Authors: Pamela Aares
Tags: #Romance, #woman's fiction, #baseball, #contemporary, #sports
But he smiled anyway.
Then he hung the towel back on the fencing and watched the last of the IV fluid drain from the bag. When Gage didn’t return, he hooked the empty bag to the fence and started across the parking lot. Whether he was headed for his car or to the lighted hospital, he wasn’t sure. Then he remembered he’d let Scotty take his car. Not a very clever move. He’d have to call a cab. The promise of a hefty tip was the only hope he had to entice a driver out into the headlands on a night like this.
Before he reached the dimly lit building, the door swung open and Gage and Jackie stormed toward him. Well, she was storming. Gage was shuffling along beside her, his long strides easily keeping up with her shorter ones. She marched right up to Alex.
“We’ve got a stranded whale—the fisherman who reported it said it’s about nine feet. Has to be either a newborn or a juvenile minke. The rescue crew has to deal with the animals they brought in,” she said, nodding toward the hospital. She took a breath and tilted her head toward Gage. “Genius here says you offered to help.”
She flicked her eyes over Alex. He felt he was being sized up for auction. He’d been sized up many times—by scouts, by owners, by managers deciding how much they would pay for his services—but he’d never felt the awkwardness that ran through him as she looked him up and down.
“He doesn’t have any
,” Gage muttered, as if he was trying to let Alex off the hook.
“He has muscles,” she said. “Right now, that will do.”
“Be happy to help,” Alex said.
He thought he saw the hint of a smile flicker behind her scrutiny. She had a strong, beautiful face that would’ve been lovelier without the frown. She turned away and fished in her pocket, pulling out a fistful of keys. She gave him a last, long scan and shrugged.
“Get in the back.” She nodded toward the truck. “And try not to fall out. I’m fresh out of Band-Aids tonight.”
Gage shot him a look that said,
You don’t have to do this
It would take a team of bulls to hold him back.
Gage motioned for Alex to jump over the tailgate.
“She smashed it in last week; it won’t open,” he said apologetically.
hadn’t distracted me with all your budget woes and lists of things you desperately needed, I would’ve seen the bloody hydrant.” She turned to Alex. “I’m a fine driver.”
If her driving matched her boating skills, he was in for it.
The truck lurched down the pitted road. The rain had let up, but the wind was still whipping. Through gaps in the clouds, shafts of moonlight lit the headlands hills with an eerie glow. Alex grabbed a rope attached to a large winch bolted to the truck bed and held tight. The truck reeked; it smelled remarkably like, well, like what he’d imagine stale seal urine might smell like. The truck swayed, and a pool of foul-smelling liquid sloshed over his shoes.
Inside the truck cab, Gage appeared to be arguing with Jackie, but Alex couldn’t make out the words. From the look of it, she was winning.
The truck bounced wildly on the rough road. If it had shocks, they were shot. Jackie dodged the deepest ruts, but her maneuvers wouldn’t do much to reduce the number of bruises Alex would be cursing in the morning.
To his amazement they headed toward the high cliffs near the Point Bonita lighthouse. Jackie eased the truck to a stop just short of a wooden bridge. On the far side of the bridge a set of stairs led out to the lighthouse that crowned the jutting headland cliff. Its beam pierced the patches of low-hanging fog and cast a wavering finger of light toward the horizon.
Gage hopped out, then gave Alex a hand out of the back. Jackie bounded out and slammed the door behind her. She walked to the bridge and peered over the side, then returned to the truck and pulled a bulky trash bag out of a box in the back.
“It’s a juvenile minke—must’ve got washed in by a sneaker wave,” she said to neither of them in particular. “Could’ve beached itself chasing a school of herring. It’s not skinny, so I think it’ll survive.” She turned to Gage. “We’ll have to rope it and pull it along the tideline to that deeper spot in the cove—it’ll never be able to get off the bottom on its own.”
Gage walked to the edge of the bridge and stared down. He rubbed his hand across his chin, then turned to Jackie. “I know they used a Toyota pickup to tow the space shuttle, but that whale down there must weigh four thousand pounds at least. We’ll have to drag it ten feet, that is
we manage to rope it.” He looked back down to the beached whale. “You really think your truck can drag it ten feet?”
