If she didn't have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.
She plunged through the blue-shot water, driven by a whisper on the wind, a pulse in her blood that carried her along like a warm current. The lavender sky was brindled pink and daubed with indigo clouds. On the beach, fire leaped from the rocks, glowing with the heat of the dying sun.
Her mate was dead. Dead so long ago that the tearing pain, the fresh, bright welling of fury and grief, had ebbed and healed, leaving only a scar on her heart. She barely missed him anymore. She did not allow herself to miss him.
But she missed sex.
Her craving flayed her, hollowed her from the inside out. Lately she'd felt as if she were being slowly scraped to a pelt, a shell, lifeless and empty. She wanted to be touched. She yearned to be filled again, to feel someone move inside her, deep inside her, hard and urgent inside her.
The memory quickened her blood.
She rode the waves to shore, drawn by the warmth of the flames and the heat of the young bodies clustered there. Healthy human bodies, male and female.
* * *
Some damn fool had built a fire on the point. Police Chief Caleb Hunter spotted the glow from the road.
Mainers welcomed most visitors to their shore. But Bruce Whittaker had made it clear when he called that the islanders' tolerance didn't extend to bonfires on the beach.
Caleb had no particular objection to beach fires, as long as whoever set the fire used the designated picnic areas or obtained a permit. At the point, the wind was likely to carry sparks to the trees. The volunteers at the fire department, fishermen mostly, didn't like to be pulled out of bed to deal with somebody else's carelessness.
Caleb pulled his marked Jeep behind the litter of vehicles parked on the shoulder of the road: a tricked-out Wrangler, a ticket-me-red Firebird, and a late model Lexus with New York plates. Two weeks shy of Memorial Day, and already the island population was swelling with folks from Away. Caleb didn't mind. The annual influx of summer people paid his salary. Besides, compared to Mosul or Sadr City or even Portland down the coast, World’s End was a walk on the beach. Even at the height of the season.
Caleb could have gone back to the Portland PD. Hell, after his medical discharge from the National Guard, he could have gone anywhere. Since 9/11, with the call-up of the reserves and the demands of homeland security, most big city police departments were understaffed and overwhelmed. A decorated combat veteran --even one with his left leg cobbled together with enough screws, plates, and assorted hardware to set off the metal detector every time he walked through the police station doors--was a sure hire.
The minute Caleb heard old Roy Miller was retiring, he had put in for the chief's job on World’s End, struggling upright in his hospital bed to update his resume. He didn't want to make busts or headlines anymore. He just wanted to keep the peace, to find some peace, to walk patrol without getting shot at. To feel the wind on his face again and smell the salt in the air.
To drive along a road without the world blowing up around him.
He eased from the vehicle, maneuvering his stiff knee around the steering wheel. He left his lights on. Going without backup into an isolated area after dark, he felt a familiar prickle between his shoulder blades. Sweat slid down his spine.
Get over it. You're in World’s End. Nothing ever happens here.
Which was about all he could handle now.
He crossed the strip of trees, thankful this particular stretch of beach wasn't all slippery rock, and stepped silently onto sand.
* * *
She came ashore downwind behind an outcrop of rock that reared from the surrounding beach like the standing stones of Orkney.
Water lapped on sand and shale. An evening breeze caressed her damp skin, teasing every nerve to quivering life. Her senses strained for the whiff of smoke, the rumble of male laughter, drifting on the wind. Her nipples hardened.
Not with cold. With anticipation.
She combed her wet hair with her fingers and arranged it over her bare shoulders. First things first. She needed clothes.
Even in this body, her blood kept her warm. But she knew from past encounters that her nakedness would be...unexpected. She did not want to raise questions or waste time and energy in explanations.
She had not come ashore to talk.
Desire swelled inside her like a child, weighting her breasts and her loins.
She picked her way around the base of the rock on tender, unprotected feet. There, clumped like seaweed above the tide line, was that a...blanket? She shook it from the sand--a towel--and tucked it around her waist, delighting in the bright orange color. A few feet further on, in the shadows outside the bonfire, she discovered a gray fleece garment with long sleeves and some kind of hood. Drab. Very drab. But it would serve to disguise her. She pulled the garment over her head, fumbling her arms through the sleeves, and smiled ruefully when the cuffs flopped over her hands.
The unfamiliar friction of the clothing chafed and excited her. She slid through twilight, her pulse quick and hot. Still in the shadows, she paused, her widened gaze sweeping the group of six--seven, eight--figures sprawled or standing in the circle of the firelight. Two females. Six males. She eyed them avidly.
They were very young.
Sexually mature, perhaps, but their faces were soft and unformed and their eyes shallow. The girls were shrill. The boys were loud. Raw and unconfident, they jostled and nudged, laying claim to the air around them with large, uncoordinated gestures.
