Ocracoke Island, The Outer Banks
Claire stared at the man staring back at her through the night mist. She blinked and then focused her gaze once more.
He was still there.
Her pulse quickened. Her heart hammered in her chest. Slowly, she stepped around the wooden rocker and silently crossed the porch to the entrance. Just to the right of the steps she stopped, placed her hand around the carved porch post and leaned into it, her cheek resting against the smooth and cool painted exterior. Her gaze never left his, and his followed hers as she moved. Inhaling deeply, the misty air hung heavy in her throat. Claire held her breath for a moment and then slowly and silently let it out, trying to clear her mind of the haze.
The nearly full moon provided a shaft of light, perfectly illuminating the man. Waves beat steadily against the shore behind him, an ever-present drone in her ears.
Funny, she thought. The sound used to drive her crazy, now it was barely noticeable. The wind pushed cloud cover in front of the moon’s beam and again she searched the night for a glimpse of him.
There! He’s closer. Definitely closer.
She jumped and fought panic. Her heart skipped a beat. The first night he had stood at the foot of the lighthouse, barely a specter against the illuminated white. The next night he’d ventured nearer, away from the lighthouse.
Now he stood barely twenty yards away, slowly walking toward her on the boarded walkway leading to the steps of her porch. An image of a man. A hologram of sorts.
A ghost? Her imagination run amok?
He fascinated her. Too far away—always too far away to see his eyes—but she knew they were black as pitch, rimmed with clear bright whites.
He stood tall, with his fists placed on either hip. His broad stance was solid, roped with muscle. His hair was long, silky, and as black as his eyes.
She could feel the texture on her fingertips.
How? She didn’t even know what, or who, this man was. But she knew these things about him. Somehow.
He stepped forward. The night breeze ruffled his loose, white shirt, opened halfway down his chest. The wind lifted and swirled her silk nightgown around her legs, and she wondered if the sight of it aroused him, as the glimpse of his bare chest aroused her. She hugged the porch post as he took a step closer.
And then another.
Her spine prickled with fear as well as curiosity and anticipation.
Oh, God. He’s coming closer.
Claire locked her gaze with his, stepping away from the post and backing across the porch until her rear bumped into the screen door. He stopped and stared. Mesmerized by his gaze, she felt a mystical pull, some sort of power emanating from him, propelling her closer. That push-pull rivaled the fear she felt in her heart.
He took another step forward. With each step his body became more solid. More real.
Claire shifted sideways and grasped the cold doorknob behind her.
A soft ocean breeze blew a dark strand of hair across the man’s face, and suddenly she felt compelled to stroke it from his eyes. She wanted to reach forward, caress his temple, peer into those dark eyes…. She released the doorknob and took a half step forward.
He stood still.
She stepped forward once more— But before she could continue, clouds passed in front of the moon again, leaving her in total darkness.
She stood, waiting, the connection broken. Her chest heaved in anticipation. Her pulse raced. Her breathing came in short, shallow gulps. She waited, but when the wind-whipped clouds passed out of the moon-glow’s path, she saw that he had vanished. Nothing but empty black night filled the open space between her cottage and the lighthouse.
Had he ever really been there?
Claire shook her head and blinked. Without fear, and with her heart beating a rapid tattoo, she rushed off the porch steps, turning in circles, her eyes straining through the night, searching.
“Come back here!” she yelled. “Who are you?”
But the night swallowed her plea. Only the ocean winds heard her call.
Claire woke with the previous night’s images still vivid in her mind. Each dawn since she’d arrived in the Outer Banks had brought with it questions and uncertainties about whether the images she’d seen were in her dreams, or were in fact, reality. She woke with a feeling of indescribable emptiness, as if there was something she could not remember, something incredibly important that rested just on the fringes of her mind. It was so strong and so wonderful. So powerful that either her mind refused to comprehend, or sat waiting in anticipation for the right moment to open up and receive the gift of awareness.
This pull, this compulsion to visit the ocean, coupled with indiscriminate flashes of images she could never quite decipher—images she knew she’d never seen before and yet were so familiar—were strange, almost frightening at times. But coming to the barrier islands was something she’d had to do.
She’d had no choice.
And Vicki had given her the push she needed.
Sitting in the center of the bed, she rested her head in her hands, elbows propped on her knees. How could she feel so confused and befuddled by a— A dream? An image? Ghost? Or some insane notion that the answers to all her problems lay in flashes of memory? Memories she wasn’t even sure were hers? Glimpses of a man she couldn’t be sure existed?
