Missy hoisted her pack, grabbed her large duffel bag filled with scuba gear and personal items, and headed toward the large white van waiting in front of her hotel.
“Missy?” Dr. Ken Mansfield greeted her with a smile. He’d aged since she’d last seen him several years ago, but he still had that weather-worn, tanned appearance, although his hair had gone whiter.
She shook his hand with her lone free one. “Ken, it’s good to see you.”
“I’m glad that Sarah was able to bring you on board.”
“Happy to help.”
Ken worked at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium at Georgia Tech as well as consulting with NOAA on their Ocean Exploration and Research projects. He was the leader of this expedition to a blue hole located off the coast of Abaco. His associate, Sarah Fischer, had invited Missy when their safety diver had fallen through at the last minute.
According to Sarah, the goal of the project was to map the hole and gather water samples and sediment cores for further analysis in a lab. Missy’s job was to keep an eye on the crew while in the water.
“How was your flight?” Ken asked. “You came from San Francisco?”
“Yes. And it was good.”
“Ready to go diving?”
“Absolutely. Am I the first pickup?”
“Yep. Climb aboard.”
The driver stashed her gear in the back, and Missy settled onto the first bench seat, her sturdy traveling purse crosswise across her body. She wore capris and lightweight slip-on sneakers and a breezy blouse. She was in the Bahamas, after all. While it would be for work, she was going to enjoy a bit of down time as well.
Her last major expedition over a year ago had been much different than the one she was about to embark on. She’d accompanied her best friend, Dr. Grace Mann, on a three-week trip to Guadalupe Island in Baja, California. Mostly, Missy had gone to offer moral support and for the adventure—Grace not only had been testing a prototype of her shark detection array, she also had been filmed for a documentary. But those two goals aside, Grace’s main focus had been to free dive with the abundant population of great white sharks that congregated each fall, and Missy had joined her, believing she could handle swimming with some of the largest water predators on earth.
Turned out, she couldn’t.
She simply didn’t have the undying love that Gracie had for the fish. Missy also couldn’t separate her need to stay alive and her resolve to complete the dives. Somehow, Grace could control her fear in such situations, but Missy had found it exceedingly difficult.
Determined to get past the anxiety the expedition had introduced into her life, Missy had decided to pursue a long dormant dream—to become a tech diver. And for the last year, she’d been working hard at it. When Sarah had called with her offer to join their team, Missy couldn’t have been happier. It was exactly what she’d been training for, and she’d said yes before knowing all the details, because for once in her life the details didn’t matter.
Unbidden, Josh McKittrick flashed into her mind. She hadn’t been to the Bahamas since her brief time at the Shark Lab on Bimini. Four years ago. Four years since she’d last seen him.
What was he up to? Not that she had any right to know. She’d cut him loose during the most difficult period of her life. At the time, it had seemed the right thing to do.
But, damn, the regret still managed to strike red-hot at times, and its recurrence annoyed her. She should be over this. She was over this.
Ken jumped into the front passenger seat, and the driver soon had them out on the roadway, heading to the next hotel to pick up team members.
“I guess we all should’ve stayed at the same property,” Missy remarked.
Ken smiled. “Oh, it’s all right. Some of the crew came in early to get a little vacation time in. Everyone’s needs are different. Some like the big resorts, others like something off the beaten path.”
That would’ve been Josh. Why was she thinking about him so much? It had to be the locale. Although she wasn’t on Bimini—it was the westernmost district of the Bahamas—Abaco had the same atmosphere of humid tropics and lazy afternoons spent on the beach.
She’d entertained the idea of making amends with him, but as months had turned to years, she’d convinced herself there was no point. So she quietly and resolutely had buried the sharp longing that managed to survive the forest burn of the memories of that relationship, however brief it had been, and she had allowed herself to stalk him only a few times on social media, which unfortunately had confirmed that he was in a relationship with someone named Tory, and he was living in Houston. After that, she’d forced herself to put him out of her mind.
Besides, if he weren’t still with Tory then he most assuredly was married to a gorgeous marine biologist with 2.5 kids. Missy didn’t need to torture herself with confirming it either way.
