Vigilant Charity: A Charity Styles Novel
Charity Styles has been wandering the Pacific aimlessly aboard her beloved sloop, Wind Dancer, and only recently returned to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Entering a secluded cove in the Sea of Abaco, in the Bahamas, she runs into an old acquaintance and the woman’s young daughter. The two have a few things in common, not the least of which are four men’s bodies at the bottom of a 600-foot-deep blue hole on Hoffman's Cay. The reunion is fraught with “what ifs.” What if Charity had enjoyed a normal childhood like her friend’s young daughter? What if her mother hadn’t abandoned her as a child? What if her father hadn’t died when she was in college? What if Victor hadn’t been murdered? Just as Charity begins to relax and truly enjoy the companionship of a good friend, disaster strikes. In an instant, she's faced with a terrible choice that will push Charity to her limits. Her action could mean the difference between life and death for both mother and daughter. When Charity’s two worlds collide violently, a drug running operation is exposed, as well as a slick southern lawyer. Will Charity handle things in her usual way?
Release date: June 28, 2019
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 264
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Vigilant Charity: A Charity Styles Novel
As it knifed through the waves, the steady swish of the boat’s bow wave whispered like a lullaby. It was the only sound that could be heard. Even the sails were silent; filled by the consistent southeasterly trade winds, there was no luff or chatter. The sun was bright, warm, and welcoming, like the embrace of a dear friend.
Returning to the tranquil waters of The Bahamas was bittersweet for Charity. It had been a long time since Victor had been killed in Nassau, but the memories of their time together still lingered as if they had just happened yesterday. He’d been the only man Charity had truly loved.
She and Victor had spent months anchored in secluded coves all up and down the vast island chain. She hadn’t been sure how she would feel sailing these waters again, but now that she’d returned, in some ways, it felt like coming home.
Of all the places she'd sailed, nothing compared to the crystal blue waters of The Bahamas. She felt as if she were floating on liquid gemstones—sapphires, aquamarines, deep, dark green emeralds. Charity didn't much care for jewelry. The idea of adorning herself with dangling, shiny baubles denoting wealth seemed ridiculous to her, but here, as Wind Dancer glided along the surface, she considered herself as rich and comfortable as any queen.
Except for around Nassau. She wasn't ready to go near there. Too much heartache. She raised her face toward the sun and closed her eyes, drawing in a breath of the warm, salt air, and tried not to think about Victor and how he'd died. That was in the past. She couldn't bring him back.
Somehow, amid the pain, fate had given her Moana and Fiona, two captives of a diabolical couple who used them as pawns in their schemes of robbery and murder. Being able to give them new lives had helped to heal the sorrow of losing Victor. The moment Moana had reunited with her family in French Polynesia—to see her eyes come alive, as if she were able to breathe again—had brought Charity a joy she'd never experienced before. And then again, when Fiona had confided, under a moonlit sky as she and Charity gazed at the stars from Wind Dancer's cockpit, that she'd fallen in love, that she was ready to settle down. Charity had gladly spun the wheel to starboard, turned the boat around, back to Brisbane, Australia, and dropped her at the young man's doorstep.
To see those young women blossom, to let go of the anger and fear they'd carried with them for so long, to finally move on to live normal lives, was inspiring. From the moment she'd met them, she knew she had to help. And she had. Charity's loss and need to mend had brought happy endings for both of those young women. Something good had come of Victor’s death. Of all the jobs she'd done, none were as satisfying. She'd hang on to that. In the end, she'd made a difference. Victor would be proud.
She knew Jesse was. He'd joined her aboard Wind Dancer for the three-month cruise from California to the Caribbean. Sure, she could have sailed Dancer on her own, but she and Jesse both had a lot to sort out, and over the years they'd become confidantes to one another.
Jesse McDermitt, her best friend, had just come off of a fourteen-month bender when they’d started the cruise. His behavior was either some kind of mid-life crisis, or a juvenile reaction to finding and losing Savannah again, she wasn't sure which. He’d conveniently glossed over those painful months in their conversations. But she’d heard the stories over the nets. Perhaps he was ashamed. He’d needed the time to think, to refresh.
