Abby stirred at the unmistakable pressure of a man's mouth on hers, coaxing, tantalizing. The kind of yearning she'd buried for years awakened with a vengeance. Whether this was a dream or reality hardly seemed to matter as her breath caught and her pulse raced. It had been so long since she'd felt like this.
She sighed when the man drew back, then slowly opened her eyes to find a soaking wet, bare-chested, incredibly gorgeous stranger kneeling in the sand beside her, his expression every bit as startled as her own must have been.
"Looks like you're going to be okay," he said, a hitch in his voice and a surprising hint of color in his sexily stubbled cheeks.
"Okay?" she echoed, bemused. There had been nothing wrong about the past couple of minutes. They'd been enchanted, in fact. Spectacular, even. Definitely well beyond okay.
"I pulled you out of the water just now," he reminded her, worry darkening his blue eyes. "You don't remember going under? Calling out for help?"
Suddenly the panic came rushing back, the sensation of water closing over her head, her feet unable to touch the sandy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. One second she'd been standing in waist-deep water, the next a wave had caught her and the floor of the Gulf had fallen away.
Memories of another near drowning right here in these waters years ago had arisen, right along with a bubble of hysteria. Then the memories had faded and a harsh present-day reality had set in. She'd been fighting her way to the surface, gasping for air, screaming for help. She'd choked on water before going under again and again.
"I was drowning, just like before," she whispered, shaking, the potent effect of what she'd thought to be a kiss vanishing. He'd been doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, she realized, embarrassed that she'd thought otherwise, wondering if she had, in fact, tried to kiss him. She had an awful feeling that she had. A very powerful memory of tongues tangling in a shockingly sensual way tugged at her. Humiliated, she knew her cheeks must be flaming.
Years ago in a similar situation, Luke Stevens had been close by. He'd saved her, become her hero. They'd been inseparable after that along with her best friend, Hannah, but she and Luke had been a couple, right up until the day they'd left for college and gone their separate ways. Though they'd both claimed to be brokenhearted, they'd been resolute about not standing in the way of each other's hopes and dreams—his to be a doctor, hers to be something. She'd wanted to excel at anything that would get her away from this deadend island life.
As immature as they'd been, somehow they'd known they weren't meant to last forever. And while she and Luke had deliberately separated, she and Hannah had simply drifted apart.
It was ironic really that now, after so much time had passed, all three of them were back on Seaview Key. Now, though, Luke and Hannah were married and Abby was the third wheel ... or would be if she reached out to them. She wasn't sure she wanted to be cast in the role that she'd forced Hannah into back then. Life had taught her that being witness to someone else's happiness could be incredibly painful.
Besides, for the moment she was content just to be on her own, getting her feet back under her. Not that this morning had turned out to be a very good start on that front, she thought with a touch of the wry humor she counted on to get her through tough times. For a woman who'd been swimming since before she could walk, she was surprisingly inept in the water, apparently.
The man kneeling next to her was still studying her with concern. "Maybe we should get you over to the clinic, have you checked out," he said. "You seem to be a little fuzzy about what happened."
Abby shook her head, fully aware that going to the clinic meant seeing Luke again under awkward circumstances. "No, really. I'm fine. Just a little dazed, I think. That will pass."
"You swallowed a lot of water."
"And surely coughed up most of it," she recalled, embarrassed yet again by the pitiful spectacle she must have made of herself.
"I'd feel better if Doc Stevens took a look at you. My car's right up there on the road. I can have you there in a couple of minutes."
"Seriously, no," she said more forcefully. This wasn't the way she wanted to see Luke again, bedraggled and half-drowned. Maybe he hadn't been put off by that twenty-some years ago, but she still had a little pride left. She wanted to look her best when she finally crossed paths with Luke and Hannah. She needed them to know that coming home had been a choice, not a necessity.
"I live right over there," she said, gesturing toward the house where she'd grown up.
