Prologue

Jim

I was sitting on the strip of beach behind the Benbow Inn, minding my own business, when it all began.

I snuck out like this every night, disappearing after all the guests-and my mother-had gone to bed, and all the dishes were cleaned and put away until the next morning. At this time of the year, being the main tourist season, the Inn was jam-packed with families and middle-aged vacationers. Mom was exhausted. My arms ached from carrying luggage up the stairs and my hands were splattered with blue from having to paint the dining hall. I rubbed my sore neck, staring out at the ocean.

I wasn't much of a swimmer, I'll admit that. I liked to surf-and yes, I know, that requires swimming-but the ocean was a mysterious thing. I only went surfing at high tide. Then, at least, the water was coming in. I hated the tugging of its currents at low tide, the way it sucked at your legs, begging you stay. My father had run off seven years before, and to this day, I still cannot forgive the ocean for calling him to it and taking him away from my mother and I.

I'd never really been the forgiving type.

I stood and brushed off the butt of my jeans and gave the ocean one last glare. That's when I realized that I wasn't alone on this beach tonight.

The waves lapped at the body, whether dead or alive, I had no idea. I felt paralyzed, frozen with a taint of fear. I couldn't tell from where I was on the dunes if it was male or female.

Before my mind registered that my feet were moving, I was sprinting across the sand, adrenaline fueling me. Moonlight reflected off the ocean cruelly, making everything around me-the sand, the harmless ghost crabs, the rock barrier down by the cove-seem sinister and menacing. I shivered, and it wasn't from the chilly wind coming off the water.

I stopped roughly five feet away, breathing heavily. It was a haul from the dunes to the edge of the sea and I was already tired. I peered at the motionless body, arms in a T on the sand, long hair fanning out around the head.

It was a girl.

I felt a blush rise to my face when I realized that she was completely and utterly naked. Thankfully, she was halfway in the water and sand covered much of her lower half. Stripes of hair criss-crossed her chest, so that I couldn't see anything scandalous.

She was a vision-her eyelashes, dark and sooty, cast shadows on her high cheekbones. Her, full lips, rosy red, were parted slightly. She had a cute button nose and arched eyebrows and a chin that hinted at stubbornness. I knelt closer to her and placed my ear near her nose, praying that she wasn't dead.

Nothing. My heart dropped to the pits of my stomach. I glanced around, seeing that other than the dead girl, I really was alone. No one to help me.

I turned to look at her again, and suddenly, she inhaled sharply and her eyes fluttered open. Big, aquamarine doe eyes. My breathing hitched. Her eyebrows drew together in confusion and she raised a hand to my face. I jerked back. I wasn't one for touching.

Hurt flashed in her gaze. She withdrew her hand and attempted to sit up. I watched as she propped herself up on the sand, and with an O of amazement pasted on her lips, stared down at her legs.

Like she'd never seen them before.

"Uh, miss?" I kept my eyes on her as she tried to stand, the moon slipping behind a cloud, blanketing us in darkness. "Miss, are you all right?"

Her tongue poked out at the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on getting her feet under her. Her knees wobbled precariously like a young fawn's and she almost fell twice more. I didn't know what to do. Just a minute before, I had believed she was a goner. Now she was trying to stand and walk.

I reached out for her without thinking. "Miss, you shouldn't do that-"

She grabbed onto my hand as she tripped over her feet, colliding with me. My hand caught her bare shoulder, her body smashed against mine. A million fantasies ran through my head. I gulped and held still for a complete minute while she stilled in my arms. When I glanced down at her, I realized that the reason she had fallen was because she had passed out again, her neck arched back in sleep.

I blew out a sigh. "Well, this is just dandy."

It wasn't like I could just leave her out here for someone else to find, and it wasn't like I could waltz up at midnight to the Benbow Inn with a naked girl.

That's when I saw the towel fluttering on the deck railing of a nearby cottage. I hated to steal, but this was desperate situation. I wrapped my left arm around her limp body and dragged her across the sand to the cottage. All of the lights were out in the windows. I snagged the towel, and threw it around her, feeling a lot less red after she was covered. Heaving a sigh, I picked her up bridal style and headed back towards the Benbow.

Trudging up the dunes, I looked at the girl, still not believing that my evening had turned into this. I sighed again. Mom's gonna love this, I thought as I saw the lamp in my mother's bedroom click on. I braced myself as I kicked open the back door to the inn. It was going to be a long night.