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Jenna Davies shivered as she headed out of the market and down the dark, shadowy street that faced the harbor. Thick fog rolled in off the Pacific Ocean, blowing a cool, wet mist against her face. If she hadn't needed milk for Lexie's breakfast, she wouldn't have dragged Lexie out of their cozy, warm house into the cold night air. But she certainly couldn't leave her seven-year-old home alone.
Although she liked Angel's Bay for its remote location on the rugged central California coast, there were moments when the isolation made her nervous. In the distance she could hear music coming from Murray's Bar, the popular pub where the locals and tourists hung out, but this part of town was deserted. While the marina bustled during the daytime, now the boats bobbing on the water took on ghostly shapes that made her feel uneasy.
Jenna told herself not to let her imagination get the best of her, but the eerie glow of the streetlights didn't help -- nor did the feeling that someone could be following her and she wouldn't even know it. Though she'd covered her tracks, she still didn't feel safe deep down in her bones. Sometimes she wondered if she'd ever feel that way again.
But Angel's Bay was home now, and after two months she and Lexie were beginning to fit in. The private piano lessons she taught made her enough money to live on. Lexie had just finished first grade and would begin summer school next week. Her nightmares continued, but she wasn't so panicked anymore.
There was no reason to be nervous. Still, Jenna tightened her hand around Lexie's as they hurried toward her car.
Lexie stopped abruptly, pointing at the pier. "Look, there's an angel."
Jenna sighed. Lexie had been obsessed with angels ever since they'd moved to town and heard the legend of the famous shipwreck -- the people who hadn't made it to shore, and the angels that protected the bay. Lexie's imagination had been fueled even more in recent days when an Internet video had appeared showing apparitions dancing across the water, and mysterious symbols appearing on the cliff face. The video was drawing a flock of visitors to the town just in time for the summer festival that would kick off tomorrow night.
Jenna was about to tell Lexie she was imagining things, when her gaze caught on the shadowy figure at the end of the pier. It appeared to be a woman in a flowing dress, her long blond hair billowing out behind her as she swung one leg over the railing, straddling it as she stared down at the water below.
Jenna's heart began to pound. The hair reminded her of Kelly -- but that wasn't Kelly on the pier, it was someone else. Someone who was in a very dangerous position.
The woman moved her other leg over the rail and stood on the narrow board that was the only thing between her and the cold water below. Holding on to the rail behind her, the woman lifted her face to the sky as if offering up a silent prayer.
"Do you think she's going to fly?" Lexie asked. "Is she going to heaven now?"
"That's not an angel." Jenna quickly opened the car door and put her shopping bag on the backseat. Damn! The last thing she needed was more trouble, but there was no one else around, and as she glanced toward the pier once again, the woman seemed to be swaying precariously. "Let's go say hello. Make sure she's all right." Jenna grabbed Lexie's hand again and they walked swiftly toward the pier.
The wind made Jenna's eyes water, and she had to fight the almost irresistible desire to turn around, go back to the car, and drive away. This wasn't her problem; it could be dangerous to get involved. But still, she kept moving forward.
"Hello," she called as they neared the end of the pier. "What are you doing? Do you need help?"
The woman didn't respond. She lifted her face to the sky once again. She let go of the rail -- first with one hand, then the other -- stretching her arms out in front of her. A moment later she let out a shrill, piercing scream and plummeted off the pier.
Adrenaline surged through Jenna, and she yanked off her coat and shoes. "Stay here, Lexie. Don't move a muscle. Do you understand me? Do not go near the rail."
"What -- what are you doing? Where -- where are you going?" Lexie stuttered, fear in her eyes. "Don't leave me." She grabbed onto Jenna's arm, her tiny fingers tightening in terror.
Jenna squatted down so they were eye to eye. "I'll be right back, Lexie. I have to save her, honey. There's no one else." God, she wished there was someone else, but not even the girl's scream had brought anyone out of the nearby buildings or boats. She gently disengaged Lexie's fingers from her sleeve, took out her cell phone and punched 9-1-1, then handed the phone to Lexie. "When they answer, tell them to come to the pier, that a woman is in the water. Do you understand?"
"And you stay right here," Jenna repeated. "Don't take one step from this spot."
Her heart pounding, she quickly moved to the rail and climbed over. Fear ripped through her as she looked down. It was a good fifteen to twenty feet to the water below, and she wasn't a strong swimmer.
Jenna heard Lexie yelling into the phone, but help wouldn't arrive soon enough: the girl was flailing her arms, sinking beneath the dark waves.
Holding her breath, Jenna closed her eyes and jumped.
