Authors: Maria Rachel Hooley
© 2011 Maria Rachel Hooley
Cover by Phatpuppy Art
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—except for brief quotations in printed reviews—without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
It was early one morning as August burned itself toward September’s cooler glory that Jordan Carroway spotted a woman sitting at the middle of a wooden footbridge suspended high above a large river by rope and wire. Although she was completely still, the breeze swayed the bridge slightly, and the fact that she’d braved the height at all upped his estimation of her, considering the drop was a good thirty feet. Her legs were pretzeled beneath her, and the backs of her hands rested lightly atop her knees while she meditated.
Below, fish swam, their bodies burnished in the light, their tails flipping above the water, sending ripples on the surface. Dragonflies flitted, and a few isolated cumulous clouds scrolled lazily across the heavens. Still, in spite of all this beauty, he stared at her, at the way the breeze lifted strands of her long, dark hair, at the fullness of her lips as she pursed them in concentration. Mostly, he wondered at the way she could lose herself in a peace most people couldn’t find.
He blinked a couple of times, waiting for her to move. Instead, she remained where she was, focused only on the moment. Doubtlessly, she didn't know he was there, watching, or she probably would have opened her eyes and given him “the look” most women gave guys who invaded their personal space.
He frowned and wondered if she came here often. Although he had grown up less than an hour away, this was his first trip here, and the only thing that had brought him at all was a required PE class, not that PE had anything to do with his graphic design degree. Then again, he knew that without this class, he wasn’t going to be getting the diploma he’d worked the last four years to get. It wasn’t that he minded PE; he just didn’t see what this class could give him.
Although he would have liked to have stared at her all day, he forced himself to glance at his watch. He had about thirty minutes before class started, and that was more than enough time to take walk out onto that bridge.
“Why not?” he muttered, stowing his gear in the back of his Jeep. He started across the bridge without a clue what he planned to say. Then again, pretty much everything he had planned in his life had gone differently than he’d thought, so he didn’t figure there was much use to expecting the future to mind him. It was like the egocentric five-year-old who never heard the word
He should have thought about the fact he was getting married next month. It should have deterred him, but in the back of his mind, he saw the woman as more of a curiosity than anything and especially not a threat. Besides, what harm was there in talking?
He looked at her one last time, still awed by the way she seemed to lose herself totally in the private world she’d created. Sighing, he stepped onto the bridge and tried as diligently as possible not to move it enough to disturb her. He figured she would have felt someone there, stepping onto the wood planks, heading her way, but she didn’t. She’d finally gotten up and turned to retrieve her bag when he closer.
“Hey there,” he said.
Time seemed to slow as she whirled, not realizing she was so close to the side of the edge. The momentum threw her off balance--and off the bridge, along with the ancient-looking camera which had been sitting there.
“Crap!” Jordan hissed. He eyed the water below, expecting her to surface, but in that moment, he thought about all the different plants that might be down there, the rocks, and the currents. Besides, he didn’t have a clue how deep the water was. That all came from his lifeguard background.
When she didn’t surface, he did the only thing he knew; he jumped feet first into an area near where she would have gone down, allowing her enough space so he didn’t land on top of her. The rush of air didn’t bother him. The cold water, however--that was another story, and found it deeper than he’d thought. Could she swim?
His first inclination led him to the river's bottom, and that's when he spotted her camera, which he grabbed before bobbing to the surface and found she was already there, treading water. She looked at him and shook her head. “You always go swimming with your clothes on?”
Shrugging, he said, “Just following your lead.”
She laughed. “That wasn’t a lead. That was clumsiness. What’s your excuse?”
“You didn’t rise quickly enough.” He wiped the water from his eyes.
“You jumped in because you were trying to save me?” Her voice rose incredulously. “You don’t even know me.”
Reaching out, he offered a hand. “Let’s remedy that. Name's Jordan Carroway.”
She took a deep breath and shook his hand. “Nicole O’Roarke. Nice to meet you.”
"I found this." He held up the camera.
She shook her head at the sight of water pouring off of it. "I don't think it's ever going to work again." She glanced toward the shore. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to swim away. I’ve got a class starting in a few minutes.” She thrust her arms in a tentative American crawl stroke, and he quickly kept pace with her.
