Carolina Heart

A Dare Island novella

Virginia Kantra

Chapter One

Cynthie Lodge counted heads as the gaggle of third graders jostled their way from the aquarium's touch pool to the living shipwreck exhibit. Two, three, four...And there was Hannah, her wild puff of hair glowing like a halo in the blue-green light, her small face absorbed in the silent underwater world before her.

She was so bright. Like a star.

Cynthie's heart contracted and relaxed in helpless response, swamped by a wave of fierce, maternal love.

Mama used to say girls didn't need to be smart. The good Lord blessed you with a soft heart and willing hands, Mama would say in her comfortable island brogue. A pretty girl don't need more.

But Hannah was smart. Both of Cynthie's girls were smart, even if some days it seemed like twelve-year-old Maddie had more hormones than brain cells. All they needed was encouragement and a good example.

Cynthie had never in her life been a good example. But for her girls' sake, she was trying.

"Look, a cannon!" a boy shouted.

"Sharks!"

The kids surged toward the huge aquarium wall, darting like a school of fish.

Cynthie smiled. She still remembered the excitement of going on a field trip, the thrill of escaping school for the day. Some things never changed.

And some things did. She actually wanted to be in school now, to make something of herself, to make a decent life for her daughters.

Now that the school year had started for all of them, she didn't often get to spend the day with her girls. Or any time at all that wasn't taken up with homework and laundry and bills. Working nights was great for tips, but it sure wouldn't win her Mother of the Year.

"Can we have quiet?" Miss Green, Hannah's teacher, asked. "Boys and girls, quiet, please."

There was some shushing, some shoving.

"...recreated just as the divers found it," the aquarium guide was saying. "The artifacts from the Beaufort Inlet wreck have been tentatively linked to the Queen Anne's Revenge, the flagship of the notorious pirate Blackbeard."

"Arrrgh!" yelled Ryan Nelson.

"Ssh."

"Whether the ship truly belonged to Blackbeard or not, you can see the different species of near-shore marine life that made a home in the wreck."

A sea turtle, round and pale as the moon, emerged from the gloom of an encrusted anchor. Cynthie watched, entranced, as it floated toward the glass.

"Miz Lodge, I have to use the bathroom."

Cynthie's attention snapped down to one of the girls in her group. "I took you all to the restroom fifteen minutes ago," Cynthie said.

"I didn't have to go then. I have to go now."

"She has to poop," Ryan said. "Take her to the poop deck."

"Be quiet," one of the younger boys said. Aidan Clark, a friend of Hannah's.

"Who's going to make me, squirt? You?"

Before Cynthie could intervene, Hannah turned. "Shut up, you guys. I want to hear."

The other girl in their group shifted from foot to foot. "Miz Lo-odge."

"Okay, honey, just a second." Cynthie caught the teacher's eye, pointed to the fidgeting child and then back toward the restrooms.

Miss Green nodded.

"Anybody else?" Cynthie asked cheerfully. "Hannah?"

Her daughter shook her head, engrossed by the spiny fish gliding through the watery landscape.

"Right. Aidan, you should go back to your group," Cynthie said. "The rest of you stick together, okay? We'll only be a minute."

But it was closer to five before they were done.

Cynthie hurried the girl back across the lobby, re-entering the illuminated gloom of the galleries. Their school group had moved on from the pirate ship replica to the rusty wreck of a freighter. Hundreds of brilliant-colored fish flashed through the blue-green water.

Cynthie spotted Ryan's head and began to count the kids in her charge, one, two, three...

Her heart tripped. Where was Hannah?

She took a breath. Held it. Hannah wasn't missing, she told herself, scanning the clusters of children. She'd simply wandered off with another group. Or lingered behind at another exhibit. Or...

"Miss Green, have you seen Hannah?"

The teacher broke off her discussion with another mother to reply. "She went with you to the restroom."

A buzz rose in Cynthie's head like the white noise on TV when the cable went out. "No, she didn't."

"She followed you. You must have missed her."

Cynthie wanted to shake her.

Teachers needed to stay calm, she reminded herself. But she hadn't missed Hannah. She wouldn't.

"I'll go look," she said.

Miss Green's gaze fixed over her shoulder toward the lionfish tank. "Ryan, don't bang on the glass." She glanced back at Cynthie. "I'm sure she's fine. Try to hurry."

Hurry, Cynthie's instincts screamed as she retraced her steps, scanning the galleries as she passed, pausing by the sea turtle exhibit that was Hannah's favorite. What the hell kind of example loses her own child? Hurry, hurry, hurry.

