The rescue board torpedoed Maddy into the rising swell as she went under. Within seconds, the tug and pull of the tide had drained her energy and she was riding the board through the waves on autopilot. Luckily the injured surfer wasn’t too far out, the waves bearing him towards shore, but as the salt water scoured her eyes and she drew ragged breaths trying to conserve her strength, she saw him move his head. A vivid red stain stood out against his pale cheek.
She redoubled her efforts, fighting the churning water, the distance telegraphing as her arms and shoulders began to ache and her legs numbed.
Reaching him at last, she shoved the rescue board under his torso.
‘I’ve got you, don’t worry,’ she yelled.
She grappled with the velcro strap attaching his ankle to his board as a five-footer barrelled down on them. She heard a groan, as blood seeped from the surfer’s hairline, and flowed over his sculpted cheekbone.
Concentrate. Undo the strap.
She shoved his surfboard free and wrapped her arm across him just as the wave crashed on top of them with a deafening roar.
For a split second fear froze her as the wave sucked them down. But then the training took over. She fisted her fingers on the rescue board, her cheek pressed against his torso and kicked hard. They surfaced together, breaking back into the heaving sound and fury of the angry sea. It took Maddy a moment to orientate herself, then she paddled furiously, riding the swell as she clung to the stranger’s prone body. The shore seemed a million miles away, her legs so rubbery she could barely move them, her chest screaming with the effort to draw a decent breath. She pushed the panic down and kept going.
After what seem like several millennia, a large hand grasped her arm and hauled her upright. She squinted through the stinging salt, saw Luke’s dark blond hair plastered to his head.
‘It’s alright, I’ve got him,’ he yelled. ‘Stand up, you can walk from here.’
Her legs shook, trembling uncontrollably as she struggled to lock her knees. How could she not have realised they were almost ashore? She hugged herself as Luke dragged the rescue board with the surfer onto the sand, then knelt beside him.
She approached in a groggy haze of exhaustion as Luke — who was much better qualified than her in pulmonary respiration techniques — examined their patient. But instead of putting him in the recovery position, Luke manoeuvred the surfer onto the waiting spinal board and fastened the Velcro strap across his chest.
‘He’s breathing. No need to resuscitate him.’ Luke shot a quick grin over his shoulder. ‘Should come round in a second. Probably took a crack on the head from his board.’ Luke tilted back on his haunches. ‘The paramedics can check him out properly once they arrive. Keep him strapped down just in case.’ He got off his knees and stood up. ‘I’ll go get you both a rescue blanket to keep you warm till they get here.’
Maddy shoved the straggles of hair out of her eyes as Luke strolled off towards the truck. Despite the thump of panic still closing her throat and the brutal sting of salt in her eyes, heat coiled low in her belly as she stared down at the man she’d saved.
She tilted her head to one side, transfixed.
Maybe he wasn’t classically handsome like Luke, but the dramatic slash of dark brows, high, hollow cheekbones and the rough stubble accenting a strong jaw gave him a raw, pagan beauty that had Maddy’s breath catching. Her gaze wandered down. Broad shoulders, a perfectly defined six-pack and long, leanly muscled flanks were exquisitely showcased by the sleek black wetsuit. The heat coiled tighter.
She shuddered, although she didn’t feel remotely chilled anymore, and noticed the faint blue tinge around his sensual lips. A deep moan rumbled up his chest, and he moved, straining against the strap.
Maddy jerked. What was she doing? Oggling him as if he were a stripper at a hen party. The poor guy was hurt and probably freezing to death. She dropped to her knees, placed her hand against his cheek. Rough stubble abraided her palm and sent another inappropriate jolt of heat through her. She ignored it.
‘It’s okay,’ she said, the words coming out on a breathy whisper. Mortified, she paused. Boy did she need to kick start her love life again if she was now lusting after strangers — and unconscious ones at that.
‘You’re okay. Don’t move,’ she murmured, touching his forehead to brush back the thick, wavy locks falling over his brow. The blood that had been gushing in the sea had slowed to a sluggish crawl, seeping out of a narrow gash below his hairline.
She pressed her thumb to it, and his eyes snapped opened. Her pulse pummelled her neck as she stared into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. The brilliant turquoise of his irises contrasted with the bloodshot white, and looked so pure and dazzling it reminded her of an old fifties postcard of the Caribbean Sea, the colour too rich to be real.
His brow creased as he tried to rise and came to a jerking halt, his body confined by the strap.
‘What the…?’ The expletive came out on a gruff whisper. ‘Who tied me down?’
She placed her palm on his upper arm, hoping to reassure him. Unfortunately the feel of the rockhard bicep bunching under her fingertips had the opposite affect on her. ‘I did,’ she blurted out. ‘It’s for your own good.’
The magnificent blue eyes narrowed. ‘Who the hell are you?’
Her skin flushed hot despite the chill and the spitting drizzle of autumn rain. ‘I’m one of the lifeguards on Wildwater Bay. We had to bring you in. You hit your head.’
He stopped struggling and dropped his head back, huffed out a breath. ‘Fantastic,’ he murmured. Bitterness clouded his eyes but it didn’t seem to be directed at her. ‘Thanks.’ The curt word lacked conviction. ‘Now undo the strap.’
She tried not to let the commanding tone annoy her. Rudeness was probably to be expected after what he’d been through. ‘I’m not going to do that,’ she said in her best firm but fair Florence Nightingale voice. ‘You have to stay put until the paramedics get here.’
His jaw hardened. ‘No paramedics,’ he said. ‘Now let me up.’
‘I really don’t think that’s a good idea,’ she replied, still channelling Florence.
‘Fine, I’ll do it myself.’