Charity had some demons of her own to exorcise. Sometimes they came to her, late at night as she slept under the stars. On those nights, her sleep was anything but peaceful, as she battled them back into submission. It had been a while since their last visit, but she knew she was still a work in progress.
As she and Jesse had sat in the cockpit, sharing experiences and sunsets along the way, Charity learned a new perspective. At first, she'd worried that maybe they'd lapse into a fling. Deep down, she could admit to herself that she loved Jesse. But their friendship meant so much more to her.
Upon setting foot onto Wind Dancer’s deck, he'd declared himself celibate. A self-induced dry spell, he'd called it. A good thing, because, on at least three different nights, she'd been tempted to throw her own vow to the wind. But she knew that everything would be different then, and she felt sure he thought that as well. It was difficult to ignore physical attraction, she knew that. Any notion of yanking his shorts down and blowing his mind would simply have to remain a private fantasy.
Their conversations had mostly centered around the new chapter in their lives. Charity was convinced she had to find a different purpose and was relieved to find that Jesse had come to the same realization. When he’d admitted to her that he needed a new direction, something to believe in, she’d told him of her similar thoughts. It felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Together, they'd accepted contract employment with Armstrong Research's new Mobile Expeditionary Division.
Right now, Jesse was aboard Ambrosia, Armstrong's primary research vessel. He was training to dive the submersible and getting his requisite sea time for an Unlimited Master’s license. That would enable him to captain the 199-foot mega-yacht turned research vessel, as a backup to the current captain.
Charity was between assignments at the moment, having spent several months aboard Ambrosia with other new operators, learning more about how Armstrong’s operation worked and who the major players were. Many members of the board of directors had made personal visits to meet the new crew members. Interacting with all those people had felt like a sort of culture shock. So, she'd decided to continue on to The Bahamas, to see if she could make peace with Victor's ghost.
After hours upon hours of talking with Jesse, time she’d cherished, Charity enjoyed the silence. She'd always imagined the soothing sounds of the sea, the gentle waves lapping against the hull, were like those a baby hears in the womb—a slow, gentle whoosh…whoosh…whoosh that comforted the soul. They were the sounds of home, love, security.
Maybe that's why she loved sailing so much. She needed it. The swish of the bow wave, the tink-tink of the spare halyard lightly tapping the mast—slackened ever so slightly by the wind-loaded curve of the mast, the subtle twang of the rigging as the bow cut through the waves, the gentle rise and fall of the stern in a rhythm as ancient as the Earth herself. These were the sounds and motions Charity’s soul required.
It was no wonder sailors became addicted to the sea. The feel of the wheel in her hands, steady on the rudder as Wind Dancer moved through the water at a pace set by the wind and the waves, was all she needed for her to understand what really mattered. Living in the moment, in tune with nature, was the way to truly find peace. And that was what she intended to do. At least until she got a message from her new employer.
With the warm sun on her face, she decided to head north, into the Sea of Abaco. She had nowhere in particular to go and all the time to get there, but something drew her in that direction.
She'd find a nice spot to anchor for a week or two or maybe three, and just do whatever she felt like doing. The teak rails needed to be oiled and the sails checked. But she could do that whenever she wanted to.
Maybe she'd find a place to do some free diving. Or not. After years of military service, working for the Miami-Dade P.D., and then Homeland Security, she had no commitments. Even though she wouldn’t trade the time she had with Victor for anything, they’d made her feel tied down. Now, her time was finally her own. She was free as a bird.
So why did she feel restless?
Perhaps once she found a place to anchor for a while, she'd feel more settled, and the Sea of Abaco was a world-class sailing destination. Because the barrier islands took the brunt of what the Atlantic served up, they created calm, protected waters, with hundreds of little coves to anchor in, and coral heads teeming with life.
Fortunately, it wasn't high cruising season; most of the yachties had gone back home to jobs and school, so finding a nice, private spot all to herself wouldn't be impossible. She'd heard about an anchorage on the northeast side of Nunjack Cay, a two-day sail from her present location, where sharks and rays swarmed around swimmers, begging for food. She didn't think feeding wildlife was a good idea, but why not check it out? That was as good a destination as any. And with a fifteen-knot southeasterly, it would be a nice, easy run.