Yet, no matter how much she tried to intellectualize her relationship with McKittrick, and her ending it the only way that had made sense back then, her heart managed to still whisper to her, You let him get away. You were so fucking stupid.
She had to concede that she had been. Maybe not stupid, just not aware enough to understand what Josh had meant to her.
They turned right and stopped at the entrance of another hotel where two people waited. Missy didn’t know either of them. She didn’t think she would know any of the additional team members, save Sarah.
The new arrivals were soon settled in the seat behind her, introduced as Andy Riley, geologist, and Lucy Eastman, microbiologist. They appeared to be friends. Polite introductions were exchanged, with Andy and Lucy giving her a slightly confused look when she told them she studied cephalopods.
“Are we expecting some extraordinary octopi in the hole?” Andy asked, his dark bushy eyebrows crashing together and forming a definite unibrow.
“No,” Missy said with a laugh. “I’m here to function as the safety diver. But who knows? Maybe we’ll find something new down there.”
“I’m counting on it,” Lucy replied, a thick brown braid draped across her shoulder. “Lots of microbes, I’m thinking. Maybe even something that was around during the formation of the Earth.”
“Really?” Missy asked. “Are we talking billions of years?”
Lucy nodded. “I’d say so.”
Missy went back to watching the scenery as Andy and Lucy started chatting.
The next stop produced Dr. Sarah Fischer, who greeted Missy warmly with a hug. “I’m so glad you’ve joined us,” Sarah said, her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, her strong German features dotted with freckles and a slight sunburn.
“Me too,” Missy replied, and meant it. Anticipation for the next two weeks filled her. She genuinely liked Sarah and Ken, and Lucy and Andy seemed friendly enough, so the team dynamics were shaping up to be good, always a plus.
The next hotel was only a few minutes away. Missy and Sarah had started discussing some of the details of the blue hole when the van rounded a driveway, and Missy lost the thread of the conversation. Her heartrate accelerated from zero to sixty with lightning speed. The man waiting in front of the hotel wore a ballcap and was slim and fit in a navy-blue t-shirt and khaki shorts. A pack was slung over one shoulder and mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes, but she would know him anywhere ….
“That’s Josh McKittrick,” Sarah said when she caught sight of him. “Do you know him?”
Missy cleared her throat, willing her racing heart to calm down. “Yes,” she uttered.
“He’s the one in charge of our benthic lander,” Sarah added.
The van pulled to a stop and Sarah hopped out. She shook Josh’s hand and started chatting with him.
Missy was still grappling with her shock. Is this why she’d been thinking about him? Because the universe was about to play a wicked trick on her?
Four years ago, Josh had been flash fire in her veins, and it had honestly scared her. And then her dad had suffered a heart attack. Missy had been unable to handle much past that, least of all an intense relationship that was threatening to consume her. She’d done the only thing she could—she went home to California, tearfully said goodbye to her father within twenty minutes of arriving at the hospital, and then a few days later broke up with Josh over the phone.
She remained rooted in her seat, sweat breaking out on every inch of her. It wasn’t that she’d never envisioned seeing him again—they both worked in marine science, so it was bound to happen at some point—but she really thought she’d be able to handle it better.
He still looked the same, if a bit more filled out with broader shoulders and forearms that hinted at muscles further up. Dark brown hair peeked out from beneath his hat, and Missy remembered running her fingers through the sweaty locks when they would sneak off to a remote beach on Bimini and ….
He removed his glasses and even from here she could see his blue eyes. They had always been his best feature. Well, that and his hands.
Oh Lord. She nervously tugged at the messy bun she’d thrown her hair into this morning and looked anywhere but at him talking to Sarah. She didn’t want to seem obvious.
His deep voice shot straight through her, reminding her of the time she’d been zapped by an electric eel. She raised her gaze to his.
“Hi, Josh. Good to see you again.” She was glad her voice sounded normal, because she sure as hell didn’t feel normal.
His eyes, still so familiar to her that her stomach clenched from the grief of missing him all this time, turned dark and swirled with confusion. Or maybe it was animosity. Missy couldn’t be certain.
