Authors: Kat Austen
© 2016 by Kat Austen
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
or the girls
who’d take their man savage over civilized any day of the week. This one’s for you.
he last thought
going through my mind as the current started to pull me under?
I’m going to die a virgin.
That was what ruled my headspace as I confronted my own death.
I was a twenty-four-year-old virgin about to die alone.
It had been the theme of my life for as long as I could remember. It was what had driven me to purchase the small sailboat, now sinking to the ocean floor in pieces all around me, and set out in search for meaning and purpose in the ocean.
It was a last ditch sort of vision quest. One year ago, I’d left my job as a nurse in Chicago and flown to Cambodia to backpack, but when that failed to quiet my soul, I flew to Papua New Guinea and dumped my life savings into a sailboat. Then I took to the seas, vowing to myself that I wouldn’t return to civilization until I’d found peace and whatever it was I’d spent my entire life searching for.
I didn’t know what it was, just that I didn’t have it and wouldn’t be content until I did.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. It had even seemed like a good idea up until an hour ago, when a storm came out of nowhere and threw my boat around like it was no more substantial than a toothpick. I was an experienced sailor and had fared through stormy seas, but this was different. This was like Poseidon himself was stabbing his trident through the waters, destruction his objective.
I’d been heading toward where I’d seen a plume of smoke rising from an island before the sun set, but I hadn’t made it to shore before the boat crashed into an outcropping of rocks. I’d barely had time to leap overboard before my ship started to sink, and despite the lifejacket I’d cinched into place, the waves crashed over me, one right after the other, just as capable of drowning me as the ocean body itself.
The next wave that pounded against me drove me into something hard and cragged. Another rock, which meant I must be getting closer to the island I’d been trying to get to before the storm started. Here in Micronesia, an island was close by anywhere you sailed, but few were occupied and most were inhospitable. I’d probably be better off dying quickly in the ocean than dying slowly on some harsh, deserted island.
That was what I found myself hoping as warm liquid trickled down the side of my face and a sharp pang pulsed in my arm thanks to the crash into the rock.
As consciousness started to fade, my body thrashing at the ocean’s mercy, I suddenly felt something that wasn’t so violent and foreboding. It came in the form of two strong arms winding around me from behind and drawing me close. My body started to glide through the water, away from the wreckage.
Those strong, warm arms never left me; they never even loosened. They stayed wound around me, guiding me away to calmer waters. I felt safe and protected and like I wouldn’t die alone. For that stolen moment, I felt the kind of peace I’d spent years searching for.
I knew I was hallucinating—none of this was real—but I didn’t care. If this was a dream, I didn’t want to wake up.
The farther I got from the wreckage, the more the roar of the waves dimmed until the noise was just a rolling echo. That was when I heard another sound. Just one word. The voice of my ghost savior.
y head felt
like it was being squeezed in a vise at the same time it felt ready to explode. Pain radiated down my left arm, searing and throbbing. The rest of my body I couldn’t feel, probably because my head and arm were taking up all of my attention.
My eyes felt pasted closed, so I had to fight them open, but once I did, it took a moment of blinking to adjust to the light streaming around me. What happened? Where was I? Those were the two questions running through my mind as I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing.
I was in some kind of shelter—some kind of dwelling. It was made of all organic substances, from parts of trees to large, glossy plant leaves. There was a roof, and though the space was small, it seemed well-made—like it had been constructed by someone who knew a thing or two about putting a structure together using what you had on hand.
I was laid out on a grass mat that had been woven together—a few more layered beneath it for cushion—but this crude “bed” was the only piece of furniture in the dwelling. There was a random assortment of knick-knacks spaced around, from a few books that looked as beat-up as I felt, to a couple of dented cooking pots, to a whole tower of what look liked homemade spears propped up in a corner. Someone lived here. Someone who lived here had brought me here.
As the realizations started to register, my last memory came to me. Two strong arms pulling me to safety. One word stirred in my mind—
It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t a hallucination. I knew that because of the pain I felt firing through my body and the way I could feel my heartbeat in my ears.
I needed to get out of here. I didn’t know where I was or what was happening or who had saved me or what their intentions were, but I needed to leave. I knew that if nothing else.
When I sat
up rapidly, a cry spilled out of my mouth from the pain firing in my head. My eyes clamped closed when I saw white. I wasn’t about to let myself pass out again.
I needed to leave. I couldn’t do that if I kept blacking out.
After a few deep breaths, I managed to open my eyes. When I did, I saw something that should have made me scream again, but I stayed silent. I didn’t want this person to know I was frightened.
I didn’t want him to know I was scared of him.
He seemed to appear out of nowhere, silent and sudden, and looking up at him from my vantage point made him seem huge. He was probably only a few inches past six feet, but staring up at him made him seen like a giant twice that size.
“Who are you?” I asked as calmly as I was capable.
