AWKWARD SILENCE DESCENDED ON THEM while Colin tried to get the circulation going in his fingers again, and Anna tried to figure out what she was supposed to do next. Or say next.
What is Viktor going to say when he hears about this? she wondered. What is Berenger going to tell him? She glanced up through the pitch black to the approximate location of that blasted ledge off of which Lobai’s man had unceremoniously tossed her and a knot of panic clogged her throat. How are we going to get out of this?
“I don’t suppose you have a light on you.”
Startled, Anna whipped around to stare unseeingly in his direction. “What?”
“A light, lass. Torch, flashlight, whatever you want to call it. Something to pierce this black darkness in which we find ourselves.”
Despite herself, a corner of her mouth curled at his dramatic words. “I might. Let me see if I’ve still got it.”
“Lovely choice of words there, darling.”
She made a face. “You know what I mean.”
“Aye.” The laughter in his voice said otherwise.
Grumbling under her breath, Anna proceeded to check her pockets. Womanly hips and thighs were a terrible hindrance to keeping much of anything in pockets; they always made her feel like she was a yard wide—but she had a few things tucked away in case of emergencies.
Of course, she thought wryly, palming a tiny light, I always thought I’d use this if we lost power to the ship. Not to find my way through a watery cave with a complete stranger. She paused. Even if he does have a sexy voice.
Eyes widening and face flushed, Anna pushed that thought right out of her head. Complete stranger, remember? He could be a serial killer masquerading as a smuggler, for all you know. “Found it,” she announced.
“Oh, good.” Colin sounded more than a touch relieved. “I’d hate to have to blindly stagger through all this.”
Anna switched the penlight on, blinding both of them for an instant before their eyes adjusted to the meager light. The first thing she did was shine the light on her companion, to see what kind of a man he was.
Colin brought up a hand to shield his eyes. In a pained voice, he demanded, “Ow, lass, is that really necessary?”
“Yes, it is.”
Anna quickly looked him over. She concluded he was probably just under six feet tall, had curly dark hair in need of a trim, a neatly trimmed beard, and seemed to be in fairly good shape. She had no idea what his eyes looked like, or what his face looked like, for that matter, since he was still shielding it.
“What’s the verdict?” he demanded, testily, but there was a hint of satisfaction to his words.
Anna snapped the light away from him. “You don’t look like a serial killer. Of course,” she added, frowning to herself, “from what I understand, serial killers seldom do look like killers.”
A brief silence greeted this, before Colin said dryly, “I think we’d best get you out of here, lass.”
“I think that’s a good idea.”
“Don’t suppose you’ll let me see what you look like?”
Anna snorted. “Not while I’ve got the light.”
“Pity,” she heard him murmur.
Rolling her eyes, Anna directed the light around at their surroundings.
Just as she had expected, the light revealed slick, rocky walls and ceiling. They were indeed on a little ledge—a miniature shore made of rock extending from one damp wall. Another knot of sticky panic rose in her throat, but she forced it down. Get a grip, she scolded herself. It’s not like we’ve been locked in an airless room with no windows and a door that’s been welded shut.
That had happened once, to Viktor. He’d gotten out, but they didn’t talk about it.
Beside her, Colin stood very still, following the light and straining to see if it revealed even a hint of an escape.
So far, nothing had presented itself. Anna continued to play the light around the cavern. There has to be a way out.
All she saw was black water extending off into the cavern behind them—the opposite direction from the ledge over which they had both been thrown. “Great,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “Just…great. How in the galaxy are we supposed to get out of here?”
“Point that back over at the ledge, will you?” Colin directed, still rubbing the feeling back into his hands.
Anna obliged, and they both stared at the rocky wall leading up to the ledge. We won’t be climbing that, she thought grimly.
“Nope, no good.” She could hear the scowl in his voice. “We’ll not be scaling that.”
“That’s what I thought. Looks like we’re going to have to swim for it.” Anna scowled too; she wasn’t looking forward to it.