“That whale’s hoping we can.” Her face softened. “And I’m hoping we can. We’ll just have to hope for a strong surge to help us along.”
“Then we gear up,” Gage said.
When he moved to stand beside her, Alex recognized that Jackie was taller than he’d calculated and looked strong. The woman had biceps, and right now the arms sporting those biceps were lifting a massive coil of rope from the trash bag she’d dropped to the wet ground. As she straightened, she slipped on a slick spot in the road and the rope teetered in her arms.
“Let me help you with that,” Alex offered, reaching to take the coil from her.
“No thanks.” She found her balance and backed up a step, clutching the rope tighter to her chest. “Nobody touches my lines.” She shot Gage a challenging glare. “
Gage shrugged, then reached into the bag and pulled out a second mass of rope.
Jackie hefted the rope, looped the coil over her arm and headed for the edge of the cliff. “We’ll have to secure a pulley from the bridge,” she said over her shoulder to Gage. “He can anchor the rope for the whale and operate the winch.”
“His name’s Alex,” Gage muttered.
Jackie stopped midmotion, then turned to Alex.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I have a soft spot for whales, one that makes me forget my manners.” She held out her hand. “Jackie.”
When his hand touched hers, he felt sparks and warmth and all the things that one hears about in tall tales—the same surge of interest he’d felt the day he’d helped her with her boat. He held her hand and a puzzled smile curved into her lips, but her eyes weren’t smiling. She pulled her hand away.
“Right,” she said, turning from him and staring at her hand. “Do tell me you can hold a rope and take instructions at the same time.”
“Depends on the instructions,” Alex said with a laugh, chasing off the strange tension that gripped him. He was starting to appreciate the pitch and roll of her barbs. But when he joined her at the cliff edge, his smile faded fast. It was at least a hundred feet down to the small crescent of beach where the whale was stranded.
One hundred feet straight down.
She was crazy.
“Don’t worry,” Gage said as he strapped on his climbing harness and then secured the pulley to the bridge railing. “She does this all the time. She once held the women’s record for rappelling down El Capitan in Yosemite. Piece of cake.” He peered over the cliff. “Wish I could say the same.”
Jackie bent down and stepped into her harness. Alex sucked in his breath as she pulled the dangling straps up over the legs of her jeans and snugged them around her thighs. Her hair fell free of the band she’d stuffed it into and cascaded in a ripple of moonlit color. She stood, flicked her hair out of her way and pulled the belt of her harness around her waist.
The click Alex heard as he watched her wasn’t from the carabiners she snapped onto her harness; it came from deep inside him. The deep awareness of a woman wasn’t something he was used to. But he couldn’t deny the rapid reaction in his groin that signaled a very physical interest.
Jackie glanced up. He averted his eyes and busied himself with flicking a spot of mud off his overcoat.
She hopped into the truck and pulled it up to the guardrail abutting the bridge. Gage walked to the back and secured a line through the pulley to the winch. Jackie pulled on it and, apparently satisfied, tossed the rope over the railing of the bridge. It was a perfect toss. Alex watched as the rope uncoiled and landed on the mud-ringed beach near the whale.
“If you power up the winch when we signal and pull it just so”—she motioned with her arms, indicating an angle for the ropes—“I think it’ll work.” She turned to Gage. “It’ll have to be a release knot. I can pull it through the other way once we’ve dragged him to the water. I don’t want him swimming off with my truck.”
Alex thought she was kidding, but as he calculated the size of the whale and considered the possibilities, he wasn’t so sure.
He considered offering to call in a helicopter but before he could, she’d pulled on a pair of gloves, swung up onto the bridge rail and dropped over and down, out of sight. Gage eased over to the cliff edge. Looking down, he said, “
could use a hand, maybe two.” He pulled on his gloves and appeared less than confident. “I’m hooking in here.”
He showed Alex where he’d secured his rope to the bridge.