“I didn’t know you were going to be here,” he said, his tone flat, but Missy was sure she heard panic buried somewhere in there.
Shit. This was a disaster. She quelled the urge to bolt from the van and run.
I’m an adult. I can deal with this.
She’d made a commitment to Sarah and the team, and Missy prided herself on her work ethic. Just another small thing of Josh’s that had rubbed off on her during their stint on Bimini.
She shrugged and gave a look of well-here-I-am.
The driver stashed the last of the gear, so Sarah said, “How great you two know each other. Why don’t you sit together? I’ll go to the back.”
Missy remained silent while everyone took their seats, Josh folding his large frame beside hers, tucking his backpack at his feet, which were covered in old ratty tennis shoes.
“I see some things never change,” she said, glancing down at his footwear, starting to feel a bit calmer. The worst was over, she told herself.
“I suppose they don’t. You look great, Rembert.” He sounded sincere and a bit pained as he looked away.
Missy basked in the compliment while at the same time feeling like she’d done something wrong. The urge to reach out and grip his hand hit her. She turned away as well to get her emotions under control, mindlessly watching palm trees pass by as the van raced down a winding two-lane road.
Her relationship with Josh had been a hot and lusty thing, but it had lasted only three weeks. Maybe four? And he’d certainly not argued with her when she’d ended it, so it had obviously not meant much to him. He was surely far over it by now.
But she had a chance to make amends, to perhaps restore a bit of the friendship they had enjoyed in the beginning.
Hell, who was she kidding? Josh hadn’t exactly been the friendly type back then. They had gone straight from acquaintances to lovers. There’d been no friendship in between. Maybe that had been their problem.
No. The problem had been her. When she’d lost her dad, she’d cleared everything from her life that took too much energy. And Josh had been at the top of that list.
“What are you up to these days?” she asked. And where is Tory what’s-her-name?
“I’ve been working at Undersea Solution Labs for the past three years.”
“That’s in Houston, right?” she asked, pretending not to know. But the next question was genuine. “How do you do marine science while being landlocked?”
“Well, Houston isn’t far from Galveston if we need to go in-water, but I’m mostly on the engineering side.”
“Still working on the Bat Suit?” she asked, referring to the swimming apparatus he’d been designing when they’d been at Bimini together.
“Kinda moved on from that. My new toy is called Benji.”
“Oh,” Missy said, suddenly realizing the connection. “You’ve designed the benthic lander.”
“Yep, it’s my baby.”
“Is this the first time you’re deploying it?”
He nodded. “We did preliminary tests in Galveston, but this will be the first blue hole, so the conditions will be trickier. How about you?”
“I switched from sharks to cephalopods. I work as a postdoctoral fellow at the Brown Aquarium Research Institute.”
“That’s impressive,” he said. “I’ve tried applying there myself.”
How close had they come to working with one another?
“I’m glad you were able to stay near your mom,” he added. “I know it was hard when you lost your dad.”
Missy’s throat tightened. It was still a bit raw, even after all this time. Or maybe it was because it had happened when she’d been at Bimini. With Josh.
“Yeah, it was good that I could stay close,” she said. And end things with you. It hung in the air as if Missy had said it aloud.
The two things in her life that had been inexorably linked.
While seeing Josh was better than she’d hoped, it also brought with it the pain of that time. She really wasn’t of a mind to go there. Not now.
“Are you married?” she blurted out. So much for playing it cool.
She shook her head.
“I guess I should take comfort in that,” he said.
Still tongue-tied from her obvious interest in his love life, all she could do was give him her best quizzical look.
“You’re not the marrying type,” he added.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, chagrined, keeping her voice low since she had no desire to let everyone in the van know about her history with Josh.
He gave her his full attention. “I’d thought it was me, but maybe I’ve been wrong all this time. It was you.”
She wasn’t just tongue-tied—her throat felt full of cotton.
Ken turned from his position in the front passenger seat and said something to Josh, effectively ending her showdown with her ex, which was just as well.
Missy was rattled.
Because he was right.
It had been her. All her.
And she had nothing but the bitter taste of regret in her mouth.
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