Disappointment seeped through her.
"Hey! Watch it!"
Something spilled on the sand. Her sensitive nostrils caught the reek of alcohol.
Not only young, but drunk. Perhaps that explained the clumsiness.
She sighed. She did not prey on drunks. Or children.
Light stabbed at her pupils, twin white beams and flashing blue lights from the ridge above the beach. She blinked, momentarily disoriented.
A girl yelped.
A boy groaned.
"Run," someone shouted.
Sand spurted as the humans darted and shifted like fish in the path of a shark. They were caught between the rock and the strand, with the light in their eyes and the sea at their backs. She followed their panicked glances, squinting toward the tree line.
Silhouetted against the high white beams and dark, narrow tree trunks stood a tall, broad figure.
Her blood rushed like the ocean in her ears. Her heart pounded. Even allowing for the distortion of the light, he looked big. Strong. Male. His silly, constraining clothes only emphasized the breadth and power of his chest and shoulders, the thick muscles of his legs and arms.
He moved stiffly down the beach, his face in shadow. As he neared the fire, red light slid greedily over his wide, clear forehead and narrow nose. His mouth was firm and unsmiling.
Her gaze expanded to take him in. Her pulse kicked up again. She felt the vibration to the soles of her feet and the tips of her fingers.
This was a man.
* * *
Caleb shook his head and pulled out his ticket book.
Back when he was in high school, you got busted drinking on the beach, you poured your cans on the sand and maybe endured a lecture from your parents. Not that his old man had cared what Caleb did. After Caleb's mom decamped with his older brother, Art Hunter hadn't cared about much of anything except his boat, his bottle, and the tides.
But times--and statutes--had changed.
Caleb confiscated the cooler full of beer.
"You can't take that," one punk objected. "I'm twenty-one. It's mine."
Caleb arched an eyebrow. "You found it?"
"I bought it."
Which meant he could be charged with furnishing liquor to minors.
Caleb nodded. "And you are...?"
The kid's jaw stuck out. "Robert Stowe."
"Can I see your license, Mr. Stowe?"
He made them put out the fire while he wrote them up: seven citations for possession and--in the case of twenty-one-year-old Robert Stowe--a summons to district court.
He handed back their drivers' licenses along with the citations. "You boys walk the girls home now. Your cars will still be here in the morning."
"It's too far to walk," a pretty, sulky brunette complained. "And it's dark."
Caleb glanced from the last tinge of pink in the sky to the girl. Jessica Dalton, her driver's license read. Eighteen years old. Her daddy was a colorectal surgeon from Boston with a house right on the water, about a mile down the road.
"I'd be happy to call your parents to pick you up," he offered, straight-faced.
"Screw that," announced the nineteen-year-old owner of the Jeep. "I'm driving."
"If I start giving breathalyzer tests for OUIs, it's going to be a long night," Caleb said evenly. "Especially when I impound your vehicle."
"You can't do that," Stowe said.
Caleb leveled a look at him.
"Come on, Robbie." The other girl tugged his arm. "We can go to my place."
Caleb watched them gather their gear and stumble across the sand.
"I can't find my sweatshirt."
"Who cares? It's ugly."
Their voices drifted through the dusk. Caleb waited for them to make a move toward their cars, but something--his threat to tell their parents, maybe, or his shiny new shield or his checkpoint glare--had convinced them to abandon their vehicles for the night.
He dragged his hand over his forehead, dismayed to notice both were sweating.
That was okay.
He was okay.
He was fine, damn it.
He stood with the sound of the surf in his ears, breathing in the fresh salt air, until his skin cooled and his heartbeat slowed. When he couldn't feel the twitch between his shoulder blades anymore, he hefted the cooler and lumbered to the Jeep. His knee shifted and adjusted to take his weight on the soft sand. He'd passed the 1.5 mile run required by the State of Maine to prove his fitness for duty. But that had been on a level track, not struggling to stabilize on uneven ground in the dark.
He stowed the evidence in back, slammed the hatch, and glanced toward the beach.
A woman shone at the water's edge, wrapped in twilight and a towel. The sea foamed around her bare, pale feet. Her long, dark hair lifted in the breeze. Her face was pale and perfect as the moon.
For one second, the sight caught him like a wave smack in the chest, robbing him of speech. Of breath. Yearning rushed through his soul like the wind over the water, stirring him to the depths. His hands curled into fists at his sides.
Not okay. He throttled back his roaring imagination. She was just a kid. A girl. An underage girl in an oversize sweatshirt with--his gaze dipped again, briefly--a really nice rack.
And he was a cop. Time to think like a cop. Mystery Girl hadn't been with the group around the fire. So where had she been hiding?