The sad sight was almost as much of a mess as she was—the yard overgrown with weeds and the house itself in desperate need of a lot of tender loving care. While she'd been planning her return for a while and had made several quick trips to the island, she'd only been physically back to stay in Seaview Key for a few days. So far she'd tackled the dust and cleaning inside to make the house habitable again. She'd get to the rest eventually. For reasons not entirely clear to her, she was determined to do the work herself. Maybe she simply needed to get back to basics, remind herself of how little some of the luxuries she'd gotten used to really mattered.
The man stood up and held out his hand to help her up. "Then I'll make sure you get to the house okay. I can check you out myself, take your pulse, listen to your lungs. I have a medical kit in my car."
Abby regarded him skeptically. Since when had Seaview Key required two physicians to keep up with the small population of locals? "You're a doctor, too?" she inquired doubtfully.
"Paramedic," he corrected. "I'm Seth Landry. I worked with Doc Stevens in Iraq. After my discharge, I came here for a visit. He told me the town could use a volunteer rescue squad. He got me hired to organize it." He grinned at her. "See, I'm totally respectable. I'm not just trying to get my hands on you."
Too bad, Abby thought to herself. For a few minutes there, she'd actually felt desirable again, not like the pale shadow of the woman she'd once been before her marriage had sucked the life out of her.
Seth slowed his steps to match hers as they walked across the sand and up the path to her house. At the bottom of the porch steps, worn smooth by decades of sandy feet, she stopped and lifted her gaze to his, noting with delight that though she was tall at five-ten, he was taller, at least six-one or -two.
"See?" she said lightly. "Perfectly steady. Thanks for rescuing me."
"All in a day's work," he told her. "But if you're from around here, you should already know how the bottom out there drops away unexpectedly. If you're not a strong swimmer, stay closer to shore. Stick to wading, even."
"You're absolutely right. It won't happen again," she assured him. In fact, she shuddered just thinking about how differently her morning and that innocent dip she'd taken in the Gulf could have turned out.
"I'll see you around, then," he said, giving her a casual wave before jogging off down the beach.
Abby watched him go, admiring the well-muscled shoulders, the narrow hips, the long legs. He was younger, too, if she was any judge of age. That made that flicker of awareness that had passed between them just a little more alluring. Maybe she still had it, after all, whatever that it was that could catch a man's eye.
Too bad that kiss hadn't been real, she thought with genuine regret. Seth was definitely the kind of hunk who'd been made to awaken any sleeping beauty's senses, hers included.
Hannah sat on the porch facing the gently lapping water, a cup of coffee in hand. She smiled when her husband slipped up behind her, kissed the back of her neck, then sat down in the chair beside her. The few minutes they had together like this each morning set the tone for their days. She reached for Luke's hand, twined her fingers with his.
"What's on your schedule for today?" she asked.
"I need to track down Seth to talk about a possible rescue boat I've found. I thought I'd stop by Seaview Inn to try to catch him before I open the clinic."
She gave him a long look, amused by his attempt at innocence. "Nice try. We both know you're dropping by because Grandma Jenny bakes every Wednesday. She'll have the treats that are never on the menu here."
He grinned, his expression boyish and unrepentant. "You caught me. I'm hoping for blueberry muffins. How about you? How's the new book coming?"
Hannah felt a little shiver of excitement at the question. Little more than a year ago she'd been an ambitious, driven public-relations executive in New York. Now she was not only surrounded by the tranquility of Seaview Key and married, but she was writing children's books. The first was due for publication in a few months, the second six months later. She'd been working on the third for a couple of months now.
She grinned at Luke. "I'm putting the finishing touches on it today," she told him, then frowned. "At least I think I am. I can't wait till Kelsey and Jeff get back to town, so I can read it to the baby. Isabella's my favorite test audience."
"You do realize she's not even a year old," Luke said. "Maybe you should call my kids. They always have uncensored advice for you. And my daughter was the first to recognize your talent. You captivated her with your story when she was injured on our boating trip. She was so caught up in it, she forgot all about being in pain from a broken arm. You provided the best medicine she could have had before we got back to shore."
She laughed. "I don't know about that, but your kids can be a little too uncensored at times," she admitted. "I like the gurgles of delight. After that, I can take whatever your kids have to say."
