by nikkita kent
Cassie propped herself up on the boat’s railing and closed her eyes, the wind dancing across her face. The tang of sea air tickled her nose, reminiscent of summers long since passed.
Deckhands and divers surrounded the ship, drawing her attention as they spoke over one another in a rush. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a lone figure standing still. A deckhand was staring at her, his head cocked to the side. When their eyes met, he winked, and the gesture flooded her cheeks with heat.
A screech from behind jolted her. Spinning around, she found a seagull preening on the bow. By the time she glanced back, the mysterious man had disappeared.
Wondering where he had gone, Cassie watched as pairs of dive buddies secured their gear to the racks, their chatter sending a thrill through her veins. Maybe the trip to Australia had been what she needed after all.
The engine roared to life, their captain calling out orders, but Cassie still hadn’t seen her dive instructor. Her stomach dropped. Had they forgotten she wasn’t certified?
She picked her way toward the stern, hoping she had just missed the middle-aged war vet getting on the ship. Not that she was keen on panicking in front of him again like she had yesterday. Her lungs had insisted she was inhaling Jell-O rather than the bone-dry air being pumped through the regulator.
“Mornin’!” came a deep voice. Cassie swiveled toward the welcome to find the winking deckhand headed her way.
Here was a man who squeezed every last drop of joy out of the day rather than lounging in front of the TV for hours like her ex. Fit from working on the ship, she couldn’t imagine him hunched over a desk at a dead-end job. His dark eyes danced with mirth at her open stare.
“Better be careful. Don’t want to get a sunburn on that tongue of yours.”
Blushing, Cassie snapped her mouth shut. “I just need to know if my dive instructor is on board. I haven’t seen him yet, and we’ve already left the dock.” She worried her lip between her teeth, watching the harbor slide into the distance.
“Nothing to worry about, Cass. Richard had a family situation come up and asked if I’d take you out. Though I’m beginning to think that emergency of his was a setup. The name’s Fletcher.”
Cassie’s mind tripped over Fletcher’s insinuation. She took a good, hard look at the instructor and decided she agreed with Richard. Fletcher could take her out anytime he wanted. Reminding herself staring was rude, she shifted her gaze toward the other passengers.
“I’m really the only one being certified?”
“Yep. You get me all to yourself today.” He grinned, pearly whites flashing. The captain called out to the crew, and Fletcher excused himself with a wave, disappearing into the bowels of the ship.
Heart still racing from their exchange, Cassie made her way to the bow and watched the sun rise higher in the sky, with nothing but sparkling turquoise water for miles.
A shadow fell over Cassie’s shoulder, blocking the sun and cooling her skin. Coming out of her trance, she turned to find Fletcher, plate in hand.
“Here, you’ll need the energy.” Triangles of raisin bread and cheese toast were piled high on the plate. “How are you feeling about the dive?”
She grabbed a slice with raisins, not certain cheese would help the butterflies in her stomach. “Nervous. Anxious. Excited? I dunno.” She shrugged.
“Sounds about right.” He glanced over at her, the sun reflecting off his tousled locks. “I hope you’re not too disappointed Richard couldn’t come. I, for one, am happy he called.”
Nibbling on her toast, she teased, “And why is that?”
“It’s not every day a pretty tourist like yourself graces our little boat with her presence,” he remarked, a boyish grin lighting up his face.
Across the deck, the ship was filled with young men and women from around the globe, gabbing about their travels and calculating dive times. Cassie rolled her eyes.
“I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what happens on this boat every day.”
His hip bumped hers and he smiled, sending a wave of heat through her body. She swallowed around the ball of nerves in her throat. It was just the sun. Yeah … she should probably lather on more sunscreen.
The trip to the reef flew by as they chatted on the deck, the call of the seagulls and hum of the engine adding to the melody. Fletcher told her of his life on the boat and how he’d grown up with a love for the ocean. She told him about her life at home—office job, mortgage, and disappointment. She didn’t tell him about the man who had left her wanting more out of life.
The wind whipped by them at the final anchor point, dark splotches of coral reef scattered all around. Cassie hooked her regulator up to the tank for Fletcher’s approval. He reached over, his arm brushing hers. Electricity danced through her on contact.
With a wet suit suctioned to her body and a tank trying to pull her backward, Cassie stood and reached a hand out to balance herself, only to have Fletcher grab it and hold her steady. She looked up and stared into the warmth of his eyes, absorbing the calm reassurance he projected.
Without a word, he escorted her over to the edge of the boat, wrapping his arms around her chest to check the vest’s straps one last time before she hit the water.
“You ready?” he asked.
Cassie looked him in the eye one last time and smiled, her heart lighter than it had been in years. “As I’ll ever be. There’s no point in looking back now.” With a deep breath and eyes on the horizon, Cassie took a leap of faith.