“When I get my hands on that man … ” Colin began, but he abruptly broke off. “Hang on.” He put a hand on Anna’s arm to stop her from swinging the light around any further. “What was that?”
“What was what?” she asked irritably, narrowing her eyes at his hand on her arm.
“That.” He raised her arm to shine the light at the cavern wall on the opposite side of the lake from where they stood. “It’s shadowed—I think it might be an opening.”
“You think it might be an opening?”
Colin shot her a look. Anna could not quite make out his expression, but his voice was very dry as he replied, “If you have a better suggestion for a way out of here, lass, by all means, let’s hear it.”
She swallowed. “I don’t really want to get back in the water.”
“Well, it’s either swim for it or stay here. Ladies’ choice, but I must warn you, I’ll not be staying.”
Anna bristled, her mouth dropping open at his presumption. “Well, I wouldn’t ask you to stay. I’m not stupid.”
Colin shifted closer to her, close enough that she could now make out his features from the light she was shining across the lake. Which, of course, meant he could now see her too. In all my waterlogged glory.
“Don’t be angry with me, lass. This is hardly my doing.”
Why would Lobai throw me down here with you? Anna wanted to snap, but she held her tongue. Might need his help later. “Ugh. Fine.” She walked down to the waterline. I hope it really is another cave. “Let’s do it.”
She regretted her choice of words as soon as they left her mouth, but to her surprise, Colin did not take her inadvertent opening as an excuse to make a suggestive comeback. She did think she heard him muffle a snort of laughter, and rolled her eyes.
When she made to turn off the light, however, he said quickly, “Don’t!”
The sharp, almost pleading, tone of his voice made her eyebrows shoot up in surprise; she glanced over her shoulder at him. “Why? It won’t be easy swimming with it.”
“I’ll carry it in my mouth,” he said grimly, running a hand through his damp hair. “Just—don’t turn it off. I was down here for hours, and it’s nice to be able to see again.”
“Okay, whatever.” Anna acquiesced with a shrug. Truth be told, she wasn’t that keen on returning to utter darkness either, but he didn’t need to know that.
“You want me to carry it?” Colin’s voice evened out.
“Nah, I got it.” No way am I giving my only source of light to a stranger.
After a brief second of hesitation, Anna stuck the end of the penlight in her mouth and clamped her lips around it. Theoretically, the penlight was waterproof, and it had survived her swim through the lake, but she was taking no further chances. Sitting down on the stone ledge and letting her legs dangle in the chilly water, she inhaled sharply through her nose and slid off into the lake.
The water’s temperature was only marginally less of a shock the second time around. Anna struck out for the cave across the lake without turning to see if Colin was following her. Either he is, or he isn’t—and I highly doubt he’s going to opt to stay here.
Splashes to her right indicated he had indeed followed her into the water. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye as he came up beside her. He’s fast.
She was suddenly, horribly hyper-aware of Colin’s proximity to her body. Magnified as they were by the combination of the cave’s walls and the water, the splashes he made as he swam beside her sounded uncomfortably close. She could feel the ripples he made in the water competing with the waves she herself was making. In other, ordinary circumstances, she probably would have never noticed a thing, but this underground lake seemed to lend this situation an unpleasantly intimate cast.
Were it not for the penlight tightly clamped between her lips, she might have laughed. Or maybe snorted, though that was sure to earn her a look and perhaps a comment about a lack of ladylike behavior. No, no, she thought with a borderline hysteric laugh building in her throat, that’s something Bear would have commented on.
Maybe Viktor too, depending on how much he’d had to drink that night. Usually he didn’t care how close his little sister came to being just like one of the guys, but sometimes he seemed to get a space mite in his ear and he’d break out a lecture about how Anna need to be just a touch more feminine.
Anna thought that was hilarious, considering he really had no more idea what that was supposed to look like than she did. We live on a freighter, for crying out loud. And her brother had gathered a rather motley crew, if she did say so herself. It’s not like we spend a lot of time around ‘proper’ folks anyway.