“What kind of class?”
“PE It’s this weekend thing, if you want to know--not that I’m much for PE, mind you, but it’s a graduation requirement.”
Letting out a laugh, he asked, “Are you serious? I think we’re in the same class.”
That stopped her momentum. “Really? Then you’d better get changed, too. Unless you want to stay in dripping clothes.”
“Good point.” He took the lead, and the two of them quickly made for shore where they parted company, the camera still in his hand.
Fifteen minutes later, Jordan stood back at the bridge, the only giveaways of his swim were his damp hair he’d raked away from his face and the squishy shoes which would have to dry on their own. A white tee and khaki shorts had replaced his soaked clothes, and he stared out at the water spread below, a fluid covering of dark, mossy green the sunlight shimmered upon.
The sound of voices and laughter distracted him, and he turned to find more people—presumably other students—appearing. Scanning the group, however, he didn’t see the pretty brunette from the bridge. Then again, maybe she'd needed more time to dry off than he.
To his left, he spotted the instructor—a man in his mid-forties wearing a Mets cap, a navy t-shirt, and red swim trunks. He climbed into a newer Ford F150 with canoes in the back. Not long after the engine had growled to life, the man drove the truck down toward a much lower spot, where it would be easy to launch the canoes.
From Jordan’s peripheral vision, he spotted a woman with long, auburn hair heading this way. Instinctively, he turned toward her and found Nicole approaching, her hair just as damp as his as it fell in waves around her face. She wore a black, one-piece swimsuit, the bottoms of which had been hidden by a pair of denim cut-offs with fringed edges. Jordan stared as she ambled toward a blue Honda Accord and stowed her bag in the trunk.
The instructor gestured for them all to come to him. Jordan fell in with the crowd and even though he no longer watched Nicole, he found himself drawn to her nonetheless.
The instructor waited until the twenty or so students had flocked around him before he spoke. “I’m Richard Harris, and if you’ve enrolled in Basic Outdoor Recreation, you are in the right spot.” He pointed to a clipboard on the hood of the truck. “Here is a sign-in sheet. Please write legibly, or you might not get credit for being here. As you can tell by looking in the back of my truck, we are going to start today by getting our feet wet while canoeing. In addition to the canoes and paddles, there are also life jackets I expect everyone to wear. I don’t care if you're an Olympian who medaled in swimming; you will wear the jackets. So grab a partner, a paddle, and a jacket while I unload the canoes.” He pointed to two male students and asked them to help him with the canoes.
“Got a partner yet?”
Jordan turned and spotted Nicole standing next to him. Her hands were shoved in her cut-off pockets. “Nope. You?”
She shrugged. “I do now--if you’re game. But I think we’d better sign in.”
“Good idea.” The two walked to the hood of the truck and printed their names on the sheet before grabbing paddles and jackets. As he turned toward her, the sun streamed through her hair, catching its red highlights. “Ever been canoeing before?”
“Good to know.” She put on her jacket, and when she was done, Jordan thrust his hands to his hips and smirked. Seeing his expression, she asked, “What? Why are you smirking?”
“Because that jacket isn’t going to do you any good like that. You’d be lucky if it didn’t come up over your head.”
Although not adjusting the jacket right had embarrassed Nicole, she found she wanted to keep looking into his eyes, liking the way the sunlight caught the gold flecks there and turned them amber. She started to adjust the jacket and quickly realized she wasn’t going to get far, not with the webbing stuck as it was.
“Here, let me.” He stepped toward her and quickly grabbed the straps. At first his fingers seemed to slide on the rough fabric, but he just cinched harder, forcing the buckle to give. In a snap, he'd clicked the latches and stepped back.
“That should do it. You ready to get wet?” he nodded for her to help him carry the canoe toward the water.
“I thought the whole point was
to get wet.”
“Guess we’ll see.”
The two carried the canoe to the water’s edge where they set it down. They walked it out until the water came up to their knees, and Jordan nodded to her. “Go ahead and get in. Once I get it out a little deeper, I’ll climb aboard.”
“Aye-Aye, Captain. Wouldn’t want to have to walk the plank.” She stepped into the canoe and almost tipped it as she started to fall back. Jordan slipped his hand just below her shoulders and stopped her.