Caleb stomped back through the trees. The girl stood with her bare feet planted in the sand, watching him approach. At least he didn't have to chase her.
He stopped a few yards away. "Your friends are gone. You missed them."
She tilted her head, regarding him with large, dark, wide-set eyes. "They are not my friends."
"Guess not," he agreed. "Since they left without you."
She smiled. Her lips were soft and full, her teeth white and slightly pointed. "I meant I do not know them. They are very...young, are they not?"
He narrowed his gaze on her face, mentally reassessing her age. Her skin was baby fine, smooth and well-cared for. No makeup. No visible piercings or tattoos. Not even a tan.
"How old are you?"
Her smile broadened. "Older than I look."
He resisted the urge to smile back. She could be over the legal drinking age--not jailbait, after all. Those eyes held a purely adult awareness, and her smile was knowing. But he'd pounded Portland's pavements long enough to know the kind of trouble a cop invited giving a pretty woman a break. "Can I see your license, please?"
She blinked slowly. "My..."
"I.D.," he snapped. "Do you have it?"
"Ah. No. I did not realize I would need any."
He took in her damp hair, the towel tucked around her waist. If she'd come down to the beach to swim... Okay, nobody swam in May but fools or tourists. But even if she was simply taking a walk, her story made sense. "You staying near here?"
Her dark gaze traveled over him. She nodded. "Yes, I believe I will. Am," she corrected.
He was sweating again, and not from nerves. His emotions had been on ice a long time, but he still recognized the slow burn of desire.
"Address?" he asked harshly.
"I don't remember." She smiled again, charmingly, looking him full in the eyes. "I only recently arrived."
He refused to be charmed. But he couldn't deny the tug of attraction, deep in his belly. "Name?"
Mar-gred. Sounded foreign. He kind of liked it.
He raised his brows. "Just Margred?"
"Margaret, I think you would say."
She took a step closer, making everything under the sweatshirt sway. Hell-o, breasts. "Do you need one?"
He couldn't think. He couldn't remember being this distracted and turned on since he'd sat behind Susanna Colburn in seventh grade English and spent most of second period with a hard on. Something about her voice... Her eyes... It was weird.
"In case I need to get in touch with you," he explained.
"That would be nice."
He was staring at her mouth. Her wide, wet, full-lipped mouth. "What?"
"If you got in touch with me. I want you to touch me."
He jerked himself back. "What?"
She looked surprised. "Isn't that what you want?"
Caleb was frustrated, savagely disappointed with himself and with her. He knew plenty of women--badge bunnies--went for cops. Some figured sex would get out them out of trouble or a ticket. Some were simply into uniforms or guns or handcuffs.
He hadn't taken her for one of them.
"Oh." She regarded him thoughtfully.
His stomach muscles tightened.
And then she smiled. "You are lying," she said.
Yeah, he was.
He shrugged. "Just because I'm--" horny, hot, hard "--attracted doesn't mean I have to act on it."
She tilted her head. "Why not?"
He exhaled, a gust between a laugh and a groan. "For starters, I'm a cop."
"Cops don't have sex?"
He couldn't believe they were having this discussion. "Not on duty."
Which was mostly true. True for him, anyway. He hadn't seen any horizontal action since... God, since the last time he was home on leave, over eighteen months ago. His brief marriage hadn't survived his first deployment, and nobody since had cared enough to be waiting when he got out.
"When are you not on duty?" she asked.
He shook his head. "What, you want a date?"
Even sarcasm didn't throw this chick. "I would meet you again, yes. I am...attracted, too."
She wanted him.
Not that it mattered.
He cleared his throat. "I'm never off duty. Until Memorial Day, I'm the only cop on the island."
"I don't live on your island. I am only..." Again with the pause, like English was her second language or something. "...visiting," she concluded with a smile.
Like fucking a tourist would be perfectly okay.
Well, wouldn't it?
The thought popped unbidden into his head. It wasn't like he was arresting her. He didn't even suspect her of anything except wanting to have sex with him, and he wasn't a big enough hypocrite to hold that against her.
But he didn't understand this alleged attraction she felt. He felt.
And Caleb did not trust what he did not understand.
"Where are you staying?" he asked. "I'll walk you home."
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"I'm trying to keep you safe."
"That's very kind of you. And quite unnecessary."
He stuck his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. "You getting rid of me now?"
She smiled, her teeth white in the moonlight. "No."
She turned away, her footprints creating small, reflective pools in the sand. "So I will see you."
He was oddly reluctant to let her go. "Where?"
"Around. On the beach. I walk on the beach in the evening." She looked at him over her shoulder. "Come find me sometime...when you're not on duty."