When she hit the water, the icy cold stopped her heart. Weighted down by her clothes, she seemed to take forever to get to the surface. Taking welcome gulps of air, she treaded water, searching for the woman. It was dark and the current was moving fast, pushing Jenna under the dark pier where there was no sign of the woman. Was she too late?
Then she saw a swirl of bubbles and a hand, the top of a head bobbing under the small waves. Swimming quickly, Jenna dove under the water, grabbing he woman by the hair, then by the arm. The woman struggled but Jenna held on tight, kicking and pulling until she got them both to the surface. The woman coughed and blinked, her eyes dazed.
"It's okay. You're okay," Jenna said, but the woman's eyes closed and she began to slip out of Jenna's grasp.
With her arm around the woman's neck, Jenna swam toward the ladder at the end of the pier. The current was working against her, and she was already getting so tired, so cold. What if she wasn't strong enough to get them both to safety? An old, familiar, and painful refrain ran through her head: "You're not good enough. You need to do better, work harder, or you'll always be a failure, a disappointment."
She thrust his voice out of her head. She wasn't going to fail. She couldn't.
The sound of a siren gave her new strength, and she swam harder. She could do this. By the time she reached the ladder, she could hear pounding footsteps on the pier. She had her hand on the first rung when a fireman appeared. He climbed down to meet her, pulling the unconscious woman from her grasp. Once he was up, another fireman came down to help Jenna.
She was grateful for his strong hand, because she was suddenly exhausted. Her arms burned from the exertion and her legs felt weak and wobbly. When she got back on the pier, she fell to her knees as Lexie hurtled herself into her arms and began to sob.
"It's all right, honey. I'm fine," Jenna said comfortingly, rubbing Lexie's back. "You did really well. I'm so proud of you." Lexie continued to cry, her small arms tight around Jenna's neck. "It's okay, baby. It's okay," Jenna soothed.
Finally Lexie lifted her head, tears running down her cheeks. Jenna was more than a little sorry that she'd scared Lexie so badly. Fear was the last thing Lexie needed in her life.
"I didn't think you would come back," Lexie sobbed.
"I'm not going to leave you, Lexie. Not ever."
The fear slowly faded from Lexie's eyes as she searched Jenna's face for the truth. Finally satisfied, she nodded. "Okay." She wiped her face with the sleeve of her sweater. "How come the angel didn't fly?"
"She's not an angel, honey." As Jenna looked over at the young woman on the pier who was now coughing up seawater, she let out a relieved breath that she was alive. The girl was much younger than she'd realized, probably sixteen or seventeen. Her long blond hair hung in wet strands against her pale cheeks. Her eyes were now wide open and confused. Did she realize how close she'd come to dying? Why on earth would she have wanted to kill herself ?
Jenna looked up as a police officer approached -- Joe Silveira, the chief of police. She'd seen him around town. He was in his mid to late thirties and had most recently been with the Los Angeles Police Department. He had a reputation for being highly intelligent and keenly perceptive, two reasons she'd avoided talking to him. Blending in, not standing out, had been her goal -- until now. Her nerves tightened.
"Why don't you wrap this around you?" the chief suggested, holding out a blanket. "You must be freezing."
"Thank you." Jenna stood and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders as a chill rocketed through her body, making her teeth chatter. She needed to get home, get warm, and get the hell away from the cops.
"I'm Chief Silveira. I don't think we've officially met, although I've seen you at the cafe; a few times."
"Jenna Davies. This is my daughter, Lexie."
The chief smiled at Lexie and then looked back at Jenna. "Why don't I take you to the clinic, get you checked out?"
At the medical center there would be forms to fill out, questions to answer. "No, I'm fine," she said quickly. "A little cold, that's all. I just need a hot bath."
"Are you sure you don't want to see a doctor?"
"All right. I don't want to keep you out here in the night air, but can you tell me what happened?"
"Lexie and I were coming out of the market, and we saw the girl climb over the railing. When she jumped into the water, I jumped in after her."
"That was very courageous," the chief commented. "I'm impressed."
She didn't want him to be impressed. She didn't want him to think about her at all. But it was too late for that. "I did what anyone would have done," she said with a shrug.
"I sincerely doubt that. Do you know who the girl is?"
"I've never seen her before."
"Neither have I," the chief said heavily, casting a quick glance back at the young woman who was being loaded onto a gurney. "And I know just about all the teenagers in town. So you're saying she jumped? She didn't fall? It wasn't an accident?"
Jenna shook her head. "She definitely climbed over the railing and let go. I hope she'll be all right."
"I imagine you saved her life." He paused, his gaze focusing once again on her. "She didn't say anything to you when you were in the water?"