The sand and surf was doing weird things to her brain.
She breathed deep and lifted her head.
The problem was she didn’t know what or who he was, or why he affected her so. Why she felt so drawn to the man, and why she felt so lonely after he’d gone.
Or why the smell of the sea felt like coming home.
Looking beyond the cotton curtains billowing in the morning breeze, she could see the ocean, the dunes, and the boarded walkway. She rose and stepped to the window, the pounding of the surf rising in her ears. The old lighthouse stood tall and unyielding to her right.
After quickly dressing, she left the cottage and strolled down the boardwalk toward the lighthouse. The ocean breeze lifted her hair and swirled it around her head. At home she usually pulled it back into a knot or a braid, but here, the climate and laid-back mood of the islands lent itself to loose and long. The relaxed state into which she’d let herself fall seemed appropriate for her surroundings. She’d come to love both the simplicity and the wildness of island life. More with each passing day, it seemed.
When she arrived at the lighthouse, she had jerked on the padlock attached to the chain-link gate and it fell open in her hand, obviously not designed to keep out the curiosity seekers. A sign outside the fence read that the historical renovations would be complete with upcoming funding, and the old lighthouse would soon be open to the public. Until then, the area was off limits. Claire chuckled as she fumbled with the useless lock, surprised no one had taken better care to protect a construction site from the public.
Of course, her light keeper’s cottage and the old lighthouse were far off the beaten path for tourists. Most summer visitors vacationed much further up the coast in the Nags Head area. That’s why she’d chosen this spot. She didn’t need or want people around her this week.
Shielding her eyes from the sun, she slipped through the gate and stood solidly in front of the lighthouse. Looking up at the tall structure, she felt dwarfed by its dizzying massiveness. Its geometric-bricked façade stood in stark contrast against the morning blue sky. A few gulls circled above her head, probably remembering the crumbs she’d brought for them the day before. Her gaze lowered, she stepped around the lighthouse, looking for anything that might provide a clue to the images she’d seen the past nights.
Slowly she walked the exterior. The only thing unusual about the entire structure was a large, open crack in the side facing the ocean. Walking toward it, she bent her head and glimpsed inside. The gap was large, and enough bricks had crumbled away that she could probably pass through it, if she wanted. An odd longing came over her, frightening in its intensity.
A few stones tumbled off the wide foundation she stood upon and landed at her feet. Claire jerked. Was it the uncertainty of the broken structure that caused her momentary panic? Or the mystery of the dark unknown beyond that made her wary?
“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”
Her heart slammed into her throat. Claire jumped back and whirled toward the voice. “What?”
“They just can’t seem to keep those bricks from falling, that crack from forming. Sort of odd, if you ask me. Tried to patch it a dozen times, I expect.”
Bright sunlight silhouetted the man against the ocean. She put a hand up to her eyes but still could not make out the man’s features.
Is it him? The man from last night?
“The place is closed. Not safe to go in.”
Breathless, she moved backward into the shadow of the lighthouse to get a better view, leaning against the structure for stability. Trusting her legs right now would not be a good thing.
“I was just taking a peek in, that’s all.”
“Could be dangerous. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” He stepped into the shadows with her.
A cleansing breath of relief rushed through her. “Mr. Waters?”
The caretaker shrugged. “Who did you expect? You don’t see a lot of other folks around her, do ya?”
Laughing, she shook her head. “No, I sure don’t. And that’s a good thing, really.”
“Humph.” He looked toward the ocean and then back to her again.
He was an older man, graying, probably in his late fifties. Not bad looking. He was a local, and she was sure he had a wife and older kids back home. One of them had answered the phone once when she’d called about renting the house.
“I like the quiet here,” she added.
“Your week been good so far?”
“Oh, yes.” If you could count seeing ghostly images in the night, that is.
He toed the sand with his foot, piling it up against the lighthouse. “Not going stir-crazy yet?”
Maybe just a bit insane is all. “No. But I’ll probably head into the village tomorrow. Know any sights I should see while I’m there?”
He shook his head. “Naw. They don’t much seem like sights to me, all those little stores full of trinkets. The sights are right here. The shore. The ocean. You got those all day long. Then there’s the moon at night.”
She nodded her agreement.
