She saved an undercover agent's life
…only to find herself fighting for her own.
Claire Holland is terrified when her kayaking adventure accidentally intercepts a smuggling operation and her friend is gunned down. But before she can escape, Claire witnesses someone getting shot and falling overboard. Once she pulls him ashore, she discovers undercover DEA agent Adam Taylor is still alive but badly injured. Now they must navigate the dangerous coastal wilderness unseen. But has Claire saved a handsome hero's life…just to find her own in jeopardy?
From Harlequin Intrigue: Seek thrills. Solve crimes. Justice served.
Release date: August 24, 2021
Print pages: 256
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Dead in the Water
Janice Kay Johnson
Claire Holland cautiously separated the flaps of her tent to look out. At least there was no patter of rain, but after two cold, foggy days of paddling while battling ocean swells, she was ready for dry and warm.
She and her partner, Mike Maguire, had chosen to follow the western shore of Calvert Island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, unshielded from the open Pacific Ocean, and it had been all the challenge any sea kayaker could wish. A brutal headwind had been followed by ten-foot-high ocean swells as they crossed Hakai Passage. Claire had been immensely grateful for last night’s campsite above a beautiful sandy beach on Triquet Island.
She blinked at the view outside her tent. Sunshine, dazzling her eyes.
As was the case on most of the BC coast, the setting was glorious. The wooded arms of the inlet wrapped around them, and they could see a cluster of the small rocky islets that dotted the short stretches of water between these islands, creating a maze of narrow passages. The air was salty, but she could smell the sharp tang of the spruce and cedar trees a few feet away.
Mike crawled out of his own tent and grinned as he rose to his feet and stretched his lanky body. “Wow. Maybe we should camp here for a week or two. We don’t have to tell people we didn’t really get to Goose Island.”
She laughed. “What say we dawdle, at least?”
So that’s what they did while they waited for high tide, which made launching a lot easier anyway. No hauling their heavily loaded kayaks—or their kayaks and then their gear—across the distance exposed by the low tide.
After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, Claire happily shed several layers of clothes to bask in almost-warm sunshine—this was only June, after all—while they waited for the tide to rise. She and Mike laid damp clothing and gear out to dry and indulged in an extra cup of coffee.
Today, all they planned to do anyway was wander. Both had paddled most of the Inside Passage from Washington State to Alaska before, although not together. For this trip, they’d agreed to check out some of the most scenic and less-traveled groups of islands on the coast, and catch the ferry home from Prince Rupert in Alaska, just over the border from Canada.
“Hate to say it, Claire,” Mike said, nodding toward the shore.
She made a face at him. She’d already broken down her tent and rolled her sleeping bag, but still had to pack up the camp stove and minimal pans and dishes. Plus, they’d spread out more than usual.
They’d met at a kayaking class that she’d taken to strengthen her skills so that she could tackle more adventurous trips. Having been paired up for some drills, they’d gotten along well. After the class ended, they took day trips, then weekend explorations in the San Juan Islands and the Canadian gulf coast islands. Fortunately, Claire and Mike’s wife, Shelby, hit it off right away. She was lucky Mike’s wife let her “borrow” him, as Shelby put it. Shelby, who liked to sun herself on a beach in the Caribbean or Hawaii but hated getting cold or dirty, was perfectly willing to loan out her husband for the totally insane hobby he and Claire shared. As far as Claire could tell, Shelby had never had a moment of worry about the two of them together, isolated, off for weeks on this journey.
Claire wrinkled her nose at the thought. Gee, the fact that Shelby was stunningly beautiful and possessed eye-popping curves might have something to do with it. Mike was madly in love with his wife, too, or Claire wouldn’t have agreed to this jaunt.
Thank goodness she no longer had to worry about what Devin—or any man, for that matter—thought.
