Still Waters

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Determined to finally conquer her terror of swimming, Maddy Gordon signed up for lessons at the local pool. She did not expect to be the only adult in a group of seven-year-olds. Even more daunting, the class was taught by five time Olympic gold medalist and gorgeous celebrity Zack London.

Filling in as a swim teacher, London was intrigued by a woman so afraid that she fainted in hip-deep water and in front of a class of second graders. A role model if there ever was one…

When Maddy drew Zach’s attention to bruises on one of his students, his fatherly instincts surfaced. Their mutual decision to protect the girl drew Maddy and Zack closer… a series of steamy private swim lessons cinched their relationship.

But their time together awakened deeply painful memories in each, presenting serious barriers to their future. Will they be able to face their fears and heal each other?

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Chapter 1

Maddy Gordon knew she must be having a nightmare. She’d gone to sleep unawares in San Ramon, California, and awakened in Munchkinland. It was the only explanation. All around her were little heads ranging in color from palest flaxen to glossy black, and not one of them came more than two inches above her kneecaps. She felt as conspicuous as a giraffe in a pygmy village.

It wasn’t too late. She could still change her mind. Furtively, she looked around the huge, murky room, breathing the pungent smell of chlorine while she considered the possibility of escape. She’d managed to put off fulfilling her New Year’s resolution until June; no reason why she couldn’t put it off a little longer. Like… until the next New Year.

But no. Maddy took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, resolutely avoiding looking at the glittering expanse of water. She’d made up her mind. No matter what, come hell or high water, this was going to be the year she learned to swim.

She’d been meaning to do it for years, but somehow she always managed to find a very good reason why it wasn’t the right time. But now she was twenty–five, beginning her second quarter–century. It was the kind of milestone that couldn’t be ignored. This, she was determined, would be the year she finally faced her unreasoning terror of water and conquered it.

Way back in early spring, when the resolve had been fresh and the reality remote, she had gone down to the San Ramon Parks and Recreation Department to inquire about swimming lessons. The girl at the desk had been accommodating. There were, the girl told her, classes for beginners, advanced beginners, and intermediates; classes in advanced life–saving, synchronized swimming, and scuba diving; classes for moms and babies; and classes for the physically handicapped. Maddy had thanked her and signed up for the beginners’ class, at twelve–thirty. The girl hadn’t asked about age or thought to tell her that, except for Maddy, the class would consist almost entirely of five–year–olds.

Now Maddy made the mistake of looking out over the gently undulating, iridescent expanse of water. She felt an instantaneous wave of giddiness and thought maybe if she could only sit down she wouldn’t feel so huge and ungainly.

Feeling large and awkward wasn’t new to her. She was five ten and had achieved most of that height very early. To make matters worse, height wasn’t the only thing she’d acquired early. Some of her most painful memories had to do with her sixth–grade dance class, when most of her partners had been precisely at eye level with her newly emerging bosom. Now, of course, neither her height, proportions, nor Nordic coloring could be considered very remarkable. In this Southern California town she was just another California “golden girl.”

But only on the outside. On the inside she was still that gawky little girl, embarrassed and dismayed by her own body.

There seemed to be no place to sit except on the edge of the pool. As much as she yearned to sit down, she wasn’t ready for that yet. The thought of it made her shiver and break out in goose bumps, a condition that only intensified her self–consciousness by making her nipples harden and stand out like buttons under the form–fitting nylon racing–style bathing suit she’d bought especially for the coming ordeal.

Steady, she told herself, clamping her jaw on chattering teeth. She was going to go through with this if it killed her.

To take her mind off what was coming, she looked around at the other members of the class. They were all girls, except for one pale little boy with flaxen hair who was sucking his thumb and looking reproachfully into space through luminous, tear–filled eyes. Obviously Maddy wasn’t the only one suffering from the jitters. Several other children were clutching brightly colored towels like security blankets and trying to look brave. Only one child, a plump little girl with stubby black pigtails, actually seemed to be happy with the situation. She kept waving to her mother in the observation balcony, and receiving the requisite nods and waves in return. With that reassurance she strutted to the pool’s edge, plunked herself down, and began energetically slapping the water with her feet.

