So he should’ve seen the signs that the day was going to go to shit before his client freaked the hell out twenty feet below the choppy surface of the ocean.
Tanner ran Lucky Harbor Charters with his two closest friends, Sam and Cole. They gave coastal tours, took people deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, whale watching, you name it, they did it, and though the business had taken off, it was usually tame in comparison to their past jobs.
He’d descended with their latest client, one Michael Soder, a certified scuba diver on his honeymoon. They were both in dry suits in deference to the November chill and cold Pacific Northwest waters and had just gone through an arch section made up of sandstone and rocks. Michael had moved in close to the seawalls to examine some sea life and had bumped his face mask on a rock.
Not the end of the world, as the mask itself had nothing to do with his ability to breathe. Except now his nose wasn’t covered so if he tried to inhale that way, he was going to get an unpleasant lungful of seawater. But all the guy had to do was reset his mask. An easy, basic skill and Tanner remained at the ready, waiting for Michael to do it.
But he didn’t. Bubbles began to escape in increasing agitation and Michael lost grip of his mask entirely. Freaked out, he knocked himself into the rock wall, eyes wide as his mask drifted away.
Tanner snatched it, caught Michael by the arm, and held out the mask to him.
But Michael was gone, flailing around like a fish on a hook, completely mindless with panic.
Shit. Tanner tightened his grip and pressed the mask to Michael’s face himself.
The guy continued to thrash a bit until Tanner took him by both arms and put his face right up against his, his own expression calm and steady, the idea being that it would sink into his client to copy that calm.
It took a long moment but finally Michael relaxed slightly. At the first sign of sanity back in his client’s gaze, Tanner guided him out of the arch area.
Once more in open water, he stopped and checked Michael’s mask. It was on solidly now, but his eyes were still wild and panicky. Shit. Tanner checked the guy’s SPG—submersible pressure gauge—and found it lower than it should be, probably because he’d sucked down half his air during his panic attack.
It was easy enough to set him up with Tanner’s own alternative breathing source, but it was game over at that point. There was no way Michael was going to recover in time to enjoy this, and Tanner wasn’t willing to take the chance anyway. His gut feeling was confirmed when he pointed to the surface and Michael readily nodded.
Sharing Tanner’s regulator they swam closely together, with Tanner eagle-eyeing the air pressure as they made it to their designated safety stop, where—per protocol—they would stay for three minutes before hitting the surface.
Twice Michael tried to go early, which made it three extremely long minutes.
If it’d been a true emergency, Tanner would’ve let it happen, but Michael was no novice. He knew the ropes. Which is what made this such an anomaly. They’d done a review on the boat beforehand, and Michael—showing off for his bride, who wasn’t certified and was therefore safe and warm on board above them—had acted all manly and cocky. Tanner should’ve canceled the dive right then and there. He was kicking himself in the ass now for not doing so.
And actually, he’d kicked himself in the ass a whole hell of a lot lately, such as yesterday morning at the bakery in the presence of one adorably sexy strawberry blonde choking on her doughnut.
Sitting with her had been the highlight of his week. Hell, his month. And he wished he’d stayed longer.
He was an idiot.
When they finally surfaced, Michael gasped and sputtered and inhaled a bunch of water. Done with it, Tanner got a firm grip on him, pulling out his own mouthpiece. “Relax,” he ordered as Michael instinctively began to fight. “I’m going to tow you to the swim platform at the back of the boat.”
“I can do it,” Michael said stubbornly.
Hell, no. He’d had his chance. “I’ve got this,” Tanner said with a level stare that helped get the no-more-bullshit point across.
Tanner swam them to the boat and Cole, captain and head mechanic, was right there waiting to lift Michael out of the water.
That was the beauty of a partner whose instincts were honed sharp as razors. They never let you down.
“What the fuck?” Cole murmured to Tanner.
“No idea,” he said. “But I’m going to find out.” He looked over at Michael, now huddled in the blankets that Cole had wrapped him in.
Tanner crouched beside him, ignoring the sharp protest from his bad leg. “What happened back there?”
Behind them, Cole was on the radio to Sam, head of operations. Sam wanted to know if they needed an ambulance waiting on shore. Cole looked to Tanner.
But Michael shook his head vehemently. “I don’t need medical attention. I need a lobotomy.”
No argument from Tanner. “Talk to me.”
“I had a bad dive in Mexico last year,” Michael said. “Gave me claustrophobia. I wanted to get past it.”
Over his head, Tanner met the cool gaze of Cole. If you didn’t know the guy, you’d never guess he was pissed off. But he was, and Tanner was right with him. Every single client of theirs was required to fill out multiple forms. One of the many questions was: Are you claustrophobic?
Clearly Michael had lied. Nothing to be done about it now. They were just lucky it’d turned out as well as it had.
Michael’s bride was smiling and taking pics as they got out of the water. “You weren’t down for long,” she said, clueless to what had gone on below. “You have fun?”