Elizabeth gazed over the mid-winter ocean, drinking in the steel grey of the water, shrugging aside recent, less than pleasant memories in favour of the here and now. They were what had prompted her to leave the safety of the bus on this stretch of nowhere. The deserted beach had called to her, offering a sanctuary in which to ponder her many mistakes. The storm on the horizon that matched her mood. Bleak. Heavy. Bitter.
A thin, faint yell over the sound of the wind caused her to look out over the waves to a nearby pier. A dog’s tongue lolled from its mouth, its long hair unfurling in the wind, the empty end of the lead trailing behind. It was having the time of its life; the little girl dashing frantically after it was not.
The dog reached the end of the pier, its tail beating back and forth, its backside swinging from side to side with each movement. The girl bent for the lead, and as she did, the dog bounded in an awkward sideways lope and knocked over the child. She toppled from the pier into the freezing ocean and disappeared below the surface.
Glancing frantically about, there was no sign of a parent. The beach was empty. There was no sign that anyone but her had seen the girl fall. Elizabeth sprinted towards the water, flinging off her jacket. Her jumper followed; the heavy wool would be too heavy to swim in. Her toes dug into the damp sand before she charged through the water until it was deep enough to dive in. Cold constricted her lungs, made her body shriek in shock, but she pushed past it, swimming as fast as she could towards where the girl had fallen. She tread water for a moment, whipped water from her face, searching desperately for the child.
A dip in a wave, and the girl appeared, her face barely visible above the choppy surface. She spluttered, a hand slapping the water, clutching at it as if it would provide substance. She then disappeared.
Elizabeth kicked with a powerful surge, plunged through the waves and dove. She grabbed at a shadowy form, pushed upwards with a strength beyond which she knew she had, breaking through the surface.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you,” Elizabeth said.
The girl grabbed her, mindlessly clutching her neck with frigid hands and fingers, threatening to drag Elizabeth down in her panic. “I’ve got you. Just relax. Lean your head back on my shoulder, and I’ll take you back to the shore.”
She cupped the girl’s chin, forcing her to face upwards and, making sure her mouth was free of the water, began to sidestroke towards the shore. Kick. Stroke. Kick. Stroke. Waves broke over her head, water splashed in her mouth. Gag. Keep going. Forget the cold. Forget the current clutching at legs, feet, arms. Fight. Just fight.
Something soft crashed against her knee. Sand. The water was shallow enough to walk. Staggering on watery legs, she heaved the weight of the child and wet clothes from the grip of the ocean.
Elizabeth collapsed on the sand, folded the girl in her arms and rested the child’s head against her chest. “Hey there. Open your eyes, little one.” She tapped the girl’s cheek. Her skin was so chilled, it was a pale blue, her lips tinged by a line of white. “Come on, sweetheart!” Sludgy dread balled in her gut. She tapped her cheek again, the movement more sharp, hitting a little harder.
The girl’s eyes fluttered like weak butterfly wings. Her lashes rose, revealing deep blue eyes that hadn’t focused yet.
“Hey there. Can you hear me?” Elizabeth cupped her cheek with a shaking hand.
The girl’s gaze found hers and blinked into a lazy focus. She coughed, water spilling from her mouth. She quickly turned the girl onto her side so she might expel any water in her lungs and tapped her back.
A foot scattered sand as a man crouched over the girl, hands fluttering over her form. “Madeline!” His voice was a dry rasp.
“Daddy!” The girl trembled, cried harder and reached for him.
The man tore off his jacket, wrapped the girl, and cradled her in his arms. She seemed even smaller held against such a wide chest and broad shoulders.
“She… she’s okay. She’s coughed out some water, but she’s breathing.”
The man seemed to notice Elizabeth for the first time. He turned eyes the colour of the sky onto her. She was caught in a deep, anguished stare. “Thank you.” His hand moved on Madeline’s shoulder, so large it covered half the child’s back.
“She’s also very cold. She needs to get warm. Quickly.” Elizabeth rubbed Madeline’s arm as though she might rub in a little heat. It wouldn’t be enough, but she needed to do something.
He hitched the girl further on his chest. “God. I… I didn’t see her fall in. If you hadn’t have saved her…” His gaze lowered to look at his daughter, but not before Elizabeth recognised the raw pain in them.
“You can only deal with what did happen, not what might happen. I saw her. I was able to save her. That’s what matters,” Elizabeth said.