Another school tour clustered around the touch tanks, sticking their hands in the cool salt water. Cynthie forced herself to slow down, to check each group for Hannah. But her heart raced.

She pushed open the door of the women's restroom.

No Hannah.

A young mother washing her toddler's hands at the sink glanced over curiously as Cynthie peered under the door of the one occupied stall, praying to see her daughter's purple-laced sneakers.

"Have you seen a little girl?" Cynthie asked. "Purple T-shirt, about this tall?" With her hands, she sketched Hannah's height, her soft puff of hair, as if she could shape her daughter out of air.

The woman's expression melted in sympathy and concern. "No, I'm sorry."

But sorry wouldn't fix this, as Mama liked to say.

Cynthie's heart pounded.

Hannah was gone. She'd lost Hannah.

#

The little girl pivoted on one toe of her purple-laced sneakers, glancing up and down the corridor.

She must be lost, Max Lewis thought.

The public was rarely admitted to this part of the aquarium. And unaccompanied children were never allowed. She must have gotten separated from one of the school groups touring the galleries downstairs.

"Looking for something?" he asked as gently as he could.

She whirled to face him, her curly mane of hair dancing in a nonexistent wind. He stood still, at a distance, the way he would approach any wild thing.

She frowned at him. Her eyes were soft, clear green, startling in her mocha-colored face.

A memory, feather light, brushed the back of his brain. Something about those eyes... "Are you lost?"

She stuck out her rounded chin. "No."

Max swallowed a grin. "Maybe I can help you get where you're going anyway."

"Maybe. Is this where they feed the sharks?"

She must be looking for the viewing gallery above the shipwreck exhibit. "You're not allowed in the feeding area without a chaperone," he said. "Let me take you back to your group."

She shook her head. "I'm not supposed to go with strangers. Anyway, I want to see where they feed the sharks."

She was smart. Single-minded. He respected that. He was the same way in the pursuit of knowledge-or anything else. But someone somewhere must be missing her. Looking for her.

"You can watch from below with the rest of your class. Or," he added as her small chin set, "I can walk you down to the information desk and we can ask them to page your teacher."

She eyed him warily. "Am I in trouble?"

"Not yet."

She cocked her head, considering, regarding him with those big green eyes. Once again he was teased by that elusive sense of familiarity.

She sighed in defeat. "Okay."

He didn't smile. He remembered too well being at the mercy of adults' whims and rules and regulations, dragged in the wake of his parents' academic appointments and sabbaticals, constantly changing schools and houses, never quite fitting in.

It was tough being a kid.

He escorted her down to the gallery. Schoolchildren swarmed the exhibits, their voices bouncing off the high ceiling. Max paused, a little daunted by the noise. He liked kids, at least in principle. But his own students were quite a bit older.

"Do you see your teacher?" he asked.

The little girl shook her head.

"Hannah!"

A woman hurried toward them, cleaving through the sea of kids like the figurehead on some fantasy ship. Black hair, full breasts, wide green eyes...

Max blinked in disbelief, in recognition. His breathing stopped. "Cynthie?"

The most beautiful girl in high school. Hell, in the whole world.

Still.

#

Relief loosened the muscles in Cynthie's back, sent a warm flush like anger up her chest and into her face.

Be cool, she tried to tell herself. You're the cool mom.

She grabbed Hannah's upper arms, unsure if she should hug her or shake her. "Where have you been?" Even to her own ears, her voice was too loud.

Hannah wriggled, embarrassed.

"I found her trying to get to the viewing platform. Smart kid. Very, uh, determined. You must be proud." Cynthie looked up at this babbling stranger standing behind Hannah. And up. He was tall, lean and tanned and boyish. His frayed and faded cargo shorts ended above big, square knees, revealing muscled calves dusted with dark hair and ratty sneakers. He met her gaze, smiling almost apologetically.

"Who are you?" she asked, her heart still pounding in fear and relief. And what were you doing with my daughter?

His smile faded. "Max Lewis."

Cynthie caught herself. It wasn't his fault Hannah had left her group. He was trying to help. And Cynthie, of all people, should know better than to judge somebody based on appearances. She smiled back and offered her hand. "Cynthie Lodge."

His clasp was warm and strong. "Yes, I know."

Her hand jolted in his hold. And then she relaxed. "Oh, right. Hannah. You must have been looking for me."

"Yes. Well..."

"I didn't tell him your name," Hannah said.

Cynthie shot him a quick, questioning glance.

