by Ashlyn Macnamara
George’s booted feet had just made their first impressions in the sand when he saw them. Sunlight glinted off a pair of golden heads. A child, a small boy of no more than six, ran through the surf, squealing when the cold water lapped at his bare toes. A young woman strolled in his wake. Her watchful eyes belied the ease of her gait.
A sharp gust off the Channel seized her bonnet. With a cry, she grabbed for it, long fingers curling around the brim at the last moment before the wind snatched it. After a fruitless attempt to secure the flimsy bit of straw to her head, she left it to straggle down her back by its ribbons. Her hair blew free of its bindings in long, tattered curls. Her feet were bare, as well, encrusted with sand, and the damp hems of her skirts flapped about her ankles.
George caught his breath. He shouldn’t stare, but he couldn’t help it. Her toes sunk into the sand with each step, leaving a set of perfect prints behind. If he chose, he could follow the trail, straight to her.
When she laughed at the boy’s antics, the sound tolled like the pure note of a bell on a frosty winter morning. The echoes might carry for miles through crisp air. They fell on his beleaguered ears like a healing balm.
The boy trotted into the surf, letting the waves chase him, while his sister—she couldn’t be anything else, she was so young—stood back, ever mindful. The set of her shoulders betrayed a readiness to act.
They still hadn’t noted his presence, and he held back, sensing he’d somehow crashed in on an unguarded moment. No young lady would want a gentleman to catch her unshod, her hair unpinned and her bonnet dangling. Who was he to spoil the moment by forcing her to adopt the formality a stranger’s presence required?
Not only a stranger, but a man, and she was hardly chaperoned.
He really ought to return to the main house, but the prospect of enduring his sisters kept his feet planted on the spot. Here, the air was blessedly free of false notes and the only screeching a child’s joyful cries.
A shout drew his attention back to the boy—a different kind of shout, infused with fear, rather than joy. The woman’s cry followed, its plaintive note drowned in the surf’s roar.
The child’s sodden head bobbed on the surface for a moment before disappearing. He’d run too far. A wave had caught him.
George didn’t pause to consider. He didn’t even bother with his boots. He pelted across the strand, the sand sucking at his feet, and plunged into the surf. The water’s icy grip numbed his legs on contact. His chest constricted and he fought to gulp in air. Now was no time to freeze. He must go on. Must reach the child.
There. The boy’s head surfaced, blond hair darkened and waterlogged and falling into eyes round with fear.
George dived, reached, grabbed at nothing but icy water. On the second attempt, his fingers brushed something solid—a tiny hand. He grabbed for it and hauled the boy upright. The child took one look at him and clawed at his topcoat.
“Easy there, son. I’ve got you.” Somehow he forced the words between chattering teeth.
The boy put his arms around George’s neck and clung as he struggled back toward solid ground. Wave followed wave; each one reached for him in an attempt to drag them both under. The need to keep hold of a quivering body prevented him from using his arms in the fight. The sand gave way beneath his feet, threatening to topple him at every footstep and leave him to the mercy of the sea.
Ashlyn lives in the wilds of suburbia outside Montreal with her husband and two teenaged daughters. When not writing, she looks for other excuses to neglect the housework, among them knitting, reading and wasting time on the internet in the guise of doing research. Her first regency romance, A Most Scandalous Proposal, will be published in early 2013. This is an excerpt from her tentatively titled second book, Ruined. Learn more about Ashlyn by visiting her website or following her on twitter (@ashlyn_mac).
Ashlyn is also one of our fab guest critiquers, and you can bid for her sharp eyes on your MS and synopsis until 11:59pm, EDT, April 8th.
Want to submit a water story? No donation required, and it’ll enter you for a great, water-themed prize drawing at the end of each month of the campaign. Water stories are accepted any time, from now to June 28.