A large ball of sand and fluff raced in front of Elizabeth and poked a cold, sandy nose into her chest, forcing her to collapse on her backside. The little girl wiggled her hand from beneath the jacket and patted its head. “Toto. You’re okay!”
Elizabeth sighed. “That’s the thing that pushed her off the pier.”
The man dropped his gaze to look at his child. “Were you on the pier, Madeline?”
Madeline nodded. “Toto went out there. I thought he was going to fall off.”
“I told you, you’re not allowed on the pier on your own.”
“He chased some sea gulls and I couldn’t hold him and he got off the lead. I tried to catch him before he ran too fast.” She turned her face into her father’s chest. “Don’t be angry, Daddy.”
He rested his cheek on her head, stroking her back. “I’m not angry with you, Maddie. I should have been watching better. I should have been walking Toto with you. That’s what we came down here to do.”
Elizabeth watched as Madeline tucked her head beneath her father’s chin. Her heart lurched at the tender sight. She dropped her gaze to her wet jeans and swiped ineffectively at the wet grains of sand stuck to the denim.
Toto jumped onto her thighs and tapped her on the chin with his nose, almost as though he was thanking her for rescuing Madeline as well. Unfortunately, the smell of wet dog wasn’t a pleasant aroma.
Elizabeth turned her head and held the creature at arm’s length. “Your dog’s wet, too.” Elizabeth wrangled the dog away from her face, and he went back to Madeline’s ready hand.
The man rose effortlessly to his feet, as though the girl weighed nothing. He adjusted Madeline and held his hand towards her. “Here. Let me help you.”
No one can help me.
She stared at his open palm for a moment before she realised he meant to help her to her feet. Hesitating for a moment, she placed her hand in his. Long, lean fingers closed around hers. His hand was smooth. Embarrassment twinged through her when she realised he’d certainly feel her own calloused skin.
“Err, thanks.” She withdrew her hand as quickly as she could once she was on her feet. He was quite a bit taller than her, the top of her head coming in line with his nose.
David Logan had been taller than her too, and he’d used it to his advantage. Unsettled, she muttered a quick thank you. The wind wrenched her wet clothes, slicing her to the bone with its chill. She shivered violently, her saturated jeans and T-shirt freezing to her skin. Her socks had somehow come off her feet, and the cold sand bit into her toes. She needed some warm clothing before she suffered from hypothermia herself.
She glanced to her backpack, a solitary item on the grassy verge a little ways away. Her clothes were in a scattered line as she’d ripped them off towards the water. Shoes. Windcheater. As she watched, a gust of wind flipped her coat through the air. A wave rose to clutch it with its foamy tips before devouring it into the ocean.
A sound of dismay fell from her lips. Elizabeth ran towards the shore. She had no hope of regaining it, but she was desperate, and hope was a tremulous thing. Her toes sank into wet sand, and a wave broke over her foot. Icy pain shot through her frozen skin. She let out a cry, stumbling back from the glacial water.
“You’re not thinking about retrieving that coat.” Disbelief coloured his words. The man came behind her, frowning.
“It’s the only one I have.” Elizabeth indicated the open ocean with a gesture of frustration. Another gust of wind blasted her, and she shuddered helplessly. God, she was going to freeze on the spot if she didn’t get dry.
“I’ll replace it.”
Her teeth started to chatter. She tried to clench her jaw to stop it but failed. “I don’t need charity.”
That was the last thing she needed. Or wanted.
“It isn’t charity. You’re freezing. You need to get warm. I have a coat you can have at home.”
Elizabeth took a moment to study him. He didn’t look like a serial killer, but she knew what happened when you judged a book by its cover. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
The man huffed. “The least I can do is offer to replace your coat so you don’t freeze to death.”
“I don’t need any thanks. I was just in the right place at the right time. Just keep a close eye on Madeline and that sea-soaked fur ball in future.” Another shiver wracked her frame. Her bones ached, and her skin felt as though it was being flayed off. She really needed to find shelter. Now.
“His name is Toto.”
A small voice captured her attention. Madeline was watching her. Something about those large blue eyes made Elizabeth smile, despite not having any feeling in her face. “Dogs might like to swim in the middle of winter, but it’s not so good for little girls.” Madeline smiled and snuggled into her father’s large chest. Elizabeth’s heart tumbled with something unnamed.
She aimed her words to the father. “You need to get her home to her mother.”
