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Richard Phelps stood next to the lake in Palau, and Sylvia marveled at his calm. Her own hand trembled as she swiped away the sweat dripping into her eyes.
Anderson tightened his grip on her arm, giving it a harsh twist.
Sylvia’s eyes stung with unshed tears. Blinking them away, she saw Richard shrug and slowly shake his head. Why had she ever trusted him?
“Hand it over, or in she goes.” Anderson gestured toward the lake filled with jellyfish. “One girl. Hundreds of jellyfish. Do the math.” He edged Sylvia closer to the lake.
Richard looked down into the water, a smile playing on his lips.
How could he smile when she was this close to death? “Richard, please help me.” Her voice broke.
Richard glanced at Anderson and gestured to the lake. “Go ahead. She needs cooling off.”
Horrified, Sylvia could only stare into Richard’s face, the face she thought held truth and beauty. Now, betrayal was written on every feature. How could he do this to her? After they had been on the run for months, with little food and little sleep? After they had depended on each other each step of the way?
Anderson shifted his stance. “This is your last chance, Phelps.”
Before Sylvia’s brain processed the information, Richard covered the distance between them. For a split second, Sylvia believed he would save her. Instead, he yanked her from Anderson and slung her into the lake.
The cool water engulfed her, and she surrendered to her fate. Spiraling down, she braced for the sting of the jellyfish, yet none came. Amazed, she watched hundreds of semitransparent invertebrates floating around her. The sunlight filtered through the clear water and reflected in a shimmering beauty. She turned and twisted in the water, absorbing the beauty surrounding her, forgetting Anderson. Forgetting Richard. No, she couldn’t forget him.
Reluctantly, she swam to the surface. Shoving her wet, tangled hair from her face, she gulped in the air. At the edge of the lake, Richard smiled down at her, stripped off his shirt, and jumped in.
She backed away, and he softly chuckled.
“No stingers,” he said.
“What?” She squinted at him in the bright sun.
“These jellyfish are harmless. They don’t have stingers.”
“Oh.” She let out a shuddering breath. “Did you know that?”
He grinned at her, his head slightly tilted. “Of course.”
“Anderson? Where is he?”
“Oh, don’t worry. I took care of him.”
His muscles rippled as he demonstrated what he had done. Then he reached out for her, and she allowed him to pull her into his arms. They gently treaded water, matching the delicate dance of the jellyfish.
When Sylvia tired, she floated on her back, the expansive blue sky calming her. “Why don’t these jellyfish have stingers?”
“No need. They’re completely cut off here and are safe.” He took her hand in his, holding her floating body near him.
When the sun set, they swam to shore and climbed out. Richard retrieved his backpack and dug out a couple of protein bars and a bottle of water while Sylvia gathered some wood and made a small fire.
They ate their supper in silence. Afterwards, Richard searched through the backpack and pulled out a comb.
He sat down, crosslegged, behind her.
She stiffened. “What are you doing?”
Gently, light as a feather, he lifted a strand of her hair, almost a dreadlock. “Just relax. We have time.”
“Please be careful.”
With deft fingers, he untangled her twisted hair. “I’d never hurt you.”
And, she relaxed, free floating into his safety.