At lunchtime, five miles south of Little Harbor, Charity flipped on the autopilot settings and headed down below to make a tuna sandwich. She glanced at her chart plotter. She'd need to find a spot to drop the hook to spend the night. As she scanned the options, a blip on the Automatic Identification System caught her eye. In a cove off Lynyard Cay, just to the north of her current position, the AIS identified Sea Biscuit, lying at anchor. It was Savannah Richmond and her daughter, Florence.
The thought of seeing them again, especially Flo, made Charity smile. She climbed back up to the cockpit, reset her course, and an unexpected excitement came over her. The last time they’d met up, they'd spent the day talking, enjoying a leisurely outing together, and Charity had felt like she'd finally made a friend.
Then those men had come, with their threats. Charity had taken care of them; what was left of the turd-fondlers was now at the bottom of a 600-foot blue hole, crabs picking at their bones. They'd never bother another soul and she hadn't given the incident another thought.
Now, she wondered how Savannah had handled what had happened. And Flo. A little girl shouldn't have to experience something like that.
Flo had been playing all day, diving off the rock cliff, looking for treasure, all smiles and exuberant innocence—the things a little girl is supposed to be doing, not fending off creepy men.
A knot started to form in Charity's gut. When did it happen? When was innocence lost? For her, it had been when, already motherless, her father had died unexpectedly while she was away at college and she had to face the truth—that she was on her own.
The world had come crashing down around her again, just a few years later, when the towers in New York had fallen. She was at the top of her game, coming off a bronze medal in the Sydney Olympics. Then everything changed. Nothing would ever be the same after that. The funny thing was, she knew it in an instant. Despite all those sayings about slowly growing older and wiser, for Charity, it had happened in a matter of seconds. She'd gone from being a young lady with a promising career in competitive swimming to a patriot bent on vengeance. From that moment on, her entire adult life had been an adrenaline-pumped, full-throttle rush, like a never-ending scream ride at an amusement park.
It was time to step off.
Some time with Savannah and Flo was exactly what she needed. A chance to experience a normal life—if only for a little while. Charity was a loner. That's how it was meant to be. But over the last five years, Savannah had been as close to a real “girl” friend as Charity had ever had, even though they’d only spent a few days together. The question was, after what had happened at the blue hole, did Savannah feel the same way?
As Charity eased the sheets and turned to the northwest, Wind Dancer glided through Little Harbor Cut with the lighthouse off her port side. Charity hauled the sails back in to a broad reach as she headed north. Lynyard Cay was on her starboard side and the anchorage straight ahead. Through her binoculars, she spotted Sea Biscuit, tucked in a little cove, as peaceful as could be.
There it was again. A fluttering in her stomach. A little jitter of excitement.
Maybe it was some bad tuna, she thought. Oh, who are you kidding? She wanted to run and jump and dive in the water. Romp and giggle. She wanted to see that little girl smile, a real smile. She wanted to be with someone she didn't have to be on her guard against. She wanted to play. And it felt good to want those things. Even after all she’d been through.
For a one-mile stretch, she fidgeted in the cockpit, until finally she fired up the engine, doused the sails, and headed straight for the cove.
When she saw Savannah at the stern of Sea Biscuit, she waved and hollered "Ahoy!"
Savannah hesitated before waving back. Certainly, she recognized Charity and Wind Dancer. Was something wrong? Where was Flo? Charity scanned the water. Not swimming nearby. She caught herself. This level of paranoia wasn't normal. She needed to work on that.
She eased into the cove, chose a spot close to Sea Biscuit, released the anchor, then backed down on it until she was sure it was secure. Then she killed the engine.
In double time, she ducked below, secured her hatches, locked the boat up tight, and was in her dinghy, zooming across the water.
"It's so nice to see you. How have you been? How's Flo? Where is she?" The words came tumbling out as she cut the engine and neared the boat.
Have I lost my mind? Charity thought. I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl.
