No sooner had the thought occurred to her than she saw two tenders, one gliding sedately through the water, the other, a few seconds behind it, going dangerously fast, churning up a choppy wake as it roared toward the shore. The first tender saw the wooden craft and veered to avoid it, changing course fairly easily. The second seemed totally unaware of the danger.
“Boat!” Toni waved frantically at the second tender. She was in shallow water now and was able to jump up and down as she shouted and flapped her arms. “BOAT!”
Charles Braemar Murphy caught the flash of blond hair and the familiar white bikini.
Toni was waving at him.
“Hey, babe!” He waved back, speeding up to impress her, but found he needed to clutch the wheel for support. That Chablis must have really gone to his head. “I brought you something.”
It took a few moments for Charles to realize that people on the beach were waving at him too. Hadn’t they ever seen a yacht tender before? Or maybe they’d never seen one as powerful as the Celeste’s.
By the time he saw the rowboat, and realized the danger, he was seconds away from impact. Crouched inside, two teenage boys huddled together in terror. Charles caught the look of pure panic on their faces as he hurtled toward them, and felt sick. He was close enough now to see the whites of their eyes and their desperate, pleading expressions.
He lunged for the wheel.
The two lifeguards looked at each other.
“He’s gonna hit them, isn’t he?”
Grabbing their floats, they ran into the water.
Toni watched in horror as the second tender sped toward the rowboat. As it got closer, her horror intensified. Is that . . . Charles? What the hell is he doing?
She opened her mouth to scream, to warn him, but no sound came out. Thanks to Billy’s antics, she’d already shouted herself hoarse. That’s when she realized with chilling finality.
Those kids are going to die.
Deep beneath the waves, Billy Hamlin plucked a fifth oyster shell from the sand. It was cool and peaceful down here, and quite beautiful with the sun shining its dappled rays through the water, casting ethereal, dancing shadows across the bed.
The chances of him finding a pea-size pearl were almost nil. But Billy was enjoying showing off for Toni and the crowd on the beach. He felt at home in the water, confident and strong. In the real world he might be Charles Braemar Murphy’s inferior. But not here, in the wild freedom of the ocean. Here, he was a king.
Grabbing the oyster tightly in his hand, he began to swim back up toward the light.
Wrenching the wheel to the right with all his strength, Charles Braemar Murphy closed his eyes. The tender banked so sharply, it almost capsized. Clinging on for dear life, Charles heard screams ringing in his ears. Was it the boys’ terror he was hearing, or his own? He couldn’t tell. Salt spray doused him, lashing his face like a razor. The tender was still moving at a terrific speed.
How had it happened so quickly, the shift from happiness to disaster? Only seconds ago he’d been deeply, profoundly happy. And now . . .
Heart pounding, teeth clenched, Charles Braemar Murphy braced himself for the blow.
The crowd on the beach watched openmouthed as the tender careered uncontrollably to the right, farther into the shipping lanes.
At first the wake was so huge and the spray so high it was impossible to make out what had happened to the rowboat. But at last it emerged, bobbing wildly but still intact. Two boys could be seen standing inside, waving their arms frantically for rescue.
The relief was overwhelming. People cheered and cried and jumped up and down, hugging one another.
They made it! He missed.
Then, somewhere among them, a lone voice screamed.
For Toni Gilletti, it all happened in slow motion.
She saw Charles swerve. Saw him miss the rowboat by inches. For a split second she felt relief, so powerful it made her nauseous. But then Billy Hamlin shot up out of the water like a tornado, directly in the tender’s path. Even if Charles had seen him, there was no way he could have stopped.
The last thing Toni saw was the look of shock on Billy’s handsome face. Then the tender cut off her view.
Someone on the beach screamed.
Charles cut the engine and the tender sputtered to a halt.
Billy Hamlin was gone.
Charles Braemar Murphy was in shock. Slumped on the bench at the back of the tender, shivering, he stared at the water. It was calm now, silvery and still like glass.