Besides, from what she’d seen of your ordinary, run-of-the-mill females, that was an awful lot of flirting that didn’t amount to a can of engine oil. Batting eyelashes and silly little giggles and other insipid behavior that made Anna itch to slap somebody, or attempt to shake some sense into them.
“Credit for your thoughts.” Amusement colored Colin’s voice again. “I can hear you thinking all the way over here.”
Like you’re that far away, Anna thought with a sniff. She did not dare actually move a muscle in her face—her lips were starting to go numb from clutching the penlight so tightly, and her face was beginning to ache as well.
“You sure I can’t help you with that, lass?”
“No,” she mumbled around the penlight’s handle. They had almost reached the opening by now.
“If you’re sure … ”
It only aggravated Anna further that he did not sound winded at all—despite the fact that he had been trapped down here for hours with no food.
With a splash, Colin put on a burst of speed and pulled ahead. Anna had a few seconds to admire the surprisingly lean lines of his body cutting through the water before she realized what she was doing and jerked her eyes away from him to focus on the opening. She couldn’t keep her face from burning; she was very grateful that he was in front of her and not in a position to actually get a good look at her.
Colin reached the cave wall a moment before she did and stretched his hands up to the lip of the opening. He just grazed it with his fingertips and Anna realized with dismay that it was a good deal farther up in the wall than either of them had expected. Some of the color drained out of her face as she stared up at the opening; she stopped swimming and just floated there treading water instead. There is no way I’ll be able to get up there by myself.
“Right,” Colin muttered, shaking his head and sending water droplets spattering onto the lake’s surface. He dug the toes of his boots into the rocky wall for traction and reached for the opening again. He failed and dropped back down in the water again, creating waves that rocked Anna up and down.
The penlight wavered; she adjusted her grip on it once more.
Colin set his jaw and tried again. This time, he managed to give himself enough of a boost with his toes that he was able to successfully grab the ledge. The muscles in his arms bulged beneath his sodden jacket as he pulled himself up onto it, leaving a dripping trail of water behind him.
Anna felt a very real fission of fear skitter down her spine and jolted forward through the water, splashing clumsily. He wouldn’t leave her behind, would he? I have the light. She reached the rocky wall and looked up to find a hand stretched toward her.
Colin knelt on the floor of the opening, reaching down. “Come on, lass. It might be best if you give me the light first so we don’t drop it.”
Her jaw ached fiercely, but Anna wasn’t sure she trusted him not to leave her once he had the light.
Colin rightly interpreted her hesitation. “I’ll not take it and leave you here, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He offered her a lopsided grin. “We both know I could have left you down there and found my way in the dark, if I’d a mind to do it.”
That’s true. Anna made her mind up all at once and acted on it. If she stopped to consider it any longer, she knew she’d change her mind. Still kicking her feet in the water to keep herself afloat, she pulled the penlight from her mouth and handed it up to him.
Their fingers brushed as Colin took it from her, and then the light partially disappeared as he laid it off to the side. “All right, lass.” He extended a hand down to her again and they locked wrists. His fingers were cold. “Use the wall to help you climb up and reach!”
He hauled her up out of the water—with her doing her best to use his support to climb up the wall—and onto the ledge beside him. They both collapsed onto the rocky floor. The dry, rocky floor, Anna was happy to note.
“Well, that was exciting,” Colin said between breaths. He shot a dirty look toward the lake beneath them. “And that was downright evil. How did Lobai expect you to get out of there?”
Anna darted a sharp look at him, but she tried to keep her voice level. “Noticed that, did you?”
Colin just shook his head, his mouth flattening into a grim line. “I expect your brother will be less than pleased.”
“Probably. I’m less than pleased.” Anna sucked in a deep breath and forced herself to stand, palming the penlight as she did so.
Colin climbed to his feet as well, and motioned to the dark cave tunnel that lay behind them, leading off…somewhere…into further darkness. “Shall we?”
Anna scowled at the tunnel. “It’s not like we have much of a choice.”
Galaxy’s Way is © 2016 by E.R. Paskey