The War Hero's Locked-Away Heart


‘Four. More. Weeks. Four. More…’
     Skye Williams repeated her mantra with every muscle-screaming step on the last five-hundred metres of her beach run. In four weeks she would hit Europe a dress-size smaller if it killed her. And judging by her raging heart rate and throbbing joints, it probably would. She hated running, but it was a necessary evil.
As she dug deep for the home stretch a westerly wind whipped hot sand across her face with a ferocity that bordered on microdermabrasion. She brushed a hand across her stinging cheek. At least I won’t need that facial now. More dollars for the travel fund. ‘London. Paris. Athens. Rome.’
The thought of her newly bought plane ticket spurred her on. Freedom. A new beginning. Finally. After too many false starts.
By the time she reached Atanga Bay she’d almost doubled over, hauling in every blessed lungful of oxygen she could. Stretching out her hamstrings, she glanced over to the rocks and the ocean beyond, waiting for the endorphin rush to kick in.
It didn’t.
Instead a mix of frustration and inquisitiveness piqued her.
He was there again.
The stranger. Staring out across the roiling water, standing tall against the horizontal wind. Hands stuffed into jacket pockets, immovable on the outcrop of jagged strata.
A stranger with a death wish.
Yesterday she’d left him to his fate. But evening westerlies brought huge freak waves. The all too-familiar tug of responsibility fired her into action. Responsibility - her byword. The weight of it had dragged her down too much, too young. Too soon. She’d had enough to last her a lifetime.
And yet she still couldn’t resist.
‘Hey. You. Yes…you. Excuse me…Hey!’ She tried to make her voice reach him through the wind as she forced her aching muscles to work. She strode closer. Not too close. The waves had doubled in size in the time she’d been out for her run. ‘Those rocks are treacherous. You need to get down. It’s not safe.’
The stranger turned slowly to face her, as a wave battered the rocks at his feet, his face made up of shadows and half-light. ‘You talking to me?’
 His voice, deep and soft - sad almost, curled something in Skye’s gut. It threw her off centre. She frowned, and refocused, this wasn’t the time for thinking about sad voices, she’d had enough of her own.
She suffused it with urgency. ‘It’s dangerous. Didn’t you read the sign? Please, be careful.’
There she was sounding like the mother hen she’d become. At twenty-eight with no kids of her own, but with honours in mothering skills.
‘And why should you care?’
‘I don’t. I’m just trying to help. The waves can knock you off balance. I either holler at you now, or I call Search and Rescue out to look for you in an hour. They’re busy people. They have lives.’ He didn’t look as if anything would budge him. Not least her flimsy voice, whipped half away in the battering gale, or her appeal to his better judgement.
But the stranger stepped across the rocks, jumped down the last three feet and thudded onto the hard sand. Not so much next to as above her. She scanned up his body until her neck almost hurt.
God, he was tall, with wide shoulders strung back in an at-ease stance. His chestnut hair stood up in tufts, buffeted by the wind. A craggy scar sliced his cheek, like a cleft in a cliff-side.  He had a man’s face, not pretty but real, handsome. Close-up what remained of those shadows now edged his startlingly blue eyes. ‘Do you force advice on everyone, or just people you don’t know?’
‘Pretty much anyone who’ll listen. I’m well practiced, I have three younger brothers. You looked like a willing victim.’ She countered his gruffness with a smile. Dragging three boys up had taught her that meeting rudeness with rudeness never brought about harmony. And being overly cheerful usually took them by surprise, knocked the corners off their mood.
She hoped it might work with Mr Charmless here, then she could go home with a clear conscience. One more needless accident prevented. ‘Seriously, I’m trying to help. You’re safer on the pier. There’s a sign, over there. It says…’
‘I know what it says. Keep away from the rocks. Yeah. Yeah.’ He stuck his hands back into his pockets again. He might as well have had his own sign up flashing keep away.
Good idea. Drop cheerful. Adopt aloof. ‘I should mind my own business. Sorry. But I haven’t seen you before and we prefer to keep our visitors alive around here.’ What she really needed was to shut up and go home, but now she was stuck in a conversation with a hunk of grumpy man. She was dripping with sweat, her thighs red from chafing. And blathering. Could it get any worse? ‘I thought you might be at risk.’
‘Of what exactly? Death by nagging from a busybody who looks like she’s melting?’
Grumpy? Scratch that. Try downright obnoxious. Though he probably had a point. Skye ran a hand over the spikes she’d so carefully arranged this morning, imagining how she must look. Dishevelled. At a push, in her imagination, interestingly windswept. In reality, wind battered. Her mascara and kohl had no doubt run down her cheeks. Clownish. Or like a panda. Worse? Oh yes. And decidedly uninteresting.
She shrugged. Interesting didn’t matter. Especially not interestingly rude. She’d had enough of rude men to last her a lifetime. She’d bet anything that French men weren’t rude. Or Italians. Or Greeks.
Four more weeks until she found out. In person.
But this guy - this red-blooded down to earth kiwi bloke- he was beyond rude. Oh, yes. She couldn’t help but thrust out her chin. ‘Hey, don’t mind me. I’m only trying to save your life here. No big deal. And a thank you wouldn’t go amiss.’
‘Save it for someone who needs it.’ He looked back to a black dot way out in the ocean lost in thought. Then his back snapped ramrod straight. ‘Like him.’
Grabbing her by the hand he pulled her to the water’s edge. ‘See him. There? Out way beyond the break?’ He pointed to the black dot. To the untrained eye it might have been a seal, flotsam in the unforgiving waves. But this was a popular place for surfers. Probably one of the locals. Skye’s heart slammed in her chest as she swiveled to peer at the surf rescue clubhouse. Empty.
The stranger peeled off his jacket, kicked off his boots. ‘He’s waving. He’s in trouble. Be my spotter?’
‘Spotter? Are you sure? Are you mad? It’s all kinds of crazy out there. Can you even swim?’
‘Quit worrying. I’ve done this before. Many times.’ He turned her to face him. His hands firm on her shoulders, his eyes ardent with action. His voice back to soft. But he was totally in command, clearly used to giving orders, and having them followed. ‘Don’t panic. The last thing I need is a hysterical woman to deal with as well. Do exactly as I say.’
Her hackles rose. As an experienced nurse she prided herself on her calm handling of any situation. ‘I’m not-’
‘I need you to watch him, to know exactly where he is at all times. And if I look over to you, you must point him out. The sea’s rough today and it gets disorientating.’ His eyes bore into her. ‘Okay?’
‘But…? Back-up?’ The first rule of emergency, get help.
His flattened palm indicated the empty cove. ‘On a deserted beach? You are back-up, lady. Call for help if you have a mobile phone somewhere in those shorts. Which looks unlikely.’ He threw her a phone. ‘Or use this. But stay here.’
And with that he inched his jeans down well-toned legs revealing tight black boxers and another jagged scar that stretched from left knee to ankle. His blue T-shirt hit the ground in front of her. Skye drew her eyes away from his feet to a small tattoo on the tight plane of his tanned chest. Right over his heart.
Then he was gone. His taut muscular body thrashing through the churning water like a demon. And she stood gaping like a wet fish, stunned at the speed in which he’d simultaneously entranced and shocked her. Wondering why, when she had very definite plans to hot-foot it out of Atanga Bay at the earliest opportunity, she wanted to see that tattoo again. Close-up. 

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