Long practice allowed both to stuff their dry bags quickly, leaving air in them to increase buoyancy, and jam their possessions into their kayaks, lighter items at the stern and bow, heavier things like the tent, food bags and water close to the cockpit. The worst part, as far as she was concerned, was suiting up for another day on the water. She thought every time about the oft-used image of sticking your hand in a bucketful of worms. The inside of her wet suit was always clammy. And, even more fun, she had to squirm and contort to pull the stretchy neoprene over her body and get her arms inserted into the sleeves and her feet into the molded booties. With the day so pleasant and their plans so unambitious, she almost tucked away her gloves rather than wearing them, but then looked ruefully at her hands. She’d acquired a few blisters that had popped, and, gee, the rash from the devil’s club she’d encountered two days ago still burned.
Oh, fine. On with the gloves.
Once suited up, she reminded herself how happy she was on the water in her sleek blue Boréal Design Baffin Series kayak. She’d found much-needed peace and self-confidence in exploring the wilderness in her watercraft.
After she and Mike took turns slipping into the cold ocean, Claire looked around with pleasure. The water was almost completely still, a deceptive blue shimmer disguising the strength of tides and currents beneath. She barely had to dip her paddle in to send her kayak gliding forward. Those islets topped by stunted trees blocked much of the view ahead as they emerged from the long cove that sheltered last night’s camp spot and zigzagged among the cluster of islands.
They hadn’t seen another soul in days, only larger ships out on Queen Charlotte Sound and cabin cruisers and fishing boats at a distance when they crossed Hakai Passage, so it was a surprise twenty minutes later to hear voices carrying over the water. Probably, they came from one of those cabin cruisers or fishing boats whose skipper had chosen to anchor here. Larger boats kept their distance from the intricate maze of islands, inlets and passages in this part of the British Columbia Queens Sound, a small slice of the vast Queen Charlotte Sound that was cluttered with tiny islands on this western edge of the BC coast. Charts weren’t always accurate.
Mike was ahead when he passed an islet almost large enough to classify as an island, although it was unlikely to have ever been named. She heard him say, “What the—”
Some instinct had her back paddling, although she’d already glided forward enough to see what had startled him: an older coastal freighter, probably no more than forty or fifty meters long but still wildly out of place. A crane on its forward deck was currently swinging a pallet of something heavy onto the smaller deck of a shining white yacht. Men were working aboard both yacht and freighter, neither of which would be able to linger here long with the tide already ebbing. And why they’d tucked themselves in among tiny islands—No, she thought slowly. They must want to be unseen. She’d read that smuggling was common across both the land and water borders between Canada and the US. People, drugs, who knew what else.
Mike’s neon-red-and-orange kayak moved well into the open, even though he wasn’t paddling. The frightened instinct telling her that neither ship belonged here kept Claire hovering in the shelter of the islet. Wispy branches of a twisted cedar hung low enough she was able to reach up and grab one to hold herself in place, her kayak bumping and scraping along the vertical rocks as the nearly unseen waves lifted and dropped. Through the feathery branch, she saw the moment someone on board the freighter noticed Mike.
The man shouted a name. Everyone visible on both the yacht and the small freighter turned to look.
Mike lifted a hand and called, “Hello!”
People tended to be friendly in these waters. Several times earlier in the trip, he and Claire had been invited to have dinner aboard one large cabin cruiser or another, most recently enjoying a wide-ranging conversation with a retired couple who said they spent most summers cruising between the San Juan Islands and Alaska.
Horror filled her chest when one of the men on the freighter lifted a rifle.
Mike saw, thrust his paddle into the water to push backward. Stunned, Claire was still watching the guy with the rifle when a crack, crack, crack nearly deafened her, and something skimmed the water only a few feet from her kayak.
Events had become slow-motion. Mike jerked, then slumped sideways. His weight carried his kayak into a roll. To hide in the water, she prayed, but he didn’t reemerge. Untethered, his paddle drifted loose on the surface. Hull up, the kayak floated at the mercy of the tide.
Even as she whispered, “Please, please, please,” Claire fumbled in her day hatch for the SPOT satellite tracker with the panic button that would bring help.
But not soon enough, not for Mike.
No, he’d only dropped his paddle and was snatching at something as he rolled. He’d freed himself from the cockpit and was swimming underwater, trying to reach the sanctuary of one of the islets. She’d hear a splash any minute.