And she needed to get the hell out of here. Elizabeth walked to her backpack, scooping up her jumper and shoes along the way. She slung the bag onto her shoulder. Sand had snuck into places she didn’t want to think about between her skin and wet denim. Terrific. She hadn’t thought things could get worse, but there was always another level of shit-cake ready to sling itself at you.
“Have you just come into town?” He indicated her bag. She turned, surprised he’d followed her.
“Fresh off the bus.” She brushed past him towards the road. And stopped. She had no idea which way she should head to find the main centre of town. “Can you tell me where the hostel is?”
A pained expression crossed his face. “It’s a way down into the main town a few kilometres away. We’re pretty secluded here.” He indicated a group of buildings, perching on the peninsula in the far distance. Her heart sank. It was going to be one hell of a trek.
She glanced to the storm racing toward them. The wind was heavy with icy particles that sand-blasted her raw skin. It would be here very soon, and she was going to get a second drenching.
“But it’s closed. Won’t be open until the summer season.”
Her shoulder slumped, head falling forward. A hostel was the only place she could afford. She’d done her share of sleeping in bus shelters, but it was too cold for that. Besides, in this weather her clothes would still be wet by morning and she’d be well on her way to a case of pneumonia if she didn’t get dry. There was no way she could afford a doctor, or even medicine, if that happened.
“Great,” Elizabeth muttered to herself. She couldn’t catch a break. She thought maybe karma might have given a little because of a good deed, but it seemed she looked at Elizabeth the same way she always had. The other way.
Madeline whispered something too quiet for Elizabeth to hear over the whine of sea breeze in ears she couldn’t feel anymore. The man tapped Madeline on her nose. “I was going to ask her that.” He turned to Elizabeth. “My name is James Rhyder. I live around the corner and have been a local here on and off for six years. I have people who can vouch that I'm a safe person and won’t do anything to hurt you. We can go to the local supermarket and talk to Kelly. Or we can go to the coffee shop and talk to Denise…”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Thank you, but I really need to get going. The town is a long way away. And I already told you, I don’t accept charity.”
“I can’t let you just walk away in this weather. My conscience won’t allow it.”
Her gaze slid to the faraway town. Just like Heaven, it was near unreachable. Another shudder wracked her body.
“Come for Madeline’s sake. She asked me to invite you. Please.”
The pang in his voice had her looking from the man to the little girl. She could ignore the shadow of anguish in the man’s eyes, but Madeline was another matter. She looked even smaller and more fragile as she peeked at Elizabeth over the collar of his jacket. If eyes could speak, this little girl told her a story. Elizabeth’s heart not only lurched, it twisted.
“You can get cleaned up. Have a shower and get warm. I can’t have the woman who saved my child becoming ill.”
Elizabeth shook her head. This was a bad idea on so many levels. She really needed to keep moving. “I really don’t think…”
“I need to get Madeline warm and dry as quickly as I can. And it’s not good out here in the wind. For either of you.”
He pressed Madeline closer to his chest, as though he was holding the most precious of packages. That was because he was. He did look sincere. And he did look like he was suffering.
And she was near frozen solid.
There was a smattering of sand across Madeline’s forehead. Elizabeth’s fingers itched to brush them off. “Please come home with us.” Her little girl’s voice was so frail and thin, it wove around her heart. She shuddered. If Madeline was half as chilled to the bone as she was, she’d soon be an ice statue. Although she did have the warmth of that broad, solid chest to help warm her up.
Elizabeth glanced around. She was isolated here. The beach stretched for miles either side. Grey clouds had closed in, and the first droplets of rain just started to fall. The wind chill factor was sub-arctic. Madeline cowered into her father’s chest as the wind blasted them anew.
Logically, the best move would be to accept his hospitality. Get dry. Get warm. And get the hell out. On the surface, that was all he offered, but there was a certain part of her that looked for the angle. For the ulterior motive. An offer too good to be true often was.
But still, she was saturated. Freezing to death and really needed to get dry. She wouldn’t last much longer out in this weather.
Besides, there would have to be a Mrs. James Rhyder at home. Another woman offered a modicum of safety. She wouldn’t stay long anyway. She hadn’t put enough kilometres between her and what she’d just left.
Madeline shuddered again, and James didn’t look as though he was going to move unless she agreed at least to accept the coat he offered. And the child needed warmth and dryness.
She sighed, ignoring the nervous lump that settled like a stone in the pit of her stomach. “I would be pleased to accept your invitation.”