Jenna shook her head. "Nothing. Can I go now?" She handed the blanket back to the chief and grabbed her coat and shoes from the dock.
"Sure. I might have more questions for you in the morning, if you don't mind."
"I've told you all I know. It happened very fast."
Chief Silveira nodded. "Take care of yourself, then." "I will." Jenna quickly made her way through the gathering crowd. She heard a few people call her name, but she kept on moving. She had just gotten Lexie into the car when a camera flash went off in her face. Blinded, she put up a hand, but not before the man snapped another picture.
She threw her coat and shoes into the car, then turned on him, anger ripping through her. "What the hell are you doing? Why are you taking my picture?" For a moment, she had the terrible fear that she'd been tracked down.
"You just saved a girl's life," the man said, lowering his camera. "You're a hero."
She frowned. In the shadows, all she could tell was that he was a tall man with broad shoulders and wavy brown hair, wearing jeans and a black jacket over a dark T-shirt. "Who are you? You're not from the Angel's Bay Daily News." The local photographer was a sixty-year-old woman named Gladys.
"Reid Tanner. And, no, I'm not from the Angel's Bay Daily News, although I have come looking for angels," he drawled.
She should have guessed he was here because of the popular Internet video. "You won't find any angels around here."
"Too bad. So, what's your name?"
"That's not important." Before he could move, she grabbed his camera and dove into her car, slamming and locking the door behind her.
"Hey, I need that," he said, knocking on the window.
Jenna ignored him, fiddling with the buttons on the obviously expensive digital camera.
"What are you doing? Why did you take that man's camera?" Lexie asked. "He's get -- getting mad," she added with a worried stutter.
"It's okay, honey. It's rude to take pictures of people when they're -- when they're wet." She erased the last two shots, then rolled the window down a few inches and handed the camera back.
"You're crazy," he said with a disbelieving shake of his head. "I can take another picture of you."
"Not tonight, you can't." She started the engine and pulled away. In her rearview mirror she saw him watching her, and she had the feeling she'd just made a terrible mistake, thrown down a challenge. But what choice had she had? She couldn't afford to have her photo in any newspaper. She hoped he'd go back to wherever he came from and forget he ever saw her.
If not, they might have to run again.
Reid stared at the disappearing taillights, feeling as if he were awakening from a long, deep sleep. The last eleven months had passed in a mind-numbing blur of one endless day after another, weeks in which he spent most of his time trying not to think or remember. He'd taken this freelance assignment for Spotlight Magazine to make some quick cash while he decided whether he wanted to return to the career that had once been his obsession.
When he'd graduated from Northwestern and gotten a job at The New York Times, he'd never imagined that twelve years later he'd be covering anything less important than a story of political r global significance -- certainly not sensationalist fodder like angels. At one time he'd been a passionate ursuer of truth and justice, but his desire had made him reckless. He'd been willing to do anything for a story, and a good friend had paid a terrible price for his ambition.
In the deep of the night when he couldn't escape from his thoughts, he could still see her casket being lowered into the ground. He could hear the sobs coming from the crowd and see the accusations in so many eyes. No one came out and said, "This is your fault," but they didn't have to. He knew it down deep in his soul, and doubted he would ever escape the unrelenting pain of his memories. He'd spent most of the past year trying to drink his way into oblivion, but the problem with getting drunk was that at some point he always sobered up.
Turning away from the action on the pier, Reid headed down the street toward Murray's. He'd been on his way to the pub when he'd heard the sirens and decided to follow. Old habits died hard, and he'd been an ambulance chaser since he was a kid. In the neighborhood where he'd grown up, police sirens had been standard fare. He could still remember the flashing strobe lights playing off his bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night, the times when he'd crept to the window to watch the cops arrest someone in the alley behind his apartment building.
Blowing out a sigh, he silently repeated his favorite mantra. Don't look back, don't look forward, and don't give a damn.
So what if he'd had an unexpectedly intriguing conversation with a stranger? He wasn't here to investigate a suicide attempt or get distracted by a courageous heroine. His focus was the Internet video that had sparked nationwide interest and the hope that there was finally proof that angels existed -- a hope he would shortly put an end to. Angels were no more real than any other fairy tale character. They certainly weren't walking the streets of Angel's Bay.
Or were they? The image of the ocean-soaked brunette with the wary, angry eyes flashed through his head. She'd jumped into the dark sea to save a stranger's life. What kind of a woman did that?
Hell, maybe she was an angel.
An angel with something to hide.
An irrepressible tingle of curiosity ran down his spine. He didn't want to give in to it. He was over caring about truth, justice, and shining a light on the evil in the world. He was not going to chase her down. He wasn't.
At least not tonight...
Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Freethy