Woden, Savannah's Rottweiler, stood at her side, staring at Charity, a warning in his brown eyes. It was unnerving. He had to have been at least 120 pounds. Charity had faced many foes, but unarmed, she wasn't sure how she'd handle a dog like that if she ever had to. She'd mastered Krav Maga, an Israeli combat fighting technique where one manipulated the human body by understanding the limits of human anatomy. She had taken down men twice her size. But with a dog, all bets were off.
Savannah gave her a polite smile. "We're well. It's good to see you, too." She didn't offer for Charity to come aboard.
The air left Charity’s lungs with a slow, disappointing fizz. After she'd killed those men, she and Savannah had talked all night, but then, in the morning, Savannah had left the anchorage without a goodbye. Was she afraid of Charity now?
“I, ah, just got back and I saw you on AIS. I thought maybe we could catch up.”
A smile formed on Savannah's lips, as though she had just realized who Charity was. "Of course, of course. C'mon aboard." To Woden, she softly said, “It's all right.” She stepped down to the swim platform, took hold of the dinghy's painter, and tied it to a cleat. Over her shoulder, she yelled, "Flo, come out and say hello."
As Charity climbed out of the dinghy and stood up on the swim platform, Flo came to the rail. "Charity!"
Charity raced up the ladder and threw her arms open wide. Flo slammed into her, wrapping her little arms around her waist. Charity held on, leaning down and burying her face in the girl's hair. She smelled like sunshine.
Woden's gaze locked on them. Savannah came up behind them and ordered the dog inside.
Flo squirmed from Charity's embrace and looked up at her with bright eyes. "Will you teach me to swim? Please, will you?"
"Swim?" Charity looked to Savannah, confused. "You already know how to swim."
"It's all she talks about, learning to swim like you." She tapped Flo on the shoulder. "Let's not pester Charity while she's here."
Flo's smile turned into a pouty frown.
Savannah went on. "I gave her a biography assignment. She was to research a famous person and for whatever reason, she Googled your name." There was something about her posture. Stiff, rigid. She was uncomfortable. "We didn't know you'd won a bronze medal at the Olympics."
"What do you mean, an assignment?" Charity asked, gracefully avoiding the compliment.
"We've decided to stay on the boat, so she's homeschooled. It's a typical fourth grade assignment."
“Boat schooled, Mom.”
Charity looked at Flo, with her tiny legs and arms and that pixie face. "You're not old enough to go to school."
"I'm ten," she said, as proud as could be.
Charity's eyes met Savannah's. "Can't be. Where did the time go?"
"I know. I can’t believe it either." Savannah turned, gesturing for Charity to follow. "C'mon out of the sun."
They entered the salon in the main cabin and Flo disappeared forward. The massive Rottweiler was curled up in the corner.
Savannah headed toward the refrigerator. "Have a seat. Iced tea?"
"Sure, thank you," Charity said, easing onto the white leather settee. She glanced around, taking in the interior of the vessel. She'd been aboard Sea Biscuit, but never inside. "Your boat is gorgeous. The woodwork is stunning." It was a 1983 Grand Banks 49 Classic. An older vessel, but it had been completely refitted with modern equipment and all new leather upholstery. The helm instruments rivaled Wind Dancer's. "I had no idea."
Savannah set the glass of tea on the table in front of her. "Yeah, I've got some surprises up my sleeve, too."
Her comment felt like a stab. Charity shrank a little. "Listen, I'm really sorry about lying to you that day. But it was my job, you know. I was traveling undercover."
Flo bounded up the stairs from her cabin into the room. She'd changed into her swimsuit. "Will you teach me to swim now?" Her little face glowed with anticipation.
Savannah shooed her away. "Flo, what did I say about pestering?"
Flo planted her feet. Her expression didn't change. She was one determined young lady.
"Charity just got here. Give her a minute to relax. Why don't you go get your laptop and we'll show her your research paper?"
That seemed to pacify her. Off she went, in search of her laptop.