Max Lewis shrugged broad shoulders. "I kind of knew you in high school."

Growing up on an island, you knew everybody. All the locals at least, the kids who didn't come for a week or the summer.

She narrowed her eyes, studying his face. Quiet, clear gray eyes, straight nose, strong jaw covered in dark stubble. Very nice. The kind of face a woman didn't forget.

But she didn't remember him.

"You went to Dare Island?" she asked.

"Just for a year. My sophomore year. You were a senior?"

She racked her brain. Nope, nothing. The school had six hundred students, grades K-12. She should have known him.

But he'd obviously grown up, filled out since then. People did change from the people they'd been in high school. Those shoulders...She felt a pulse of attraction, like a flutter in her belly, and hastily shunted it away. She'd changed, too. Thank God.

She smiled, shook her head. "Sorry. Thanks for finding my kid."

"No problem. So." He stuck his hands into his pockets, looking from Hannah to Cynthie and back again. "This is your daughter."

Cynthie's back stiffened. She curled her fingers protectively around Hannah's shoulder. "One of them."

"I should have guessed." He smiled. "She looks like you."

The starch went out of Cynthie's spine.

Most people assumed Hannah looked like her father, a US Marine stationed briefly at Lejeune. She had her daddy's coffee-with-cream skin, his soft, dark, springy hair.

But she had Cynthie's name. And Cynthie's eyes.

She smiled. "Thank you."

"Well..." Max cleared his throat in that way nice guys did before they asked a question. Are you married? Can I buy you a drink? Will you have sex with me?

Her heart thrummed. She glanced at his left hand, instinctively checking for a ring or a tan line.

Nope. Not going there. Listening to her hormones had never gotten her anything but pregnant. And while her daughters were the best things that ever happened to her, they left no room in her life for guys. Even nice guys.

Not that she met many of those.

"We have to get back to our group now," she said. "Hannah, you can't go off like that."

"But I had to see where they feed the sharks." Hannah fixed her big green eyes on Max Lewis like a carnie on the midway sizing up a mark. "Maybe you could take me."

"We can't bother Mr. Lewis anymore," Cynthie said firmly.

"Max," he said.

"But he dared me," Hannah said.

Cynthie frowned. "Who dared you?"

"Ryan," Hannah said. "Aidan said that when he came with his mom he got to feed the sharks, and Ryan called him a liar. And I said Aidan wouldn't lie. So Ryan dared him to do it again. Only Aidan was scared. So I said I'd go."

Cynthie squashed her instinctive sympathy. "Sweetie, you can't break the rules because some boy dared you to."

"But, Mom, he was picking on Aidan."

"She really does take after you," Max murmured.

Cynthie looked up, surprised by his intrusion.

He smiled, warm appreciation in his eyes, and something in her brain turned and clicked like the tumblers in a lock. Max Lewis...

"You tell your friend-Ryan, is it?-that the aquarium gives behind-the-scene tours on weekends. But children have to be accompanied by an adult. You should really come," he said.

To her? Cynthie wondered. To both of them?

"That would be cool," Hannah said. "Mom?"

Cynthie shook her head regretfully. "Thanks for the tip. But I'm usually busy on weekends."

"Oh. Sure." Color stained the high ridge of his cheekbones, the points of his well-shaped ears. "You're, uh, married."

"Divorced. I work weekends."

She needed the tips, especially now, in the off season.

He took his hands out of his pockets. "So I could check the aquarium schedule and call you."

Was he...? He was hitting on her, she realized. In a totally respectful, awkward sort of way. It was sweet, a welcome change from the usual grab-ass come-ons at the bar.

Well, it would be welcome if she was looking for a hookup.

Which she wasn't.

"You don't need to do that. I'm sure the aquarium has the schedule on-line." She smiled again to soften her refusal. Well, and because the combination of those broad shoulders and pink-tinged ears was kind of adorable. She glanced down the length of the darkened gallery, searching for the rest of her group. "I've gotta go wrangle my kids. But thanks."

"Right." Max thrust his hands back into his pockets, that clear gray gaze intent on her face. "It was...It was really great seeing you again, Cynthie."

She sighed. He was cute. But she was trying hard these days to listen to her head and not her other parts. Guys didn't want a woman with two kids for anything other than a one-night stand, anyway.

"You, too." She left without looking back.

But she felt his gaze following her, a tickle between her shoulder blades, as she waded back into the sea of kids. They eddied and swirled around her, carrying her away.

***

CAROLINA HEART
Coming as a standalone e-novella July 19, 2016!

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