His question hit her like a blow. “Excuse me?”
“Did you want me to repeat what I said or clarify it?”
She had to respect the question. “I heard you.”
“Then would you please answer?” He still held his phone.
Mer dipped her head closer to the recorder. “My involvement is coincidental.”
“I find it criminally curious.”
“ ‘Criminally curious.’ ” She flung her hands in the air. “Just a moment ago you speculated that Ishmael had become disoriented in the wreck and drowned. Now it sounds as if you think I had something to do with his disappearance. Perhaps it is you who should speak plainly, Detective. What does ‘criminally curious’ even mean?”
He slipped the phone into his breast pocket. “It means I don’t believe in ghosts—or coincidences.”
Mer parked in her driveway. Leaning her forehead against the steering wheel, she tried to summon the energy to get out of the car.
Even at nearly two in the morning, perspiration dampened her neck, but it had nothing to do with the temperature. She dragged her sweaty hands across her shorts and gulped a breath. Then another, but it didn’t fill her lungs. She opened her mouth, tried to inhale. A tingling sensation started in her fingertips, crawled up her arms. The edges of her vision blurred.
A tap on her window startled her and her head snapped around. Selkie stood outside the car door, concern evident on his face. Before she could stop herself, she gave him the okay signal as if they were underwater.
He opened her door and knelt next to her. “Still as independent as ever, I see.”
Mer opened and shut her mouth like a guppy, but her lungs refused to comply.
“Look at me, Mer. You’re all right.” He placed his hand over hers and squeezed. “You’re okay. I’m here.”
She was drowning. Again.
He rubbed her hand between his. A thousand pins pricked her skin. She focused on that. Focused on the sensation of his skin against hers. His voice penetrated her thoughts like an image stepping out of fog. Faint, but gaining clarity. She drew a breath. The humid air filled her lungs. Chased away the fog, leaving behind only embarrassment.
She drew another shaky breath. “I’m sorry. I’m fine. Now.”
Worry still shadowed his eyes. “I heard what happened. So, no bullshit. You all right?”
Cobwebs still cluttered her thoughts. No sense wasting time trying to figure out how he knew. She lived on an island. Everyone knew.
He waited for an answer. Yes rose to her lips, so it came as a shock when she heard herself say “No.”
He held out his hand. “You’re fashionably late, but I still owe you a glass of wine. Or something stronger if you like.”
She placed her hand in his, and he helped her out of the car.
“It’s late,” she said. “Really, I should probably just process everything, go to sleep.”
A mingled scent of cologne, heat, and man made her lightheaded. Well, that and the fact that she was hyperventilating. Plus, it was late. Too late. She swayed slightly. His hand slipped around her waist, supporting her.
“If you can honestly tell me that you would be able to sleep, I’ll say good night.”
She couldn’t. Couldn’t ignore the bands constricting her chest, the burn of needing oxygen, the panic of drawing that last breath. “Why are you even still awake?” she asked.
“I thought you might need a friend. Red or white?”
His touch short-circuited her brain. “How about just water?”
“I can do that.” He stepped aside and allowed Mer to precede him down the palm-lined path that led to his sweeping front stairs.
His balcony wrapped around the side of the residence and overlooked her yard. When she turned the corner, the view of the Atlantic stole her breath. Even on a moonless night, the ocean shimmered darker than the horizon, the reflection of the stars dancing on the waves.
“Plain or fizzy?” Selkie asked.
She tore her gaze from the sea. “Sorry?”
“Water. Would you like still or carbonated?”
Fizzy seemed too celebratory. She chose tap.
He disappeared through a pair of open sliding doors. “Have you already provided the swab for the alcohol test?”
His question surprised her. Not many people knew about that Coast Guard regulation. “As soon as we docked.”
The test had taken thirty seconds and confirmed that she didn’t have alcohol in her system.
She heard Selkie rummage through the kitchen, opening and closing drawers. When he returned to the balcony, he was carrying a tray laden with her water, a second empty glass, a dark-green bottle of Jameson whiskey, and slices of mango.
“When was the last time you ate something?” He set the tray next to a decorative lantern on a low table and pulled out a chair for Mer.
The smooth teak felt warm under her hand. “Seems like only yesterday.”
He handed her a glass of water. “Truthful and annoying all in one quip. Well done, Dr. Cavallo.”
Spearing a piece of mango, she marveled at the evenness of the slices. She’d bought one in the market, but when she tried to slice it she ended up with mango mash. Since then, she’d stuck to oranges and bananas. She could open them.
He poured himself a dram from the bottle. “You want to talk about it?”
She shoveled the mango into her mouth. The sweet orange flesh bought her a moment while she gathered her thoughts. “I lost someone today.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I went down with two divers. Came up with one.”
“That’s never a good thing.” He said it sincerely, without an edge of sarcasm.
“No,” she replied.
The mango lost its flavor. “That’s the thing. I don’t know.”
Mer described the dive. “It all fell apart when Amber took a photograph. The flash fired, and just kept firing.” She picked up her glass and studied its contents, hoping to divine an answer. “Amber panicked. I’ve never heard someone scream underwater.” She shuddered. “I got to her, made sure she couldn’t spit out her regulator. She froze—which in hindsight was a good thing. I looked for Ishmael, but he was gone.”