"She's at that age, you know," Savannah said as she plopped onto the settee across from Charity. "The age when she needs to start interacting with more kids her own age. I've been doing some research of my own, looking for others in the cruising community who are in the same situation. I headed back here from Turks and Caicos hoping to connect with more cruisers with kids. Next week, we're meeting up with a family in Hope Town. I'm hoping it'll work out."
"I'm sure it will," Charity said, nodding reassurance. "She's a great kid."
Charity thought again of Victor and their plans to cruise together. They'd never talked about kids. Would he have wanted them? It didn't matter. Charity wasn't meant to be a mother. She knew that. But what if things had been different? If she could go back, make different choices, what would her life be like now? Would she be baking cookies, or driving her own daughter back and forth to soccer practice? Or living on a boat, looking for other families with kids the same age?
Flo reappeared with a laptop in her hands. She sat down next to Charity, snuggling up to her. "See." She flipped open the laptop. "I learned all about you, how you swam in the Olympics with a special innovative technique and you won the bronze medal." She gleamed with pride, as if simply knowing Charity was reason to strut about. "That must have been so-o-o-o-o cool."
"It was," Charity said. A smile snuck up on her. "It really was." All the joy and pride she'd felt that day was reflected in Flo's face right now. She hadn't felt that way in a long, long time. Proud.
Assassinating enemy combatants didn't quite give her the same warm, fuzzy feelings as she'd had standing on that podium, the U.S. flag flown in her honor. She'd worked hard for so many years to accomplish her dream. She’d already started training for the ’04 games to be held in Athens, the city where the Olympics began. At the time, she’d had no greater goal.
"It really was so cool," Charity said again, grinning. Suddenly she wanted Flo to have that kind of experience, to feel that kind of joy. "You could do it too, if you set your mind to it."
Flo's eyes grew wide. "Will you teach me?"
"Flo!" Savannah shook her head, exasperated.
"It's all right," Charity told her. "If you don't mind. I'd really like to."
"Yipppeeeee!" Flo leapt to her feet, then up onto the settee. "Yipppeeeee!" She jumped up and down.
Woden raised his massive head, quickly assessed the situation, then laid his head back down on crossed legs.
"I was about your age when I started training," Charity said. "But it was hard work. It'll take a lot of practice."
Her head bobbed up and down. "I can do it. Practice, practice, practice. Right, Mom?" She jumped off the settee and twirled around.
Savannah glanced at the clock on the wall.
Charity recognized what that meant. "I tell you what," she told Flo. "We'll get started first thing in the morning."
Her face fell. "But I'm ready now."
"Flo," Savannah warned.
Flo's eyes flitted to Savannah and back. "First thing in the morning. I'll be ready. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. That's what my grandma always says." She shook her little fanny like she had a bushy tail.
"All right," Savannah told her. "Charity and I would like some time to talk. Why don't you go get ready for bed and work on your spelling lesson?"
"No buts. It’s almost nine o’clock. Early to bed so you get a good night's sleep and are ready to work with Charity tomorrow. Understand?"
"Yes, Mom." She lunged at Charity, throwing her arms around her. "First thing in the morning."
"Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," Charity said, trying not to grin. She was so damned cute.
After Flo trudged off to her cabin, Savannah pulled a bottle of white wine from the refrigerator and took two wine glasses from a cabinet. "It's almost time for sunset. Let's go up to the bridge, shall we?"
The bridge had a teak deck that shone like new, a teak cafe table and chairs, and, in this anchorage, an amazing view to the west of Great Abaco Island.
Charity relaxed into a chair as Savannah yanked the cork from the bottle and poured two glasses. She handed one to Charity and sat down in the other chair.
Charity held up the glass. "To another fine day."
"To another fine day," Savannah said in agreement, clinked her glass, then took a long sip.
They sat there together for a full minute as the sun slowly made its way toward the horizon, a silence between them that started to feel uncomfortable.
Charity said, "Last time I saw you, you left without a goodbye." It was meant to be a question, not an accusation.
Savannah fidgeted in her chair. "Yeah, well. It was a little upsetting, you know."
"I know. I'm sorry."
Another minute passed. The sun barely moved.
"How's Flo handling it?" Charity asked, trying not to sound too intrusive.