How Maddy envied her.

She wished the instructor would hurry up. This suspense was awful. She wondered which one it would be—that nice, stocky young Hispanic boy who had taken her registration card at the desk, or the girl with the long blond braid and the red lifeguard’s T–shirt over her bathing suit who was hosing down the far end of the deck.

She stopped speculating. Her heart took a sickening dive that landed it somewhere in the vicinity of her knees. Oh Lord, she fervently prayed, please, please don’t let it be that one.

The man who had just come out of the office and had paused to talk to the Hispanic lifeguard was wearing a T–shirt over his red lifeguard’s trunks too. A white shirt with the Parks and Rec logo on it. Below the trunks his legs were long and very muscular—swimmer’s legs. And that T–shirt couldn’t begin to hide the thickness of his neck and bicepses, or the width of his shoulders or the depth of his chest, or the trimness of his waistline. The man was definitely a swimmer. World–class, if perfection of body was any indication. But that wasn’t the only reason Maddy’s knees had turned to jelly. He was carrying a clipboard, to which were clipped the familiar blue registration slips, and he kept turning his head to glance at the small, ragged assembly waiting on the pool deck. And now he was moving toward them with a frown corrugating his brow. God had obviously not seen fit to answer her prayers.

The man was absolutely gorgeous—or would have been if he hadn’t looked so stern and forbidding. His hair was brown—thick, wavy, and tousled, as if he’d climbed out of the water, combed it with uncaring fingers and allowed it to dry that way. It was highlighted with the rusty gold that comes of almost constant exposure to sun and pool chemicals. His face was made rugged by a nose that had come in second best in at least one encounter with an immovable object, and a chin with a slightly off–center dimple. His forehead was wide and sunburned, his eyes close–set beneath sun–bleached brows. His mouth, though set in lines that looked harsh and hostile, was nicely shaped. And, for some reason, he seemed familiar. Although she couldn’t imagine where or when, Maddy felt certain she’d seen him before.

She became aware of furtive movements all around her. The children, awed and intimidated by the instructor’s scowl, were gathering close to her, recognizing and moving instinctively toward the closest thing to maternal protection available. Something touched Maddy’s leg, tickling. One child, a frail little dark–haired girl, had edged so close that the sleeve of the T–shirt the child wore over her bathing suit was brushing Maddy’s leg.

Without thinking, Maddy dropped her hand to the thin, bony shoulder. With a quick, fearful movement the child looked up, and Maddy found herself gazing into a pair of huge, apprehensive brown eyes. For just a moment she forgot her own fears. That look—she’d seen it too many times before. She swallowed a lump in her throat and with a warm, reassuring smile, opened her hand. The girl’s small brown one crept into it like a hunted animal seeking refuge.

“I’m sorry,” the instructor said, stopping directly in front of Maddy. He sounded like an impatient and beleaguered man trying very hard to be polite. “If you must stay, you’ll have to wait on the observation deck with the other mothers. But it really would be better—”

“I beg your pardon?” Maddy’s voice emerged as a low and completely bewildered croak.

The man frowned at his clipboard. “No moms allowed in this class—sorry. The mothers–and–kids class meets in the mornings.”

“But I’m not—”

“If there’s a mistake, I’m sure the office can help you straighten it out. Maybe they can move her into a morning class.” His gaze dropped to the child beside Maddy, and immediately softened. “Or she can stay—see how it works out.”

He dropped to one knee. Balancing the clipboard on the other knee, he held out a large, tanned hand. The girl flinched and shrank against Maddy’s legs.

The man smiled. Without warning, Maddy felt a curious squeezing sensation in her heart; at the same moment, she experienced another wave of deja vu.

“Hey,” the instructor said, “my name’s Zack. What’s yours?”

“Theresa,” the child whispered. She stared warily at the offered hand, but didn’t relinquish her death grip on Maddy’s. After a moment’s hesitation the man reached out and gave the tail of the little girl’s T–shirt a friendly tug.

“You look pretty tough to me,” he said. “I’ll bet you could handle this class all by yourself. What do you say you let your mom go over there with the other moms while we give it a try?”

