He took deep breaths, held the last, and plunged into those flickering shadows.
Clearing his ears, he kicked deeper, touching cold rock. He pulled himself down over the boulders, legs drifting upward as he peered into a crevice to see an eye staring back at him and a snakelike suction-cupped arm coiling back into its lair.
Jacknife reverse and back to the surface, lungs burning, heart hammering. He was going a little soft, not bad for thirty-four, but maybe he should think about working on it, maybe cut down on the booze. Clean up his act? And here he was in another pointless screw-up.
He kicked along the surface, scanning, closer to the cliff. A flash of dull color, fins hovering.
He hadn’t really expected to see anything, decades of dynamite fishing had taken care of most anything close in, and the tactical nukes over in the east Med some more, but there was some restocking going on. Now he recalled those caiques at the quay, nets on some, they weren’t all sponge boats. He grabbed more air and shot down, pulling the gun free.
The fins flickered ahead, disappeared in dark. He churned past a rock edge over a dropoff, almost too far, spotted the crevice to the side, a narrow dark cave, almost gave it up, chest starting to ache with the pent-up breath, saw a faint flicker, was doubling up before he could think and down through it. Dark, then sliding light, flashing strobe from above, more dark, rocks squeezing in, no air, but then he was through into open water. No sign of fins. Lungs aching.
He broke surface and flung drops, gasping. Treading water, dragging in air, he looked around to see he’d come through a tumble of stone slabs into a cove nearly sealed off from the open sea. Down below, a sand bottom and the escaping gleam of scales.
Reflexes took him down and after. The lithe body whipped away, then reversed and hovered. The spear shot of itself in a burst of bubbles.
The fish flailed at the end of the line, fighting the spear in a dark cloud of blood. Peter surfaced, pulling it in, suddenly wishing he’d let it go. Eyes gone dull already. But it was a nice pompano, he’d take it to the taverna and have them cook it up in some olive oil for dinner. If.
He raised his head, gripping the spear, checking out the cove. Over at the other end was what looked like a narrow inlet that might be an easier way out. He slipped under, kicked closer, and reemerged smoothly. Now he could see there was a trail running down this end of the cliff to the narrow beach. And a freshwater spring burbling out of the rocks. A donkey with a pack saddle, head down and blinking in the sun, stood next to it. Then he saw her.
She was bent over, heaving at a bulging water-sack, firm muscle straining in brown arms and sturdy, bare wet legs as the spring gurgled over her feet.
Peter blinked in the glare of white rock, sharp dazzles over the cove, sunlight gleaming off smooth tawny skin. He kicked quietly closer. Her hair was a thick black knot at the back of her neck. She was wearing a white blouse and faded skirt hiked up at the waist that somehow recalled an old snapshot of his grandmother as a teenager, wearing a flowered minidress and peace beads. The young peasant woman had livened up her drab outfit with a shiny crystal pendant, flashing prism lights in the sun.
Peter smiled and touched bottom, pulling off his fins and easing toward shore.
The way her body moved under that skirt had nothing grandmotherly about it. More like one of those old celluloid movies the Stateside art houses showed to be clever and the rundown Kinematographos Hermes in Athens showed because neuro-enhancement wasn’t sanctioned by the Orthodox Church and anyway where were they going to get the cash to switch over. One of the big-screen sex goddesses. Sandra—no, Sophie—Sophia Loren in a tight dress shouting laughing insults at some soldiers.
He stopped on the sand. She hadn’t heard him over the splashing spring.
She dropped the water-sack, startled, but turning with a lovely grace like a born dancer. She raised a hand to her breast, clutching the big crystal.
He stared, stunned.
Face off a vase in a museum—the straight nose and brows, generous forehead and mouth. But her eyes were blue. A deep, almost purple-blue. Like the Med where it dropped off from the crystal clear shallows to shaded fathoms. Old Homer had it: the wine dark sea. Couldn’t have been blind all his life, the poet, he’d gotten too many things just right. Bright-glancing Athena. Incomparable Helen on the ramparts, and the troops flowing down steep hills for her, gleaming with their shields and greaves and whatnot, rippling over the plain of Troy like waves.
Peter could have drowned happy in those deep blue eyes. But they were watching him. Wary. A surge of desire flushed through him. Damn. She was the real thing.
He swallowed, took a step, pulling the fish off the spear and holding it out in an instinctive gesture, groping for words. “Please. . . . Don’t be afraid. Take the fish, a. . . .” Damn. “A gift. Please. Welcome. Thank you.”
The start of a smile flickered over her face, but she got it under control, standing her ground.
He laughed at his own ridiculousness, shaking his head. “Help you with that?” He pointed at the water-sack.
She stood silent, then stepped back, nodding. With another of those fluid dancer’s moves, she turned away to the donkey, and he did see a smile flit over her face. Not pretty, no, a more austere beauty that shouldn’t have gone with the all female shape of her, but did perfectly. Knockout legs, too, strong and shapely and she even had trim ankles, not like most of the peasant women. A healthy glow like a sturdy little mare. He was giddy, crazy. Struck by that mythical bolt from the blue, Goddess rising before him from the waves, naked glory on her scalloped shell.
He blinked and shook his head, hoisting the water-sack, tying it to the donkey’s saddle, gutting the fish and rinsing it and thrusting it at her, babbling nonsense.
“See, it’s a pretty one. Peter popped a peck of pompano. But not as gorgeous as you.” She wouldn’t know English. “I tell you, Aphrodite my girl, your sidekick with the heart-darts just nailed me pointblank.”
She threw back her head then and laughed—a rich, throaty chuckle that seemed to dance through her whole splendid body. Peter grinned and moved closer.
But she was stepping back with a surprising dignity, sober now, that bottomless blue gaze steady on Peter. She raised the fish, thanking him with a simple, “Efcharisto.” Voice low and resonant. She took the donkey’s lead rope and turned away for the path.
He stood dripping, holding out his empty hands, wanting to run after her and kiss her battered sandals. “Please. . . . Could I just—?”
She shook her head and led the animal away.
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