Savannah shrugged. "Who knows. We talked about it. She thinks we got in a fight and ran away. I can't imagine what she'd be thinking if she knew the truth." She was talking, but not making eye contact.
"And she never will," Charity said. She meant it.
Savannah turned to face Charity. Her eyes had the same dull and inscrutable look as they’d had right after Charity had disposed of the bodies. "Why are you here?"
"Well, I..." This was a mistake, she thought.
Everyone she'd loved or cared about got killed, one way or another. She'd hoped she could leave those memories behind and have a normal life, if only for a few weeks. Spend time with a friend. Especially one who didn't look over her shoulder at every sound. Didn't she deserve that?
"I don't know,” Charity replied. “I saw you were here and I... well, the truth is—" She drew in a breath. She could be honest with Savannah. That's what it meant to be a friend, right? "I know this will sound silly, but I don't have any female friends, really. You're as close to a friend as I've got, and I thought maybe..."
Savannah stared off into the sunset.
Maybe a friendship with Savannah was too much to expect. What happened on Hoffman's Cay was probably the most traumatic thing that she’d ever experienced and Charity's presence was bringing it all back.
"I know what happened must have really shaken you up,” Charity said. “I hope my coming by to visit isn't too uncomfortable for you."
That still didn't crack the shell that Savannah had encased herself in.
Charity wasn't sure what to do, what else to say. She set her wine glass on the table and started to rise from her chair. "You know what? I should go."
Savannah seemed to snap out of her daze. "No, no. Please." She touched Charity on the arm. "Please stay. I've been rude. I'm sorry. Really."
Charity hesitated, then eased back into the chair.
Savannah forced a smile, let out a puff of air as if she'd been holding it in. "You were going to meet up with your boyfriend, after he had some boat repairs done, if I remember correctly? Are you still together?"
A wave of grief flowed over Charity. She gave herself a moment to let it pass. It had been nearly two years ago; she could say the words. "Victor's dead."
Savannah spun in her chair to face Charity. "My gosh. I'm so sorry."
"He was murdered in Nassau."
Her mouth dropped open.
Charity took a sip of her wine, then another.
Savannah wrapped her arms protectively around her chest. "Was he, uh, in the same line of work?"
"Yes, but he'd given it up. We both had. We were cruising, like I said. His murder was random. Wrong place at the wrong time. A gang of thieves drugged him and robbed him, then bludgeoned him to death."
Savannah shuddered. The tendons in her hand stretched taut and turned white as she gripped her wine glass.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Too much information, right?" This wasn't going as Charity had hoped.
A wry smile formed on Savannah's lips. "I guess I should be grateful that people like you are willing to do what you do to keep people like us safe."
Charity didn't know how to respond, so she said nothing. She stared into the glass of wine. She really could use a belt of whiskey right now.
"I'm sorry about Victor. I really am," Savannah said, almost in a whisper.
The sun ducked behind the trees of Pelican Point on Great Abaco Island to the west and orange streaks shot across the sky, lighting the wisps of clouds from underneath, making them glow.
Charity drew in a breath. She'd try again. She liked Savannah and her friendship was something she wanted very much. She needed to lighten the mood. "How about you?" she asked, keeping her voice upbeat. "A boyfriend?"
"No." Savannah threw her head back and managed a dry chuckle. "No, no, no. Nope. Not interested."
"You'd mentioned an ex-husband, last time we spoke,” Charity said, knowing full well that the ex-husband wasn’t Flo’s father. “He's out of the picture? He didn't want anything to do with Flo?"
Savannah’s eyes flashed with disdain at the mention of him. "Are you kidding? Derrick doesn't know Flo exists. He wouldn't care about her if he did. Besides, there's a reason I divorced him."
Charity didn't ask. She was walking a fine line. Prying into stuff that was too personal wasn't going to help.
Savannah went on. "He could lose his temper, get violent, you know." She emptied her glass, set it down, refilled it nearly to the brim, and took another sip before continuing on. "If I questioned anything, I swear, it was like I'd challenged his very manhood. When I left him, it made him very angry. But don't misunderstand. He didn't miss me. It was just an affront to his ego that a mere woman would leave him."
