Smooth Talking Stranger - Page 34

"What did the harbormaster say?" Haven asked.

His tone was even and reassuring. "They're trying to reach them on the VHF radio. Nothing on 9—that's the distress channel—and no Maydays have come in."

"Is that good?" I asked.

Hardy glanced at me with a slight smile, but a pair of notches had settled between his brows. "No news is good news."

I knew nothing about boats. I didn't even know what questions to ask. But I was trying desperately to think of an explanation for why Jack and Joe were missing. "Could the boat just lose all power or something? And at the same time they could coincidentally be out of cell range? "

Hardy nodded. "All kinds of fuck-ups, coincidental and otherwise, can happen on a boat."

"Jack and Joe are really experienced," Haven said. "They know all about safety procedures, and neither of them would take unnecessary chances. I'm sure they're okay." She sounded as if she were trying to convince herself as well as me.

"What if they didn't manage to outrun the weather?" I asked with difficulty.

"It's not a bad storm," she said. "And if they got caught in it, they would just batten down and ride it out." She hunted for her cell phone. "I'm going to call Gage and see if anyone's with Dad."

For the next half hour Haven and Hardy stayed on their cell phones, trying to get information. Liberty had gone to River Oaks to wait with Churchill as events unfolded, while Gage was already heading to the Coast Guard offices in GalenaPark. A couple of patrol boats had been sent out from Freeport to find the missing vessel. That was all we heard for a while.

Another half hour passed while we watched the weather channel, and Haven made sandwiches that none of us ate. There was a quality of unreality to the situation, the tension growing exponentially as time passed.

"I wish I was a smoker," Haven said with a brittle laugh, walking around the apartment with jittery energy. "This is one of those times when chain-smoking seems appropriate."

"Oh, no you don't," Hardy murmured, reaching out to catch her wrist. "You got enough bad habits already, honey." He drew her between his thighs as he leaned against the sofa, and she nestled against him.

"Including you," she said, her voice muffled. "You're my worst habit."

"That's right." He combed his fingers through her dark curls, and kissed her head. "And there's no getting over me."

The phone rang, making both Haven and me jump. Still holding his wife in one arm, Hardy picked it up. "Cates here. Gage, how's it going? They found 'em yet?" And then he went very still and silent in a way that made every hair on my body lift. He listened for several moments. My heart thudded heavily, making me light-headed and nauseous. "Got it," Hardy said quietly. "Do they need more choppers? Because if so, I can get as many as . . . I know. But it's like trying to find two fu**ing pennies someone dropped in the backyard. I know. Okay, we'll sit tight." He closed the phone.

"What is it?" Haven asked, her small hands gripping his shoulders.

Hardy looked away from her momentarily, his jaw so taut that I could see the strain of a small twitching muscle in his cheek. "They found a debris field," he finally brought himself to say. "And what's left of the boat is submerged."

My mind went blank. I stared at him, wondering if he had just said what I thought he'd said.

"So they're doing a search and rescue?" Haven asked, her face drained of color.

He nodded. "The Coast Guard is sending out a couple of Tupperwolfs—those big orange choppers."

"Debris field," I said dazedly, swallowing against rising nausea. "As in . . . as in an explosion?"

He nodded. "One of the rigs reported smoke in the distance."

All three of us struggled to take in the news.

I put my hand up to my mouth, breathing against the screen of my fingers. I wondered where Jack was at that very moment, if he was hurt, if he was drowning.

No, don't think about that.

But for a second it felt as if I were drowning, too. I could actually feel the cold black water folding over my head, pushing me down where I couldn't breathe or see or hear.

"Hardy," I said, surprised by how rational I sounded, when there was chaos inside me. "What would cause a boat like that to explode?"

He sounded excessively calm. "Gas leaks, overheated engine, buildup of vapor near fuel tank, exploding battery. . . . When I was working on the rig, I once saw a fishing boat, over a hundred-footer, explode when it ran across a submerged fuel line." He looked down at Haven's face. She was flushed, her mouth twisting as she tried not to cry. "They haven't found bodies," he murmured, pulling her closer. "Let's not assume the worst. They might be in the water waiting for rescue."

"It's rough water," Haven said against his shirt.