“If you’ll steady me,” he said, his lips pressed into a firm line, “I can drop down along the truss of the bridge—it’s safer.” He shot Alex a smirk and scuttled on his rump along the slope at the end of the bridge. “I like to think of myself as safety minded rather than a coward.”
He signaled to Alex to take up the slack and then slowly began his trip down the face of the cliff.
Alex braced himself against the bridge and held the rope secure and steady against the still-gusting winds. Rocks clattered loose and tumbled to the cove as Gage dropped down to the beach. He signaled a brief okay when he got his footing on the rock-strewn beach and tugged at the rope. Alex gave him a few feet, noting that Gage kept the rope fastened to his harness. It seemed like a smart move.
Jackie, on the other hand, unclipped hers, walked to within ten feet of the whale and was readying what looked like a lasso. How she’d get it around the creature’s tail without it thrashing her was beyond him. She threw and the rope glanced off the tail. A blasting bellow sounded, followed by a clicking rasp. Alex was sure neither had come from Jackie. She pulled the rope from the water, crept closer, coiled it and prepared to throw again. Without any twitch or sound of warning, the whale thrashed and the sweep of its tail knocked her into the waves. Gage bolted toward her, but she surfaced and threw up her hands, signaling for him to stop. Adrenaline lit Alex as he watched her drag herself out of the surf. The rip of terror that had flashed through him when Jackie went under subsided, but the memories of his younger sister, Grace, drowning before he or his father could reach her did not. Twenty years had passed since that day. Twenty years and still he felt the icy chill of guilt. There’d been nothing he could’ve done, he’d come to know the truth of it. But the fact brought him no comfort.
“I’ve got this handled,” Jackie shouted, still sputtering and clutching at her arm as she hauled the makeshift lasso back to her. He shoved down his urge to slide to the beach and help them. Instead, he crouched on the cliff face, holding the winch line in his clenched fist and feeling worse than useless.
The beam of light from the lighthouse beacon swept the roiling waves, and Alex whispered a silent prayer that the waters would calm. He held his breath as Jackie coiled the line and threw again. The loop dropped perfectly around the whale’s tail. She tugged it tight and jogged over to the rope she’d thrown down from the bridge. She tied the two together, tested her knot and signaled up to Alex.
“Now, Alex,” she shouted and motioned for him to start the winch. “Now would be good.”
Using all his strength, he secured the line in the winch and tightened until it was as taut as he thought it would bear. He leaped into the truck and started the engine. The truck groaned with the weight of each foot he gained—he could only hope it had power enough to tug the young whale. After going only a few feet, the tires started to spin and Jackie motioned at him to stop.
He jumped back out and watched in disbelief as Jackie dove into the surf. At least the whale had stopped thrashing. Jackie swam up to it and released the rope from around its tail. She dove, then crawled out of the waves twenty feet away, flashing an elated grin.
“Behind you!” he shouted as a sneaker wave rolled toward her. She ran up the beach out of its reach, then whirled to watch the whale catch the wave’s back draw.
Gage let out a whoop of delight as the whale swam off into the bay, grunting and making thudding clicks. Jackie sprinted to where Gage stood and strapped her ropes to her harness. The two appeared to be arguing over who would go up first. Alex whistled out his relief when Jackie strapped in and began to climb. But something wasn’t right. Face turned away from Gage, she grimaced and then slipped several feet, cursing.
“Come down and let me go up beside you,” Gage shouted up at her.
She didn’t answer, just kept climbing slowly. She was favoring her right arm and beginning to struggle. Alex reached down for her as she neared the top.
“Give me your hand,” he shouted into the wind.
She shook her head no.
Ignoring her, he reached over the face of the cliff and grabbed her under the armpits and hefted her up onto the muddy road. He clutched her to him, his heart thumping hard against her and the water from her soaked clothes oozing through his coat.
“Are you crazy?” she sputtered, pushing away from him. “You weren’t tied in. You could’ve killed us both.”
“That’s her way of saying thanks,” Gage shouted as he levered himself up and onto flat ground. “You’ll get used to it.”