Her hands felt clumsy. She couldn’t look away from his overturned kayak.
Suddenly, she was juggling with the small electronic device. It slipped from her hand, bounced once off the glossy surface of the deck of her kayak and fell into the water. She grabbed for it, almost unbalancing the kayak, and missed. “Please” was supplanted by “Dear, God. Oh, Lord. Oh, no.”
Claire lifted a terrified gaze to see that the crane had swung back into place on the freighter and the yacht was in motion. It turned in a tight circle to pass between two small islands and flee south. She couldn’t make out the black letters on the bow. What was wrong with her vision?
Claire swiped angrily at her eyes, and realized she was crying.
RICK BECKMAN SPUN toward the shooter. “Why in the hell did you do that?”
Dwayne Peterson—although probably none of them used a real name—turned a scathing look on Rick. Dwayne cradled the Remington in his meaty arms. “We can’t have a witness.”
“A lone kayaker? Really? If we’d exchanged waves and a few friendly words with him, he’d have gone on his way without giving us a second thought. But what if some other boaters are in earshot? What happens when this guy is found?”
Dwayne’s eyes narrowed. “Kayak’s upside-down. He’s dead. Probably fell out.”
Rick didn’t point out that, if the victim had released himself from the cockpit, his body was almost certainly now drifting on the surface, thanks to the flotation device kayakers all seemed to wear.
The Seattle Flirt, a pricey midsize yacht, was heading out of this cluster of islands to open water, putting distance between the two boats as fast as the pilot could manage without hitting a rock and grinding a hole in his hull. He was smarter than Dwayne, clearly.
Well aware of the five other men watching the confrontation—no help there—Rick kept his mouth shut, but he did shake his head.
“What?” Dwayne snarled.
Rick shrugged and raised his voice enough to be heard by everyone. “If any of us get arrested now, we’ll go down for murder.”
“I don’t like your attitude.”
Rick didn’t take his eyes off his nominal boss, who was bristling as he always did at any hint at criticism. Still, Rick remained aware of the bright red hull of the long kayak floating aimlessly with the current. That poor bastard. Having a good time exploring this spectacular landscape, gets shot by a trigger-happy drug trafficker.
It had happened so fast, there hadn’t been a damn thing Rick could do to prevent it.
“Nothin’ to say?”
Shouldn’t have opened his mouth. He balanced on the balls of his feet, staying deceptively relaxed, ready to move fast. But, damn, he wished he wore a Kevlar vest beneath his T-shirt and heavy sweater.
What was done was done. “Nope.”
Dwayne started to walk away. He was halfway across the broad, flat deck when he turned back. “Well, I do. I’ve had it with you.” He lifted the rifle and fired in one practiced movement.
The violent punch flung Rick backward. He crashed against the thigh-high metal curb. Flipped over it. Agony spread across his chest until he hit the icy water, when his entire body screamed in protest. Somehow, God knew how, he resisted the instinct to struggle in the water. He had to stay lax when he surfaced.
Had to play dead.
Odds were, hypothermia would ensure he was dead, but he couldn’t let himself believe it.
CLAIRE STILL HUNG beneath the shelter of the cedar branch, whimpering, when she heard the next gunshot and saw a man topple backward off the freighter.
Terror and a stinging dose of common sense kept her frozen in place. If she was spotted, the next bullet would be the one that killed her. But, oh God, what if Mike was alive? Waiting for her to rescue him?
She knew better, she did. He’d been wearing his PFD. It wouldn’t allow him to sink below the surface. If he’d managed to release himself from his kayak and was alive, she’d have seen him surface. Given the shock of the bitterly cold water, he wouldn’t have been able to hold his breath long.
Her only salvation was that this storm-twisted tree had reached low enough to hide her and that her kayak was blue instead of a neon color like Mike’s.
Tearing her eyes from the hull of Mike’s kayak, she sought the other guy. The one who just went overboard. Him, she could see, floating on his back, unmoving. If he’d moved since he hit the water, she’d missed it.
A change in the sound of the freighter’s engine jerked her gaze up.
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