He didn’t respond. He just stood there, staring at me like he was trying to decide if I was as real as I was trying to convince myself he was.
He’d clearly been marooned on this island for a while. His skin was dark from the sun, his light blue eyes and sun-bleached hair a stark contrast to the caramel-brown color. It was hard to tell how old he was thanks to the overgrown beard and hair that seemed to cover most of his face. To look at his veiled face, he could have just as easily been twenty as he was sixty.
However, his body gave a better indication at his age. Since he was entirely naked other than a miniscule piece of fabric that covered his groin, I pretty much had the whole view of his body. And for a girl who was just starting to accept she’d become a castaway on some island in the middle of nowhere with no food, water, or supplies, I should not have been admiring this fellow castaway’s body as much as I was.
As a nurse, I’d seen my fair share of mostly to fully naked bodies, but I’d never seen one like this. His muscles were hewn all up and down his body, from neck to calf, though he was more shredded than bulky. More Olympic athlete than body builder.
And enough with checking him out already, Jane. You are trapped. Have no idea where you are. Your body is staging a revolt. There’s an almost naked man staring at you like he hasn’t seen a woman in twenty years.
“Where am I?” My voice was hoarse and it hurt to talk, but I couldn’t just sit here, as quiet and appraising as he was. When I tried to repeat my question, I coughed instead. My throat felt like it was made of sandpaper.
Before I could try again, the man moved into a corner, grabbed something, and brought it over. It looked like a coconut had been cut in half and hollowed out. Inside was what looked to be a few ounces of water.
“What is this?” I rasped then swallowed from the pain in my throat.
The man didn’t say anything. Instead, he crouched beside me and held it out. When I didn’t take it right away, he lifted it to my lips.
My head shook. “I’m not taking a drink until you tell me what it is.”
Something almost primal in nature flashed in his eyes. It made me scoot back from him. I didn’t need to know who this man was or how long he’d been here to know he’d become more animal than human. More savage than civilized.
When he shoved the coconut against my mouth, I pushed it away. The dish went tumbling from his hand, the liquid spilling onto the floor.
Another flash of fire flamed in his light eyes, and even though most of his face was veiled by his hair, I didn’t miss the warning look settle into his face.
With a low grunt, he rose and disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared, leaping out of a small hole I hadn’t noticed earlier. Scrambling over to take a look, I quickly realized that this hut wasn’t on the ground. Leaning over the small hole in the floor, I saw sand below, probably about five to ten feet away.
The man had disappeared somewhere, leaving me behind to fill in the blanks to my questions.
Too bad I had another idea. Biting my lip, I tried to better gauge the distance between the ground and me. Leaping out of the opening, I managed to land on my feet instead of my butt. As it turned out, the hut wasn’t much higher in the tree than the height of a tall man. Just high enough to be up off the ground without being too tall to scale.
My eyes took a minute to adjust to the light reflecting off the white sand and the azure water. It was bright here, making me wish my sunglasses weren’t sitting somewhere on the ocean floor. My body throbbed as I took a few steps, looking for my savior castaway. He was nowhere in sight down the long stretch of beach, so I started to wander down the sand.
God, where was I? Lots of sand, lots of ocean, lots of no civilization. There was a thick layer of green jungle about a quarter mile back from the ocean’s edge, but I didn’t need to know where I’d wound up to realize I could search the island high and low and find it deserted. There were thousands of these atolls and islands dotted around this part of the Pacific Ocean, and only a small handful of them were actually occupied by humans.
I hadn’t told anyone where I was going when I left Cambodia. I hadn’t even told anyone I was leaving for Cambodia. No one would know I was missing. If they did, no one would know where to look. I was alone. Utterly and completely.
It was a feeling I’d long ago acquainted myself with, but here, for some peculiar reason, it didn’t feel quite so hollow. It didn’t feel quite so depressing. That likely had a lot to do with the concussion I guessed I’d sustained from slamming against that rock the night my ship had, literally, sunk.
After walking a few minutes, I had to stop to catch my breath. From the way my chest was hurting, I probably had a couple of cracked ribs too. In addition to the injuries, I was weak, every step was a challenge. I needed water, and food eventually.
A gentle breeze rolled off the ocean, fluttering my clothes against my body. When I glanced down, I discovered I wasn’t in the same clothes I had been wearing the night of the storm. Actually, I wasn’t in real clothes at all.
I was in some lab coat-looking get-up that was frayed around the hem and cuffs and torn in a few places from being threadbare. A lab coat on a deserted island? Maybe I was hallucinating. That seemed more likely than the alternative.
I noticed some embroidery above the chest pocket on one side. Dr. Grant Bridger was stitched in red cursive letters. There was no hospital or organization listed below that. Did this belong to that man? Was it possible, in another life, that he had been a doctor? Or had it floated ashore one day and been scavenged from the sea? That seemed more likely than the possibility that the bearded, next-to-naked man who communicated in grunts and sharp looks had been an actual physician.