"There's a lot of movement out there," he conceded. "According to Gage, the captain who's coordinating the rescue operation is looking at a computer model to figure out where they might have drifted."

"What are the odds that both of them are okay?" I asked unsteadily. "Even if they survived the explosion, is it likely that either of them was wearing a life jacket?"

The question was greeted with a frozen silence. "Not likely," Hardy said eventually. "Possible, though."

I nodded and sat heavily on a nearby chair, my mind buzzing.

You need time, Haven had told me, when I'd confided my thoughts about going back to Austin. Give it some time, and you 'll know what to do.

But now there was no time.

There might never be.

If I could only have five minutes with Jack . . . I would have given years of my life for the chance to tell him how much he meant to me. How much I wanted him. Loved him.

I thought of his dazzling grin, his midnight eyes, the beautiful severity of his face when he was sleeping. The thought of never seeing him again, never feeling the sweetness of his mouth against mine, caused an ache I could hardly bear.

How many hours I'd spent with Jack in silence, resting together, all words restrained by the limits of what my heart would allow. All those chances to be honest with him, and I'd taken none of them.

I loved him, and he might never know.

I understood finally that the thing I should have feared most was not loss, but never loving. The price for safety was the regret I felt at this moment. And yet I would have to live with it for the rest of my life.

"I can't stand waiting here," Haven burst out. "Where can we go? Can we go to the Coast Guard office?"

"If you want to, I'll take you. But there's nothing we can do there except get in the way. Gage will let us know the minute something happens." He paused. "Do you want to go wait with your dad and Liberty?"

Haven nodded decisively. "If I'm going to go crazy waiting, I may as well do it around them."

We started on the drive to River Oaks in Hardy's silver sedan, when we heard the ringtone of his phone. He reached toward the center console where he had stashed it, but Haven snatched it up. "Let me, sweetheart, you're driving." She held the phone up to her ear. "Hi, Gage? What is it? Have you found out anything?" She listened for a few seconds, and her eyes went huge. "Oh my God. I can't believe—which one? They don't know? Shit. Can't someone—yes, okay, we'll be there." She turned to Hardy. "GarnerHospital," she said breathlessly. "They found them, and picked them up, and they're medevacing both of them straight there. One of them seems to be in good condition, but the other—" She broke off as her voice fractured. Tears sprang to her eyes. "Other one's in bad shape," she managed to say.

"Which one?" I heard myself ask, while Hardy maneuvered the car through traffic, his aggressive driving eliciting indignant honks from all around us.

"Gage doesn't know. That's all he could find out. He's calling Liberty so she can bring Dad to Garner."

The hospital, located in the texasmedicalCenter, was named after John Nance Garner, the Texas-born vice president for two terms of Franklin Roosevelt's administration. The 600-bed hospital was home to a top-notch aeromedical service, with the second busiest heliport for a hospital of its size. Garner also had one of the only three level-one trauma centers in Houston.

"Skybridge parking?" Hardy asked as we drove through the huge sprawl of buildings in the medical center. We were passing the thirty-story Memorial Hermann tower sheathed with spandrel glass, one of a multitude of offices and hospitals in the complex.

"No, there's a valet at the main entrance," Haven said, unbuckling her seat belt.

"Hold on, honey, I haven't stopped yet." He glanced over his shoulder at me and saw that I was out of my seat belt, too. " Y'all mind waiting 'til I put the brakes on before you jump out?" he asked ruefully.

As soon as the car was in the hands of the valet, we went through the hospital entrance, both Haven and I hurrying to keep pace with Hardy's long strides. As soon as we gave our names at the information desk, we were directed to go up to the ShockTraumaCenter on the second floor. All they could tell us was that the chopper had arrived safely at the heliport, and both patients were in the hands of a trauma resuscitation team. We were ushered into a beige waiting room with a fish tank and a table piled with tattered magazines.

It was unnaturally quiet in the waiting room, except for the drone of a news channel on the small flat-screen TV. I stared blindly at the TV, the words meaning nothing to me. Nothing outside this place had any significance.

Haven seemed unable to sit still. She paced around the waiting room like a tiger in a cage, until Hardy coaxed her to sit beside him. He rubbed her shoulders and murmured to her quietly, until she relaxed and took a few deep breaths, and blotted her eyes surreptitiously on her sleeve.