Her stepchildren, who lived in Atlanta with their mother and her new husband, were regular visitors to Seaview Key. After a rocky beginning, they'd accepted Hannah into their lives ... and forgiven their father for moving so far away. They'd even accepted the fact that he wasn't the one who'd caused the divorce, that it was their mom who'd moved on while their father was serving overseas in a war zone.
Even at their young ages, they'd learned that assigning blame was a waste of energy. They could all thank Grandma Jenny for imparting that lesson, Hannah thought, grateful to her grandmother for smoothing out the rough spots in the relationship. That had allowed Luke to remain in Seaview Key with a clear conscience. He traveled to Atlanta at least once a month to see them and was always available for special events like class plays or soccer championships. They'd made it work.
Hannah gazed at the early morning sunlight filtering through the trees and sparkling on the water, then drew in a deep breath of the cool morning air. "Luke, do you realize how lucky we are?"
"Every minute," he said, his gaze on hers. "Being here, with you, is exactly what I needed."
"Not a one. You?"
She thought about the life she'd left behind to come home, the life she'd been so certain was exactly the one she was meant to live. There were things she missed about New York. Being able to order any food imaginable at midnight was one of them. Her best friend. Beyond that, though? This house already felt more like a home than her apartment in New York ever had, even when Kelsey had been filling it with clutter and noise. And her marriage? Being with Luke on an ordinary day surpassed anything she'd had with Kelsey's father, a perfectly nice man who'd been totally unsuitable for her, for marriage and for parenthood.
"I'm happier than I ever dreamed possible," she told him honestly.
Luke studied her, his expression filled with concern. "Then why that frown?"
"I wasn't frowning," she insisted. Surely she was better at disguising her feelings than that.
"It's because you have another cancer screening coming up, isn't it?" he said, not letting her off the hook. "You're going to be fine, Hannah. I know it. You're religious about the self-exams. I've backed you up. Your report is going to be clean."
"I want to believe that, too, but sometimes I panic."
She gestured to him, then to the serene setting around them. "All of this," she said. "You, Kelsey, Jeff and my granddaughter. Grandma Jenny's in good health for someone her age. It's all so amazing, more than I ever expected."
He regarded her with understanding. "And you're afraid it's too good to be true, that it's going to be snatched away?"
Luke squeezed her hand. "No way, sweetheart. You and me, all of this? It's forever."
"You sound so sure," she said, envying him.
"I am," he said with unwavering confidence. "One of these days, you're going to believe that, too."
Hannah truly hoped so. She wanted to live the kind of optimistic life her husband lived, but doubts crept up on her. She'd spent too many years facing challenges, rather than counting blessings. She couldn't seem to stop the doubts, not since her mother had died of breast cancer just months after she'd been diagnosed herself. Sure, she was in remission now, but who knew better than she that things could change in an instant? The very minute she started taking this wonderful life for granted, who knew what perverse twist of fate could take it from her?
After his run and a hot shower, Seth wandered into the kitchen at Seaview Inn and found the owner at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee and a batch of stained recipe cards in front of her. The aroma of blueberry muffins came from the oven. Another batch was cooling on a rack on top of the stove. He noted that one was missing and barely contained a grin. Luke had been by. He'd bet money on it.
"What sort of feast are you thinking of preparing for tonight?" he asked, gesturing to the well-worn cards in her hand.
Grandma Jenny glanced up, laughing. "I'm not sure yet. Whenever I get tired of fixing the same old things, I drag out my mother's recipe cards and look for inspiration." She gave him a chiding look. "I was wondering when you were going to turn up. We stopped serving breakfast an hour ago."
Seth leaned down and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Could I have one of those muffins and a couple of eggs, if I fix them myself?"
"And mess this place up when I finally have it all tidied up?" she asked. "I don't think so. I'll make an exception this morning and get those eggs for you. Scrambled, maybe with a little cheese thrown in?"
It was their morning ritual. Grandma Jenny, who was actually Doc Stevens's grandmother-in-law, feigned annoyance at Seth's failure to observe the inn's schedule, then made sure he left with a full stomach. He'd noticed that she thrived on mothering anyone who crossed her path, family or not.
"Luke was over here looking for you earlier," she reported.