“Most tourist-types like to see the Blackbeard stuff. There’s a museum in town and some shops. You can find about anything Blackbeard you want, if you look.” He eyed her. “You don’t look like the kind of woman that’s interested much in pirate stuff, though.”
Laughing, she returned. “No, can’t say that I’ve ever had a thing for pirates.”
“Well, there’s a couple of decent restaurants. You should go down there and get a nice lunch tomorrow.”
Sounded like a plan to her. “I’ll just do that, Mr. Waters. Thank you.”
He dropped his head in a half-nod and then shifted his gaze back to the sea. “Did you notice the moon? It will be full tomorrow. A blue moon. We’ll probably get a storm.”
Crossing her arms, she studied the lines in the older man’s face. Years of sun, she figured, from working outside on the boats. She’d heard that aside from taking care of this place, he was a fisherman. “How do you know?”
He looked straight at her. “A blue moon phase usually brings us a storm. A real doozie of one at that. The weather people are debating. We’ll see what she brings. Might want to watch for it. Close up those shutters if you need to.”
A storm. She hadn’t thought about having to weather any storms. “I’ll do that.”
He turned. “I’ll leave you be then. Just be careful around this old thing. Until we get the money to get it fixed right, it’s a hazard.”
She watched as he started up the dune toward his truck. Funny how she’d not heard him pull in earlier. Lost in her thoughts, she guessed.
Abruptly, he turned back. “Oh, I almost forgot. You need anything? Everything working okay for you? It’s been a while since someone’s rented the old place.”
“No, don’t need a thing. It’s been perfect.”
He smiled. “Good. See you.” With a small wave, he turned toward the truck.
Nice man. What must it be like to live here all your life? He probably knows everyone….
She hurried forward. “Oh! Mr. Waters? Just one question for you.”
He looked over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“I’ve seen…um…that is, I wanted to know, how close are my neighbors? I’ve seen a man a few times…”
He chuckled. “Ms. Winslow, your nearest neighbor is in Ocracoke. Miles away. That’s why I came to check on you. You’re isolated out here. Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Claire bit her lip and watched him go. He waved again from the truck as he pulled off.
No one around for miles.
She was all alone out here.
The knowledge did nothing to explain her nightly visitor.
From the lighthouse, she meandered toward the cottage and then sat at the top of the rise and watched the morning unfold. The simplicity of it all brought a smile to her face and made her forget her earlier panic. Gulls circled and cried, watching for bits of food to cross their view, while terns pecked the sand and tiny transparent ghost crabs sidled across the wet beach. In the distance, she watched two dolphins arch through the water and a lone fishing boat slice through the early morning fog on its way out to sea.
Mr. Waters seemed to be a nice enough man, and it had been great to have a conversation with someone other than a gull or crab. She’d probably take him up on his advice to get lunch at the village.
But right now, this is where she wanted to be. Sitting here, enjoying the ocean.
Breathing was easier here. Much easier.
Not like in
. Although she loved her home, her
choice had been to get away or go nuts. She needed this time. Cincinnati
A peaceful feeling unlike any she had known wafted over her. The sand, the surf, all of it seemed to be the abrasive she needed to wear away the stress of the past few months. And, even though she didn’t want to admit it, this thing was beyond Rick. It had something to do with this beckoning, this urgent need to get to the ocean. She didn’t understand it but, finally, had given in to this sort of sea-lust. It almost felt like...like returning home.
She had intentionally picked this remote area for her vacation because for at least one week, she had no desire to see anyone, hear anyone, or deal with anyone on a personal level.
Peace and quiet.
She was here to wallow in salt, surf, sand, and clear her head in preparation for her wedding. She had promised both her mother and Vicki that she would not touch one single wedding detail for a week, leaving all of the decisions up to them.
Did they have any clue how difficult that would be for her?
But she had promised when her mother told her if she didn’t, she was going to come with her to make sure she obeyed. And although Claire would have loved her mother’s company, the older woman was in no shape for travel, and it would have worried Claire to no end.
So, she had agreed and left all of her lists, her plans, her wedding calendar and timeline, to the two women.
Rick was surprisingly easy to put out of her mind, as well. He was busy, he had said, when she told him she needed to get away. Work was chaotic, and the honeymoon details had changed. He had much to do. It was probably good that she go away for a week, he told her. They both needed some down time.
That worried her more than anything, at least at first. Rick was fine with her going away. Practically pushed her out the door. Very uncharacteristic of his behavior of late.
Yet, his sporadic behavior was almost the norm, now.