In a barely audible voice Theresa said, “She’s not my mother.”

“Sister?”

A solemn head–shake rejected that. The instructor glanced up at Maddy, who was beginning to wish passionately that the concrete deck would open up and swallow her. He did a double take, then let his gaze travel slowly upward, taking in every single inch of Maddy’s body, lingering on the place where her breasts made generous hemispheres and the nipples still stood out in merciless relief under the sleek black suit.

“Babysitter?” he ventured, frowning again.

“No,” Maddy said miserably, and cleared her throat. “I’m not—I’m… uh… I think I’m in this class. You should have my registration card there someplace. Maddy Gordon?” She faltered in the face of the man’s silence. “I signed up last winter—um, spring. I’m sorry, nobody told me. I did put down my birth date—right there on the card—and no one said a thing. I’m sorry. I’ll—”

“You’re a student?” That wonderful smile was only a rapidly fading memory. The eyes that had flamed for one moment were a dark, smoky blue. “Are you sure you’re a beginner?”

“Oh, yes,” Maddy said, laughing nervously. “Absolutely.” There wasn’t a glimmer of response. Oh, Lord, she thought, why couldn’t it have been someone jolly and friendly, like that boy in the office, or someone who might understand, like the girl with the braid? Why, oh, why did she have the bad luck to get stuck with Aquaman?

And why did he look so familiar? It didn’t seem likely she’d have met him in the course of her job. On the one side, all the men she knew were either district attorneys, public defenders, or social workers—earnest, harried individuals with permanent worry wrinkles and paunches. And on the other… Well, no, certainly not. It was true the people she faced every day came from all levels of society, but most of them had the characteristics she’d learned to recognize, the unmistakable signs of underlying anger and tension. No, she’d stake her professional reputation that, for all his powerful build and forbidding expression, this man had no capacity for violence.

Admittedly, she’d arrived at that conclusion by completely subjective and unscientific means. She’d watched his hands. She’d watched him when he stood up, noticing the way he’d first placed a calm, reassuring hand on Theresa’s shoulder, as if he understood instinctively that a sudden, violent movement would frighten her.

“Okay,” he said now, raising his voice and turning to the other children as if Maddy had ceased to exist. “First thing we’re all going to do is… drop everything. Right. Drop it right down on the ground, just like this.” The clipboard clattered to the deck. The thumb–sucker stared at him with round, startled eyes. The two with towels dropped them and giggled nervously. Theresa clutched a handful of her T–shirt and glanced up at Maddy.

“Next thing we’re all going to do is this.” Zack raised his arms above his head and placed one hand over the other. Four pairs of childish arms followed suit readily, while Theresa gave Maddy a questioning look.

“Go on,” Maddy whispered, squeezing the damp little hand. “Try it.” Another pair of arms went up. Maddy started to lift hers, too, and then, feeling indescribably foolish, lowered them and cleared her throat. “Mr., uh, Zack—”

“Okay,” the instructor said, ignoring the interruption, “now we’re all ready to dive right into the pool. Ready, set—”

Five pairs of eyes got big and round. One by one the arms came down. The thumb–sucker looked ready to cry again, and even the plump, happy girl looked uncertainly at that huge, empty expanse of water.

“Smart kids,” Zack said solemnly, nodding his head. “You guys are absolutely right. You know you aren’t ready to jump into the pool, don’t you?” Five little heads moved slowly back and forth. “Okay, I want you to remember that. Rule number one is: Nobody gets into the water unless I, or one of the other lifeguards, is right here. Got it? Great. My name’s Zack. Nice and easy. Now your turn. Your name is…”

As he pointed a finger at each child, a name would pop out, accompanied by the giggles, hops, and fidgets of suppressed energy. Zack’s stern, no–nonsense manner didn’t seem to daunt the children a bit, now that they’d gotten used to it. Even Theresa hadn’t felt the need to reclaim Maddy’s hand, and had moved timidly forward to join the others.

But it sure daunted Maddy. “Zack,” she said hoarsely, trying again to get his attention.

