After the Storm

Chapter One

"She's gone, Mariel. I lost my wife, I lost my baby. All because of him."

Those words were like daggers, flying from the next room and expertly hitting their target. Tom Underlay ventured a glance at Russell Varon, who glared back angrily at him. Mariel, with her back to Tom, was trying to calm her ex-husband. Tom had no doubt that if his wife wasn't there, Russell would have lunged at him and the two men would've gotten into a fistfight, as they had not that long ago.

Better not to get in the way right now, Tom advised himself. He did what he had to do, or what he thought was their only hope in order to save the life of Russell's wife, Larkin. Not that Russell wanted to hear that and, really, Tom couldn't blame him. Russell was also distraught and Tom wasn't doing much better himself. The only one there with her wits about her, thankfully, was Mariel.

Just to catch some fresh air, Tom stepped out of the house, that humble little shack in the glades where Russell had lived with Larkin and the kids. Now that the hurricane had passed, swirled right out of town and straight into the ocean, it was turning out to be a gorgeous day.

That didn't seem right somehow, not after all the misery the hurricane had left. Tom leaned against the wall, remembering the moment Larkin had been swept out of his arms in the water. His heart had broken when he'd seen that gaping exit wound, and Larkin—well, she was such a little thing, not much bigger than his daughter Kira. Even pregnant, she was so light in his arms as he'd carried her across the sand and into the water, knowing the woman was at death's door.

But everything would be all right, he reminded himself. He had to believe that. For all he knew, Larkin was already stepping out of the water, both she and her baby healed and whole.

Healed and whole . . . but different. Tom groaned, recalling the first words Russell had said to him, words spat out in a rage and inconsolable grief.

I want my Larkin—and you've changed her forever, you bastard!

Tom pushed open the door slightly. He peered in and saw Mariel turning to him. Russell saw him but looked away.

"I'll be back," Tom said. "I'm—I've got to see about something."

"Okay, honey," Mariel replied. "Careful, okay?"

"I will be, baby."

So here we go: back to being the bad guy, he mused as he drove in the direction of the beach. Being the good guy, man, now that had been short-lived. At least he'd gotten to be treated with some respect for a brief time. Very brief.

Tom ran a hand through his hair, scolding himself. Enough. This wasn't about him. And for what had to be the thousandth time he told himself that he did the only thing he could think of doing under the circumstances.

Please come back, Larkin. Please be whole, you and the little one inside you.

He swallowed, tasting salt and something bitter at the back of his throat as he cut the cruiser's engine.

The sea, so vast, so overflowing with the secrets she'd kept from the beginning of time, lay before him just beyond the sand, beneath a cloudless, breathtaking east coast sky. Overheard, gulls flew, swooping down only when they spotted some morsel for breakfast left on the sand by the ebbing tide. In the distance he could hear the mechanical whir of a helicopter's blades, apparently the Air Force scouting the area in their routine searches after a devastating natural disaster.

Tom stood, his thumbs hooked into his utility belt. He sighed and looked out.

The sea offered nothing. No sign of Larkin being returned, no answers, nothing.

He rubbed his eyes. The Florida sun, always a scorcher, was powerful even at that hour, forcing him to draw his sunglasses from his pocket. Yet it was more than that.

Plain and simple, he was tired. It had been such a long, long night, and he was exhausted. He'd been feeling that way, he realized, for some time. Living his life as both a man, as a husband and father and law enforcer, and also as what he'd become years ago in the water, was proving more difficult with each passing day.

He was about to leave, actually turning, when he saw something out over the waves. Tom did a double take and froze in place.

Someone was out there. Swimming effortlessly, with the grace of an Olympic athlete. As the form drew closer, Tom drew in a breath, afraid to allow himself a grain of hope.

That was a woman out there. A dark-haired woman, her frame petite and slender.

"Oh—oh, Larkin," he whispered. Then he shouted, "LARKIN!"

The laughter that bubbled out of him was exuberant and rich. It was the laugh of a man who'd suddenly had years shaved off his age by the appearance of a miracle. Tom ran into the water, oblivious to the fact that he was once more soaking his white sheriff's uniform, splashing like a little kid on the first day of summer.

Larkin was alive. Alive, alive, alive! Alive and a hybrid, but come on—who the hell cares? The kids, even his Kira, had come to love Russell's sweet second wife, who seemed too gentle of spirit to be as tough a reporter as she was.

But then he stopped running in the water that reached halfway up his legs. Frowning, he slipped off his shades and stared in sheer disbelief.

That wasn't Larkin. He knew Larkin Groves, and that wasn't her.

And—his adrenaline raced with trepidation and, to his surprise, utter joy—he knew this woman, too. Knew her so, so well. The years had passed. Like him, she was older now. Still youthful, and now more beautiful than ever. Dressed in a white wetsuit, her dark hair wet and flaxen, she stirred in him a long-forgotten thrill from yesterday.

"No, it's not Larkin," she spoke, her tone playful. "Guess again."

Was this a ghost? Damn, how tired was he? Again he rubbed his eyes. Was he seeing things now, on top of everything?

"I'm someone you forgot all about," she said. "But now I'm back. Hello, Tom."

He couldn't move, so dumbstruck. His heart was pounding like the relentless thunder of the hurricane that had just passed. She had his face in her hands, and her mouth planted a red-hot kiss on his for the first time in over a decade.

There was no mistaking who this was. And this was no ghost. She was alive, as alive as he was. This was his first wife, the mother of his child, back from the dead, in warm flesh and blood. And he really was holding her in his strong, muscular arms.

"Hel-hello," Tom stammered, "Grace . . . "