"I've met a few guys like that," Charity said.
"Yeah, well, I was stupid enough to marry one." She shook her head, ashamed of the decision.
"You were young."
"The thing is, he wasn't like that when we were in school. He was fun, care-free. Then he went to work for his dad." A sadness came over her for a long moment, then she sat up straight in the chair. "Enough about him." She brushed the air with her hand as though sweeping him away. "So, have you been here in The Bahamas all this time?"
"Actually, since I saw you last, I sailed all the way to Australia and back."
Savannah’s eyebrows shot up. "Really? That must have been quite an adventure."
"What brought you back here?"
Charity hesitated. The last time she'd mentioned Jesse, Savannah had clammed up. The two had had a relationship, but Savannah had left to give her ex another chance. "I had a passenger I dropped off in the Florida Keys." She paused. "It was Jesse."
"Jesse McDermitt?" Her eyes lit up, but she quickly tried to hide her interest.
"Yeah. He helped me sail Wind Dancer back from the west coast."
"Ah." She sipped her wine, then looked down into the glass, as if she wanted to crawl into it to hide. "How long did that take?"
"You went through the Panama Canal?"
"Huh. I bet that was interesting."
Charity waited. Would she ask about him?
Savannah took another sip of wine, her eyes darting about now as she mindlessly rubbed her earlobe. "How is he? Jesse?"
"He's good. Real good."
Savannah turned to look Charity in the eye. "Are you and he...?"
"No." Charity shook her head. "No. Just good friends."
"Ah." She seemed relieved. "Well, a guy like that. He must have a girlfriend by now."
Charity shook her head. "Not really." He'd been seeing Sara Patrick for over a year. She was the first mate of Ambrosia, the ship Jesse was currently training on. She was Jesse's co-worker, and, as far as Charity could tell, their relationship was purely physical, but then Jesse wasn't exactly the kind of man to kiss and tell.
"Not really? What does that mean?" Savannah said, staring at Charity.
Charity shrugged. "He's a man. How do I know?"
Savannah grinned and Charity laughed.
"Forgive me for saying it," Charity said, her tone soft, "but you seem like you still have feelings for him."
Savannah stared off at the sunset but said nothing.
Charity offered, "He's a good man."
Savannah jerked her head toward Charity. "I know that."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
Savannah’s eyes softened. "Sorry."
Carefully, Charity said, "You told me he might be Flo's father. Don't you want to know for sure?"
Savannah sat back in the chair, blew air out of her lungs in a long, exhausted exhalation. "Why? Does he want to be a father?" It was obviously a rhetorical question. "I'm so happy with just the two of us. Why bring a man into the picture to mess it all up?"
Charity held up her glass again. "I'll drink to that."
Savannah clinked her glass and gulped down the remainder of her wine. She set the glass on the table and crossed her arms in front of her chest. "The thing is, I don't know if I'd want him here, with her, anyway. What happened at Hoffman's Cay—it's made me think these last couple of years. Your life, his life, the things you do. It's not...I can't have that for Flo."
The acid in Charity's gut turned. The air around her closed in, murky and stale. Savannah was right. She was a killer. It wasn't just a job. She killed without remorse, without a second thought. With a gun, a knife, her bare hands—it didn't matter. She looked down at her own hands and she saw blood. Too much blood. She was coated in it. She couldn't touch Flo, couldn't be around her.
Suddenly Charity couldn't breathe. She pushed up from the chair. "I've gotta go," she managed to blurt out.
Savannah rose beside her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—"
Charity didn't hear any more. She was down the ladder and into her dinghy, the motor started, and halfway across the water to her own boat before she breathed again. She tied off the dinghy and fled down below, to her bunk, where she flopped facedown in her pillow and wept.
She cried for all she'd lost. For a mother who’d abandoned her, a father who’d died in the prime of life, her childhood, her innocence. For Jesse’s friend Jared, who Charity had fallen in love with, and for Victor. All lost too soon. For all that could have been but would never be, she wept.
She was who she was. She couldn't change that now.
She cried until she couldn't cry anymore.
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