“Yes?” His glance was determinedly polite, but somehow didn’t quite connect with her. It kept sliding off her left shoulder and hitting somewhere in the empty middle distance.

Maddy was beginning to feel trickles of anger seeping in around the mental blocks of fear and embarrassment. Struggling valiantly to remain calm and reasonable, she asked, “What would you like me to do?”

His response was unexpectedly disarming—a smile that tugged at his mouth and managed to pull it attractively awry. “Why don’t you stay for today? Might even learn something.” His gaze moved as if beyond his control, sliding over her body and resting briefly on the golden waves of her hair. It was like a physical touch, and throughout her body her nerve endings shivered and contracted in response.

Then, almost as if he’d called it ruthlessly to heel, his gaze left her and the smile disappeared. His voice became cold and impersonal. “After this, we’ll see if we can find you an adult class. Now,” he said briskly, retrieving the children’s attention, “everybody over here. I want you to sit right down here on the edge of the pool.”

With one graceful motion he took off his shirt and jumped into the water. The muscles of his chest and torso jerked and rippled as he walked backward in the waist–deep water, skimming the water’s surface with his hands.

Maddy closed her eyes. It was a beautiful chest, and his hands looked almost as if they were caressing the water, but right now she couldn’t really appreciate such things. She felt slightly seasick. Her throat was dry and her heart was pounding. Moving as if her head might fall off if she tilted it, she sat down and lowered her feet into the tepid water.

Something touched her thigh like a small wet kiss.

“It’s all right,” Theresa said solemnly. She gave Maddy an unblinking, unsmiling stare, then turned resolutely back toward Zack. “I’m not afraid. Are you?”

Maddy lied. “Nope.” Her chest seemed to have grown too small for her heart. She lifted her chin, sniffing a little as she smiled down at the shiny black head. “I’m not if you’re not.”

“Okay,” Zack said, “now I want you all to turn over—tummies down, that’s it—and let yourselves into the water, nice and easy.”

Maddy looked desperately at Zack, begging silently for an exemption. She only got a hard, commanding stare in return. She hesitated a moment longer, considering rebellion, but Theresa was watching her, waiting for her. Her whole body, and particularly her vulnerable backside, burned with embarrassment, but Maddy followed instructions.

“See?” Zack said approvingly. “That’s the way I want you to get into the pool, at least until you’ve learned to jump in. Now, you’re standing on a platform. That’s so the water only comes to your waist. If you get off the platform, the water’s going to come up to your nose. So rule number two is: Don’t get off the platform. Okay?” There was a moment’s silence while he studied the water lapping around Maddy’s knees. “Except for you, Maddy. You can get off the platform.” The gently teasing tone surprised her. So did the glint of humor in his eyes.

Feeling confused but a little less ridiculous, Maddy stepped down off the platform. She folded her arms resolutely across her waist and clamped her teeth together, doing her best to control her shivers.

The plump, pigtailed girl, whose name was Jennifer, bounced merrily off the end of the platform. Without comment, Zack extended an arm to retrieve her.

“Okay, when I count to three, I want everybody to turn around and put one hand on the wall—got that? One hand. One… two… three. Okay, great. Rule number three is: You have to keep one hand on the wall all the time, unless I tell you to let go.”

Dear Lord, Maddy thought. How did I get myself into this nightmare? Please, Lord, just let me get out of here.

“Everybody know how to hold your breath?” Zack asked. “Sure you do. Just like this, see?” There was a chorus of giggles. Maddy opened her eyes to the incredible specter of Zack with eyes crossed and cheeks puffed out like a blowfish, slowly turning purple. The children were all doing their best to imitate him.

“Come on,” Theresa whispered earnestly. “You have to hold your breath. If you don’t, you’ll get drownded.”

Maddy took a deep breath and held it, painfully conscious of the way her expanded lungs pushed her breasts against the tight black skin of her suit.

“Uh–uh,” Theresa said firmly. “Like this.”

Maddy dutifully puffed out her cheeks, then looked up just in time to catch Zack watching her with a quizzical expression on his face. Her pent–up breath escaped in a rush.

