Water Bound

By: Christine Feehan


1


FLAMES raced up the walls to spread across the ceiling. Orange. Red. Alive. The fire was looking right at her. She could hear it breathing. It rose up, hissing and spitting, following her as she crawled across the floor. Smoke swirled through the room, choking her. She stayed low and held her breath as much as possible. All the while the greedy flames reached for her with a voracious appetite, licking at her skin, scorching and searing, singeing the tips of her hair.

Chunks of flaming debris fell from the ceiling onto the floor, and glass shattered. A series of small explosions detonated throughout the room as lamps burst from the intense heat. She dragged herself toward the only exit, the small doggy door in the kitchen. Behind her the fire roared as if enraged by her attempt to escape.

The fire shimmered like a dancing wall. Her vision tunneled until the flames became a giant monster, reaching with long arms and a ghastly, distorted head. It crawled after her on the floor, its hideous tongue licking at her bare feet. She screamed, but the only sound that emerged was a terrible choking cough. She turned to face her enemy, felt its malevolence as the flames poured over her, trying to consume her, trying to devour her from the inside out. Her scream finally broke past the terrible ball blocking her throat, and she shrieked her terror in a high-pitched wail. She tried to call out, to beg for water to come to her, to save her, to drench her in cool, soothing liquid. In the distance the shriek of the sirens grew louder and louder. She threw herself sideways to avoid the flames . . .

Rikki Sitmore landed hard on the floor beside her bed. She lay there, her heart racing, terror pounding through her veins, her mind struggling to assimilate the fact that it was just a nightmare. The same old familiar nightmare. She was safe and unharmed—even though she could still feel the heat of the fire on her skin.

“Damn it.” Her hand fumbled for the clock radio, her fingers slapping blindly in search of the button that would stop the alarm that sounded so like the fire engine from her dreams. In the ensuing silence, she could hear the sound of water flowing, answering her cry for help, and she knew from experience that every faucet in her house was running.

She forced herself to sit up, groaning softly as her body protested. Her joints and muscles ached, as if she’d been rigid for hours.

Rikki wiped her sweat-drenched face with her hand, dragged herself to her feet and forced her aching body to walk from room to room, turning off faucets as she went. At last only the sink and shower in her bathroom were left. As she went back through the bedroom, she turned on the radio and the coastal radio station flooded the room with music. She needed the sea today. Her beloved sea. Nothing worked better to calm her mind when she was too close to the past.

The moment she crossed the threshold of her bathroom, cool sea colors surrounded her with instant calm. The green slate beneath her feet matched the slate sea turtles swimming through an ocean of glossy blue around the walls.

She always showered at night to wash the sea off of her, but after a particularly bad nightmare, the spray of the water on her skin felt like a healing wash for her soul. The water in the shower was already running, calling to her, and she stepped into the stall. Instantly the water soothed her, soaked into her pores, refreshed her. Her personal talisman. The drops on her skin felt sensual, nearly mesmerizing her with the perfection of their shape. She was lost in the clarity and immediately zoned out, taken to another realm where all chaos was gone from her mind.

Things that might ordinarily hurt—sounds, textures, the everyday things others took for granted—were washed away like the sweat from her nightmares or the salt from the sea. When she stood in the water, she was as close to normal as she would ever get, and she reveled in the feeling. As always she was lost in the shower, disappearing into the clean, refreshing pleasure it brought her, until abruptly the hot water was gone and her shower turned ice-cold, startling her out of her trance.

Once she could breathe without a hitch, she toweled off and dragged on her sweats without looking at the scars on her calves and feet. She didn’t need to relive those moments again—yet night after night the fire was back, looking at her, marking her for death.

She shivered, turned up her radio so she could hear it throughout the house and pulled out her laptop, taking it through the hallway to her kitchen. Blessed coffee was the only answer to idiocy. She started the coffee while she listened to the radio spitting out local news. She dropped into a chair, stilling to concentrate when it came to the weather. She wanted to know what her mistress was feeling this morning. Calm? Angry? A little stormy? She stretched as she listened. Calm seas. Little wind. A freaking tsunami drill?