And here she was. Instead of dreaming about their future life together, she was suddenly obsessing about a mystery man. An image of a man who had haunted her thoughts throughout the day and drew her out into the night. Waiting. As she stared into the continuous rolling and crashing of the waves at the beach’s edge, she wondered if she was, in fact, still the practical, analytical, perfectionist woman she thought she was—or was she a woman whose stifled imagination and creativity had suddenly turned on her, forcing her into a world of her own making?
A fantasy world with a fantasy man.
A man unlike Rick.
Her gaze drifted to the lone fishing vessel as it headed further out to sea, finally disappearing into the morning fog. Then momentarily, it reappeared. Squinting, she looked again and saw that it wasn’t the fishing vessel after all. It was a larger ship.
An ocean liner?
The image swelled, faded, and then was swallowed into the mist. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut tight. Couldn’t be.
It looked surprisingly like... Like a pirate ship?
When she looked again, it was gone.
Midnight folded around her. Daring to leave the porch, Claire stood facing the ocean. She waited at the top of the dune for a man she wasn’t even sure was a man, and tried to convince herself she had finally relaxed enough for the vision to fade. That her imagination had taken over in the face of constant stress and had conjured up all sorts of things.
Even a man.
On the slim chance he wasn’t a mirage, she would wait for him. Because if she didn’t, she had this horrible feeling she’d never again find happiness.
That emotion had eluded her lately. Everything else in her life was going haywire. She needed, desperately needed, something special.
Something for her alone.
The ocean winds grew somewhat brisk and cooler. Her thin gown was not nearly substantial enough to keep away the chill. For several minutes, she contemplated leaving, but as she finally turned to go, she noticed the mist rising across the beach.
It crept along the shore, its edges tickled by moonlight. Claire stepped off the boarded walk, drawn closer to the meeting of sand and sea. The cool, wet sand oozed between her toes as she moved closer. The ocean’s foamy fingers teased at her soles.
Claire stopped and looked up. At that moment every muscle, every fiber, every molecule of her body froze.
Her heart jumped.
He emerged out of the mist and stood several feet away—closer than he’d ever ventured before. He looked intently into her eyes. The surf lapped gently at his boots. The moon glow radiated about him, creating an otherworldly halo effect.
Then he smiled.
Claire inhaled and let the lingering breath out slowly, very slowly. Their gazes connected and held for some time; their souls touched. She could feel the power, the pull and tug, the magnetism and the force drawing her closer to him. She couldn’t resist.
Didn’t want to.
Slowly, he edged closer. She sighed. Her chest rose and fell in a rhythm of anticipation and desire. He stepped forward, and every sensory ending on her body stood alert. As she waited, he moved silently until he stood directly in front of her.
His chest rose and fell in harmony with hers. She sensed the fear in his eyes, the anticipation, and the exhilaration of being so close. His eyes sparkled in the moonlight and played over each feature of her face as if memorizing every freckle or laugh line or the high jut of her cheekbones. She swallowed. An intense energy force enveloped them until she felt, somehow, they were no longer two people, but one. There had been no physical touch, no words spoken, no contact whatsoever, but the power of their silent communion was deafening.
Who are you?
She opened her mouth to speak, but he quickly raised his hand and placed a finger to her open lips. A rippling sensation radiated from that one touch throughout her body, down to her toes. She shook off the chill that followed. With his finger still resting on her lips, he took one last step forward until their bodies were as close as they could possibly be and not touch. Hooking one finger under her chin, he tilted her mouth to his. Their gazes locked as his lips descended on hers, and then she closed her eyes.
The kiss was sweet and powerful and passionate. His soft lips nibbled and tasted and rubbed across hers. She felt lost—lost in a swirl of ocean currents and shifting sands and night mist. His tongue mingled with hers, and she thought she might just die. Her breathing quickened even more than before; her beating heart rivaled to keep time with the waves crashing the shore. And then, as his lips departed from hers, she peered into his face—and panicked.
What am I doing?
She took several faltering steps backward, her eyes stinging with tears. She stared at him, frightened, for only a few seconds more, and then she turned and raced up the beach. Never stopping, never looking back, she ran, her pulse drumming in her ears, the surf pounding into the sand. But the emotions he stirred within her were not abandoned on the beach, they were deep inside of her.
And at that moment, she knew instinctively it didn’t matter how far away she ran, or how fast, she would never escape what she had just experienced. It would be with her always.