“Okay, I think we’re ready for the big time,” Zack said as he patiently hauled Jennifer back onto the platform. “That’s right—we are going to put our faces in the water! I’m going to say, ‘One, two, ready,’ and you’re going to take a big breath. Then I’m going to say, ‘Go,’ and I want you to put your face right down in the water. Okay? One… two… ready…”

Please, Lord, Maddy prayed. This is a good time for the Big One—the Big California Quake.

Go.”

Maddy leaned forward and stared down at the choppy surface of the water. Her neck and jaw muscles turned to concrete. She felt a wave of nausea, and thought desperately: If I get sick now, I’ll kill myself.

Something touched her arm. Both arms. Near her ear a low, masculine voice rumbled, for her alone, “I won’t force you to put your face down. I won’t push you. You have to do it by yourself. Understand?”

She nodded, refusing to look at him.

“You can do it,” the voice insisted. “I’m here for moral support, but you can do it.”

She nodded again. She knew only one thing for certain: If she didn’t do it now, she never would, and all this humiliation would have been for nothing. Taking one more, excruciating breath, she closed her eyes tightly and plunged.

It was like jumping off a building. It seemed forever before she felt the clinging, suffocating wet close over her face, and longer than forever before she was out of it and breathing again, gasping and blowing and frantically brushing water from her face as if it were sticky nightmare cobwebs.

“Good job,” Zack said quietly, and only when he released her did she realize he’d been holding her all the time, supporting her with strong hands on her waist. Without that support she began to shiver.

“Now,” Zack said to the rest of the class, “see how Maddy went all the way under the water and got her hair wet? That’s what we’re going to do next. This time when I say, ‘Go,’ I want you to bob down and get all your hair wet. Hey, not until I say, ‘Go,’ Jennifer. No dry hair allowed, got it? Okay…”

Maddy had been hearing Zack’s voice through a funny, high–pitched ringing. I must have water in my ears, she thought fuzzily, just before somebody turned all the lights off.

Fortunately, Zack was standing so close to Maddy that he felt her sway and go slack, and was easily able to catch her before she slipped under. Then he was really in a hell of a predicament—arms full of a beautiful, unconscious blond, and five pairs of baby owl eyes focused on him with varying degrees of alarm.

Okay, Zachary, he thought. Let’s see you get out of this one.

But for the moment, heaven help him, he wasn’t thinking about getting out of it. He was looking down at her still, pale face and seeing it flushed and warm instead, with the curve of her cheek just fitting his palm. Her lips were a deep, dusky rose, and even slack and parted, showing the glistening tips of even white teeth, they looked full and sweet and incredibly inviting.

It was ironic, really, after all the time he’d spent fine–tuning his protective reflexes and shoring up his barricades, that someone should slip past his guard here, in a babies’ swim class, of all places.

But, as he’d learned the hard way, life was full of surprises.

He’d wondered at first if she might be some sort of celebrity chaser, though it had been awhile since he’d had to deal with that sort of nuisance. But that idea hadn’t lasted any longer than it had taken him to spot the fear in her eyes. Her eyes… just like that little kid’s. He supposed that was why he’d thought they belonged together. They both had that same scared look.

“She gonna be okay?” a woman asked. It was Sherry, one of the on–duty lifeguards, leaning over the edge of the pool to peer with concern and interest at his burden.

Zack nodded. “Yeah. She fainted, but I think it’s just a case of nerves.” Panic would be more like it.

“Swept her right off her feet, huh?” Sherry said, deadpan, then lowered herself into the water, planting herself between Zack and the round–eyed children. “Hey, who told you guys you could let go of the wall? Let’s see one hand on the wall, now, okay?” In an aside to Zack she muttered, “I’ll take over here. Get her outa here before they start getting hysterical.”

Zack nodded and turned to wade toward the steps. Thank heavens for Sherry, he thought. The girl was barely nineteen, but had a level head and a way with kids.

A voice piped up. “Is she sick?”

That would be Jennifer, of course, asking bluntly the question that had been in all of their eyes. Zack turned and opened his mouth to answer, but instead of Jennifer’s plump face and bright, interested gaze, he found himself meeting a pair of eyes as round and dark and liquid as two cups of coffee.