The lifeguards splashed around, searching for Billy, taking turns plunging beneath the surface.
On the beach, people were crying. The boys in the rowboat had made it safely to shore, tearful after their own ordeal and confused by what was going on. In the shallows, the little Camp Williams boys from Toni’s group huddled together nervously, frightened by the adults’ panic.
In a complete daze, Toni swam back to them. Someone must have called for help, because the coast-guard officers were arriving from all sides, along with tenders from the other yachts moored offshore.
“Toni?” A shivering Graydon Hammond clung to Toni’s leg.
“Not now, Graydon,” she murmured automatically, her eyes still fixed on the point in the water where she’d last seen Billy.
He can’t be dead. He was there, just seconds ago. Please, God, please don’t let him be dead, just because he was playing the fool for me.
She was about to comfort Graydon when she saw it. About fifty yards farther out to sea than the point where Toni had been looking, a dazed swimmer bobbed to the surface.
“There!” she screamed at the lifeguards, waving her arms hysterically. “Over there!”
She needn’t have bothered. As one, the rescue boats converged on Billy, scooping him out of the water. Watching from his speedboat, Charles Braemar Murphy finally broke down in sobs.
It was over. The nightmare was over.
Less than a minute later Billy was on the beach, smiling through the pain as a paramedic bandaged his head wound. Several people came over to shake his hand and inform him (as if he needed telling) how lucky he was to be alive.
“It was all for her, you know,” he told his admirers, nodding at Toni, who was striding over toward him, an Amazonian goddess in her tiny bikini, with her long wet hair trailing magnificently behind her. “My princess needed a pea. What could I do? Her wish was my command.”
Toni, however, was not in romantic mood.
“You goddamn fool!” she screamed at Billy. “You could have been killed! I thought you’d drowned.”
“Would you have missed me?” Billy pouted.
“Oh, grow up. What happened out there wasn’t funny, Billy. Poor Charles is in pieces. He thought he’d hit you. We all did.”
“ ‘Poor’ Charles?” Now it was Billy’s turn to get angry. “That dickhead was piloting his boat like a maniac. Didn’t you see how close he came to crashing into those poor kids in the rowboat?”
“They should never have been in the lanes,” said Toni. “And neither should you.”
Graydon Hammond had followed Toni out of the water and was tugging at her leg again, making whimpering noises.
“Graydon, please!” she snapped. “I’m talking to Billy.”
“But it’s important!” Graydon howled.
“Go ahead,” Billy said bitterly. “It’s clear you don’t give a damn about me. Go comfort Graydon. Or better yet, Charles. He’s the real victim here.”
“For God’s sake, Billy, of course I give a damn. Do you think I’d be so angry if I didn’t care about you? I thought . . . I thought I’d lost you.”
And to Toni Gilletti’s own surprise, she burst into tears.
Billy Hamlin put his arms around her. “Hey,” he whispered gently. “Don’t cry. I’m sorry I scared you. Please don’t cry.”
“Toniiiiiiiiiiiiii!” Graydon Hammond’s wails were getting louder. Reluctantly, Toni extricated herself from Billy’s embrace.
“What is it Graydon, honey?” she said more gently. “What’s the matter?”
The little boy looked up at her, his bottom lip quivering.
“Nicholas? Nicholas Handemeyer?”
“What about him?”
Graydon Hammond burst into tears.
“He swam away. When you were watching Billy. He swam away and he never came back.”
It was a quarter of a mile back to Camp Williams from the beach, along a sandy path half overgrown with brambles. Toni’s legs were scratched raw as she ran, but she was oblivious to the pain and deaf to the plaintive cries of the children struggling to keep up.
“My God. What happened to you? Forget your clothes?”
Mary Lou Parker, pristine in her preppy uniform of khaki shorts, white-collared shirt, and dock siders, looked Toni up and down with distaste. That bikini was really too much, especially with kids around. Mary Lou couldn’t think what Charles Braemar Murphy saw in Toni Gilletti.