica. Any time you want,” they’d replied. “You just let us know,” followed by snarky laughs.
And now, the one—one!—charter she’d done on her own had backfired with… this!
She huffed. Oops—not a good thing with a regulator between her lips.
Foregoing the risk of the bends for the dire need of oxygen, she kicked to the surface. Between spasms of expelling mouthfuls of salt water and trying to whip escaped pieces of long chestnut hair out of her eyes, she probably looked like an epileptic seal as she surfaced.
“You’d better have them, Erica!”
Yeah, real pissed. She swiped another wet strand of hair, then shielded her eyes from the late afternoon sun glare and craned her neck to see Joey leaning as far off the bow as possible without falling in.
“Where are they? Show me!” The cream tailored jacket blended in so well with his gleaming $200,000 new yacht, The Brass Ring. that his gelled—ugh—dyed-black hair bobbed like a disembodied head floating over some ghostly grave.
“No, Joey, I didn’t find them.” She pushed the mask onto her forehead and massaged her numb cheeks, all the while keeping the flipper-flapping going to stay upright.
“Are you blind as well as being an idiot?” he yelled. “Look, Erica. Either you get that scrawny little body of yours face down in the water searching for my claim, or I’ll do it for you.”
“I did. Do you know how many nooks and crannies there are? The diamonds”—claim?—“could be anywhere.”
Something brushed her leg. God, please let it be kelp. But, just in case, she stopped moving her legs and tried to remain upright with the smallest movements her hands could make.
It didn’t work.
After dunking below the surface, she sputtered upward again to Joey’s order. “Put the mask back on, damn it, and start looking! We’ve only got an hour of light left.”
What’s with the “we”? He had yet to get his lily-white ass into the teeming waters of the North Atlantic. “Joey, I can’t. The tank’s almost empty.”
“I don’t care. Use another one.”
“What? I can’t be submerged at these depths for that long. I’ll need an hour or so to regulate my body. There’s not enough time. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“You’ll go back down there, Erica. Now.”
“I can’t. It’ll kill me.”
“Or I will.” The snub-nose made its reappearance. “I’ve got too much riding on those diamonds for you to give up. That kimberlite vein is my way out of this mess. If you hadn’t backed out of our engagement, I’d have had the marina and no need to skulk around. But you couldn’t let it go. I’m not about to let you blow the biggest deal I’ve got going.”
Her family had been on the island since the first colonization and she’d never heard of a kimberlite vein in the area. Surely a diamond-spewing tube of volcanic rock would have been discovered before this. “Let it go? You were sleeping with anything in a skirt! And what mess are you talking about?”
“Get back down there!” The gun shook in his hand.
“Good God, Joey. What kind of people are you involved with?”
“None of your damn business. All you need to worry about is finding the diamonds you threw overboard so I can pay them off.” He lifted an air tank. “Use this.” The glint in his eyes matched the sheen on the gun.
She scanned the horizon. No other boat in sight. Four and half miles from shore. In shark waters. With a desperate man and a gun trained on her.
Either way, she was a goner. Her body couldn’t take the stress of another dive, and the bullet would do as much damage—more if it brought sharks. She had to do something.
She climbed onto the swim deck to switch tanks. Visibility wasn’t great from the surface. She’d hover low enough so he’d think she was looking then convince him to come back tomorrow—then she’d have him arrested for kidnapping. It was the only chance she had.
She adjusted her hood, slid the mask in place, put the regulator between her lips, and kicked off.
If only she hadn’t finally decided to scatter Grampa’s ashes over the Minnow site, she wouldn’t be here. Joey’s stashed treasure could have stayed in the urn—who hides diamonds with someone’s ashes anyway? But, here, she’d finally worked up the courage and this happened.
Cheating, lying, smooth-talking, betraying bastard.
She dove down the line. Two could play that game. She’d swim back and forth to keep the air bubbles moving. Now, if she could just keep the sea creatures at bay.
If only that couple hadn’t come in wanting to dive the site last week, or if she hadn’t agreed. If she’d taken Grampa’s ashes out sooner or Joey had retrieved the diamonds before then…
If only she had a backbone when it came to the sea.
But no. Ever since The Incident, she was too skittish to take a boat out by herself, and, heaven forbid, she asked anyone else, she’d never hear the end of it. After nearly three decades of being thought of as a flake, as the “the baby sister,” the only one of the Peck family unable to take the reins of the marina, she’d been out to prove she could.
And now look what’d happened.
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