It seemed about as unlikely as a Coast Guard boat showing up in front of me any second now.
Wandering down the beach a ways farther, I found the scenery unchanged. Sand so white it sparkled from the sunlight overhead, water so blue it seemed fake, and a stretch of green jungle so thick it didn’t seem possible to pass through.
Wherever I was, it was beautiful. The kind of place people paid exorbitant amounts to get to. Remote, private, picturesque—it was a scene straight from a postcard. If I could forget about the fact that I was marooned on this chunk of land swimming in the ocean, I could have been in my own private paradise.
Well, private save for one other soul, I reminded myself as I came around a bend in the beach and found him.
. I had to figure out a name for him. I couldn’t keep referring to him as that guy who grunts and scowls. Or as Castaway Joe or Neanderthal Nate. Then a certain name came to mind that was simply too perfect to not seize.
Wild hair, scant clothing, savage look . . .
“Hey, Tarzan!” I called, but my throat was too dry to project much sound. After clearing my throat, I tried again. “Tarzan!”
Better. At least he heard me this time. But as his statue-still state crumbled from where he was hovering in knee-deep water, his spear raised, I realized I’d probably just foiled his plans for dinner.
His eyes cut to mine, and even with the distance keeping us apart, I noticed them flame with irritation. Or was it anger? It was hard to tell with all of that scruff covering half of his face. Lowering his spear, he tromped out of the water, his gaze never wandering from mine.
In the light of day, he wasn’t quite as startling as he had been in that small, dark hut. He was still imposing, but I didn’t fear him the same way I had earlier. I knew nothing about this man, not even his name, but I somehow knew I didn’t have to be scared of him. It was instinctual. A gut response.
I knew how crazy it seemed that I wasn’t scared of a savage-looking man twice my size and probably four times as strong as I was. I knew it didn’t make sense that I wasn’t afraid of what might happen to a young woman trapped on an island alone with a young, virile man. I knew it didn’t make sense that I wasn’t backing away from this uncivilized stranger, but little in my life had ever made sense. This was no exception.
Instead of stopping in front of me to yell at me in grunts and raised fists as I’d guessed he would, he shouldered past me and charged back down the beach. His strides were long and purposeful, taking three of mine to keep up to every one of his. He was still just as huge as he’d looked in the hut, I discovered when I charged up beside him. My head hovered at his shoulder, and his chest was wide and solid. His health was impressive for someone who’d likely been living off fish and fruit for god knew how long.
“Where am I?” I asked, breathing hard from exertion. I’d thankfully managed to acclimate to the Pacific heat over the past couple of months of sailing, but with the sun directly overhead and my lack of fluid intake, my vision was blurring.
His eyes cut my way, but that was all the answer I received.
“Who are you?” I tried next, sending a flurry of sand up as I rushed to keep up. “How long have you been here? Why did you save me? Have you tried leaving? Where are you from?”
He kept striding down the beach, seeming to try to keep a careful distance between us. I wasn’t sure why. To look at him, he’d been stuck here for a while, which meant I had to be the first woman he’d seen in a while. Why was he acting as if I was poison ivy and he didn’t want to get too close?
“What’s your name?” I panted, before my feet tangled beneath me and I crashed to the sand.
That was when I started to cry. The first tears I’d shed since waking up in some strange hut with some strange man. Even someone who’d been alone for what I assumed was years didn’t want me around. Someone so starved for attention and companionship they’d stopped talking had no use for me.
The story of my life was repeating itself right here on the heated sand of this small island in the middle of the Eastern hemisphere. Alone. Unwanted. Abandoned. All over again.
My sobs were quiet, but my tears flowed freely, wetting the sand molded around my face. My parents hadn’t wanted me, the foster families I’d been shuffled between hadn’t wanted me, even the few boys I’d dated along the way hadn’t wanted me—at least they hadn’t wanted me for anything other than what resided between my legs.
Unwanted. Even on this island, my apparent birthright had found me.
I felt a break from the harsh sun beating down on me right before a tall, dark shadow lowered beside me. Without a word or grunt, his arms wound beneath me, lifting me from my pyre of baking sand. He carried me like I weighed nothing at all, leaving his spear in the spot my body had just been.
He held me out away from his body as he carried me down the beach, but after a while, his body relaxed and I settled into the cradle of his arms. He never seemed to tire, yet despite the strength I felt in his hold, he had a gentleness I did not expect. I had not expected to find anything soft or gentle or compassionate in this stranger who had been alone, isolated, forced to live every moment in a state of survival.
But in my twenty-four years of life, I wasn’t sure I’d ever been touched with such tenderness. Treated with such concern. I couldn’t remember a single time I’d ever been held, not even as a child, and feeling it now made me want to cry all over again.
It wasn’t the feeling of coming home. It was, for the first time, feeling what