Not again. “What a crock,” she muttered aloud, slumping dejectedly. “We don’t need another one.”

They’d just had a silly drill. Everyone had complied. How had she missed the report in the local news that they had scheduled another one? When they conducted drills of this magnitude, it was always advertised heavily. Then again . . . Rikki sat up straight, a smile blossoming on her face. Maybe the tsunami drill was just the opportunity she’d been looking for. Today was a darned-perfect day to go to work. With a tsunami warning in effect, no one else would be out on the ocean, and she would have the sea to herself. This was the perfect chance to visit her secret diving hole and harvest the small fortune in sea urchins she’d discovered there. She had found the spot weeks ago but didn’t want to dive when others might be around to see her treasure trove.

Rikki poured a cup of coffee and wandered out to the front porch to enjoy that first aromatic sip. She was going to make the big bucks today. Maybe even enough money to pay back the women who’d taken her in as part of their family for the expenses they’d incurred on her behalf. She wouldn’t have her beloved boat finished if it weren’t for them. She could probably fill the boat with just a couple of hours’ work. Hopefully the processor would think the urchins were as good as she did and pay top dollar.

Rikki looked around at the trees shimmering in the early morning light. Birds flitted from branch to branch, and wild turkeys walked along the far creek where she’d scattered seed for them. A young buck grazed in the meadow just a short distance from her house. Sitting there, sipping her coffee and watching the wildlife around her, everything began to settle in both her body and mind.

She’d never imagined she would ever have a chance at such a place, such a life. And she never would have, if not for the five strangers who’d entered her life and taken her into theirs. They’d changed her world forever.

She owed them everything. Her “sisters.” They weren’t her biological sisters, but no blood sister could be closer. They called themselves sisters of the heart, and to Rikki that’s exactly what they were. Her sisters. Her family. She had no one else and knew she never would. They had her fierce, unswerving loyalty.

The five women had believed in her when she’d lost all faith, when she was at her most broken. They had invited her to be one of them, and although she’d been terrified that she would bring something evil with her, she’d accepted, because it was that or die. That one decision was the single best thing she’d ever done.

The family—all six of them—lived on the farm together. Three hundred plus acres, which nestled six beautiful houses. Hers was the smallest structure. Rikki knew she’d never marry or have children, so she didn’t need a large house. Besides, she loved the simplicity of her small home with its open spaces and high beams and soothing colors of the sea that made her feel so at peace.

A slight warning shivered down her body. She was not alone. Rikki turned her head, and her tension abated slightly at the sight of the approaching woman. Tall and slender with a wealth of elegant blonde hair untouched by gray in spite of her forty-two years, Blythe Daniels was the oldest of Rikki’s five sisters and the acknowledged leader of their family.

“Hey, you,” Rikki greeted. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Blythe flashed her smile, the one Rikki thought was so endearing and beautiful—a little crooked but providing a glimpse of straight white teeth that nature, not braces, had provided.

“You’re not going out today, are you?” Blythe asked, and nonchalantly went over to the spigot at the side of the house and turned it off.

“Sure I am.” She should have checked all four hoses, darn it. Rikki avoided Blythe’s too-knowing gaze.

Blythe looked uneasily toward the sea. “I just have this bad feeling . . .”

“Really?” Rikki frowned and stood up, glancing up at the sky. “Seems like a perfect day to me.”

“Are you taking a tender with you?”

“Hell no.”

Blythe sighed. “We talked about this. You said you’d consider the idea. It’s safer, Rikki. You shouldn’t be diving alone.”

“I don’t like anyone touching my equipment. They roll my hoses wrong. They don’t put the tools back. No. No way.” She tried not to sound belligerent, but she was not having anyone on her boat messing with her things.

“It’s safer.”

Rikki rolled her eyes. How was having some idiot sitting on the boat while she was under the water not diving alone? But she didn’t voice her thoughts, instead she tried a smile. It was difficult. She didn’t smile much, especially when the nightmares were too close. And she was barefoot. She didn’t like being caught barefoot, and in spite of Blythe’s determination not to look, her gaze couldn’t help but be drawn to the scars covering Rikki’s feet and calves.

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