Gage arrived nearly at the same time Liberty and Churchill did, all three of them looking as haggard and distracted as the rest of us.

Feeling like an interloper in a private family matter, I went to Churchill after Haven had hugged him. "Mr. Travis," I said hesitantly. "I hope you don't mind that I'm here."

Travis seemed older and more fragile than I had seen him on previous occasions. He was facing the possible loss of one or both of his sons. There was nothing I could say.

He surprised me by reaching out and putting his arms around me. "'Course you should be here, Ella," he said in his gravelly voice. "Jack'll want to see you." He smelled like leather and shaving soap, and there was a faint tinge of cigars . . . a comforting fatherly smell. He patted my back firmly and let go.

For a while Gage and Hardy talked quietly, mulling over what might have occurred on the boat, what could have gone wrong, all the possible scenarios of what might have happened to Joe and Jack, and all the reasons to hope. The one scenario they didn't discuss was the one most on all of our minds, that one or both of the brothers had been fatally injured.

Haven and I went out into the hallway to stretch our legs and get her some coffee from a vending machine. "You know, Ella," she said hesitantly as we headed back to the waiting room, "even if they both make it, there could be a rough time ahead. We could be talking amputation, or brain damage, or . . . God, I don't even know. No one would blame you if you decided you couldn't handle it."

"I've already thought of that," I said without hesitation. "I want Jack no matter what shape he's in. Whatever's happened to him, I'll take care of him. I'll stay with him no matter what. It doesn't matter to me, as long as he's alive."

I hadn't meant to distress her, but Haven surprised me by giving a few muffled sobs.

"Haven," I began in contrition, "I'm sorry, I—"

"No." Regaining control, she reached out and took my hand, squeezing tightly. "I'm just glad Jack's found a woman who will stand by him. He's been with a lot of women who wanted him for superficial reasons, but—" She paused to fish a Kleenex from her pocket and blow her nose, "—none of them loved him just for being Jack. And he knew it, and he wanted something more."

"If only I—" I began, but through the open doorway, Haven caught sight of movement in the waiting room. A door on the opposite side had opened, and a doctor came in.

"Oh God," Haven muttered, nearly dropping her coffee as she hurried into the room.

My stomach dropped. I was paralyzed, the fingers of one hand digging into the door frame as I watched the Travis family gather around the doctor. I watched his face, and their faces, trying to divine any reaction. If either of the brothers had died, I thought the doctor would say so immediately. But he was speaking quietly, and no one in the family revealed any emotion other than bleached anxiety.


The sound was so quiet, I barely heard it through the blood-rush in my ears.

I turned to look down the hallway.

A man was coming toward me, his lean form clad in a pair of baggy scrub pants and a loose T-shirt. His arm was bandaged with silver-gray burn wrap. I knew the set of those shoulders, the way he moved.


My eyes blurred, and I felt my pulse escalate to a painful throbbing. I began to shake from the effects of trying to encompass too much feeling, too fast.

"Is it you?" I choked.

"Yes. Yes. God, Ella . . ."

I was breaking down, every breath shattering. I gripped my elbows with my hands, crying harder as Jack drew closer. I couldn't move. I was terrified that I was hallucinating, conjuring an image of what I wanted most, that if I reached out I would find nothing but empty space.

But Jack was there, solid and real, reaching around me with hard, strong arms. The contact with him was electrifying. I flattened against him, unable to get close enough. He murmured as I sobbed against his chest. "Ella . . . sweetheart, it's all right. Don't cry. Don't. . ."

But the relief of touching him, being close to him, had caused me to unravel. Not too late. The thought spurred a rush of euphoria. Jack was alive, and whole, and I would take nothing for granted ever again. I fumbled beneath the hem of his T-shirt and found the warm skin of his back. My fingertips encountered the edge of another bandage. He kept his arms firmly around me as if he understood that I needed the confining pressure, the feel of him surrounding me as our bodies relayed silent messages.

Don't let go.

I'm right here.

Tremors kept running along my entire frame. My teeth chattered, making it hard to talk. "I th-thought you might not come back."

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