“Nah,” Sherry said briskly, making a squirt gun with her hands. “Just dizzy. Some people get dizzy when they stare at the water for a long time. It’s called vertigo. Any of you guys feel dizzy? No? Great. So what are you doin’ with dry faces? Let’s all take a big breath and start bobbing!”

Zack grinned, shook his head, and started again for the steps. Damn. Maddy Gordon wasn’t exactly a dainty little bundle. She was almost as tall as he was and—He glanced down, swallowed, and stared resolutely straight ahead. Healthy. Very healthy. And all that thin wet black nylon does is make her look like she dipped that spectacular body in ink.

Zachary, you’re an idiot, he told himself. This was obviously a woman with problems. And problems, heaven knows, he’d had enough of. With grim determination he divorced his libidinous mind from the warm, voluptuous body in his arms.

It wasn’t as difficult as he’d thought it would be. The image that followed him out of the pool and into the office was of another face entirely. A pinched little face with scared brown saucer eyes that tore at his heart.

What was her name, anyway? Oh, yeah. Theresa.

** ** **

Maddy’s first thought was: How strange. I’m dry.

She opened her eyes and stared through a dark tunnel at a white moonscape, which turned into an acoustical ceiling as her field of vision slowly expanded.

She was lying down. How did I get to be lying down?

She heard the murmur of voices and lifted her head to find out where they were coming from. What she saw was Zack’s back. He was standing a few feet away, talking in a low voice to the Hispanic lifeguard and unconcernedly dripping pool water onto the floor. From some distance away came the sounds of splashing, and a girl yelling directions and encouragement in a voice like a drill sergeant’s.

Maddy lay very still, frowning at that magnificent back as she took a quick mental inventory. She was dry because she’d been wrapped from toes to chin in a scratchy blanket. And she was lying on a canvas folding cot. The acoustical ceiling belonged to the pool office. So far so good. But there could be only one explanation for all of this.

She groaned out loud. “Oh damn. I bet I passed out, didn’t I?”

“Cold,” Zack said mildly, turning to look at her. She watched apprehensively as he walked toward her. “Feeling better now?”

She nodded, wondering if he was being sarcastic or was sincerely concerned for her well–being. Now she found herself gazing at his legs instead of his back, following trickles of water as they made their way over hills and hollows of muscle and through sparse forests of hair. He wasn’t overly hairy. She liked that. And then, mortified as much by her thoughts as by her circumstances, she closed her eyes and moaned softly. “You didn’t call anyone, I hope?” She had horrifying visions of wailing sirens and paramedics.

He shook his head and squatted beside her, balancing on his heels. “You weren’t out more than a minute. Only just long enough to scare the daylights out of my class.”

“Oh, Lord. Poor little things. I’m so sorry. I never thought this would happen.” She opened her eyes and winced when she encountered that dark, smoky look. If only he wouldn’t keep frowning at her like that. She’d had all sorts of responses from handsome males, ranging from obnoxious come–ons to acute bashfulness. She’d never had one keep scowling at her as if she were an annoyance he didn’t know what to do with.

“Don’t you think you should have told me you had a problem?” he asked.

“Problem?” Maddy shifted her frown to his chest and found that view no more comfortable than the other. “There’s nothing wrong with me, except I can’t swim.”

“Like hell there isn’t. Normal people don’t keel over when they put their faces in the water.”

“Normal!” Bristling in automatic defense, Maddy raised herself on her elbows. “I’m not sick. There’s nothing physically wrong with me.”

He made a choking noise and stared at the hands that he was clasping between his knees. “I can see that,” he said, nodding solemnly.

Maddy looked down at herself and went incandescent with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean—” she said, trying to achieve the illusion of shrinking. She glanced up, straight into a pair of eyes that were lighted now with that elusive spark of humor. The spark ignited and became a glow that sent warmth oozing right down through her insides.

And then he grinned.

The soft, oozy feeling inside her congealed, quick–frozen by a cold wave of shock. Because all at once Maddy knew who he was.

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