She watched astonished as he tilted his shoulder down, twisted his torso and then ripped the strap free with one hand. She moved out the way as he struggled onto his elbows, and sat up. He groaned and touched his forehead.
‘That serves you right.’ Forget Florence. Nurse Rachet suddenly seemed more appropriate. ‘You need to lie down and wait for the paramedics to check you out.’
He swore softly and brought his fingers away. Barely glancing at the bright red stain, he fixed chilly eyes on her. Seeing the headache in them, she bit back the rest of the retort.
He leaned forward, obviously intending to stand up.
She gripped his arm. ‘The paramedics will be here any minute. You need to stay put.’
He glanced at her fingers and she pulled her hand back instinctively.
‘I decide what I need,’ he said, his voice rough.
Maddy fought for composure. Why was he being so flipping difficult? ‘But you may have injuries you’re not aware of.’
His gaze drifted disconcertingly to her chest and her nipples chose that precise moment to thrust against her suit like torpedoes.
‘I’ll risk it.’ Sarcasm edged the words as his eyes lifted to her face, but his lips twitched, almost as if he were struggling not to smile and his eyes didn’t look nearly as chilly anymore.
Warmth spread up Maddy’s neck. Unbelievable. Was the world’s worst patient coming on to her? But then he flinched and she was sure she must have imagined it.
‘Hey, mate, where are you off to?’ Luke interrupted the charged silence, his arms laden with the silver body-warming blankets. Maddy wondered if he’d been to Timbukto and back to get them.
‘I’m leaving.’ The surfer struggled onto his feet.
He staggered and Luke steadied him. ‘D’you think that’s wise? You took quite a tumble?’
The man sent Luke a cold stare. ‘I know.’
Maddy bristled at his rudeness, but Luke seemed unperturbed. ‘At least take a blanket, fella,’ he said, handing over one of the silver sheets. ‘You must be frozen.’
The stranger looked down at Luke’s offering, paused and then took it. ‘Thanks.’ He wrapped the blanket clumsily around his shoulders, his hands trembling. Maddy somehow knew that if he hadn’t been on the verge of hypothermia he would have refused.
‘Where are you staying?’ Luke asked carefully, as if he were speaking to a wild animal that might bite his hand off at any minute. Maddy knew how he felt.
‘You need a lift anywhere?’ Luke added when the man shot him a look loaded with suspicion.
For a minute the only sound was the rush of the wind and the thump of Maddy’s heartbeat in her ears.
Finally the surfer shook his head, the blood running unnoticed in a small rivelet down his temple. ‘I live at Trewan Manor,’ he said, jerking his head towards the forbidding mansion house that sat at the top of the cliffs overlooking the Bay. ‘I can get there on the cliff path.’
Maddy’s gaze lifted to the point, a little astonished by the news. She’d been fascinated by that huge old house ever since she’d first arrived at the Bay last June. The towering gables and grey stone turrets making her think of Wuthering Heights and Mandaley and Thornfield all rolled into one. She’d assumed the place was empty, her artistic nature conjuring up all sorts of fanciful stories to explain its desolate appearance.
Her gaze returned to the surfer. Given his wild good looks, the man fit his mansion’s raw gothic beauty to a tee. What a shame he had Heathcliffe’s temper, Maxim de Winter’s arrogance and Rochester’s condescension to match — all traits that made for gorgeous literary heroes, but were a nightmare to deal with in real life.
Maddy stepped forward as the stranger turned to leave. ‘Hang on a minute, you can’t just…’
Luke thrust his arm out to hold her back. ‘Don’t, Mad. He doesn’t want your help.’
‘But that’s ridiculous, he could be seriously hurt,’ she whispered frantically, not sure why it mattered to her.
‘You can’t rescue everyone.’ Luke sent her a rueful smile, reminding her of Cal, then wrapped the remaining blanket round her and gave her shoulders a reassuring rub. ‘Let’s get back to the Café. The first Extreme’s on me.’
Maddy fisted her hands on the blanket and nodded, but her gaze drifted back to the stranger as he walked across the sand. The silver blanket fluttered in the wind like a cape. She frowned, noticing the pronounced hitch in his stride for the first time. ‘He’s limping,’ she murmured. ‘He’s hurt his leg.’ Concern clutched at her throat again.
He stopped to rub his thigh, then carried on walking with a laboured, lopsided gait, his shoulders stiff and erect and oddly defensive.
‘Looks like an old wound,’ Luke said. ‘Must be why he couldn’t stay on the board.’
Concern and confusion tangled into tight little knots of irritation in Maddy’s stomach. What sort of macho fool spent all afternoon attempting something he was incapable of? And nearly killed himself in the process?
‘Nice arse though,’ Luke said cheekily, and Maddy’s eyes dipped to the firm, muscled orbs of his backside, indecently displayed by the skin-tight suit.
Her pulse-rate kicked up again and the coil of unwanted arousal twisted in the pit of her belly.
As much as she didn’t want to, she had to admit, Luke had a point.
‘Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s your type,’ she muttered.
Luke laughed. ‘From the way he checked out your tits, I’d have to agree with you.’
Ignoring Luke’s comment — and the renewed flare of heat it triggered — Maddy forced herself to stop admiring the studly surfer’s assets. The man might have an extremely nice bum, but he clearly had far too much testosterone for any sensible woman to handle.
She’d saved his life… And while she hadn’t expected him to thank her, exactly, he could at least have had the decency to treat her with a tiny iota of respect.
But as Maddy climbed into the cab and Luke drove them across the beach to the Café, her breasts tingled and heat pulsed insistently between her thighs.
She squirmed in her seat.
Trust her bits to come out of hibernation and do the happy dance for a guy who might as well have had a neon sign above his head saying ‘Danger, approach at your peril.’