Kyle had glanced at her one last time, deep blue meeting desperate hazel before vanishing with the falling water.
Camille vowed she wasn’t going to lose him, not like this. She heard Tank’s plea again, knowing he realized her intent as she planted her foot on the boulder she had jumped from many times before. She curved her body in the air, clear of the cliff’s edge, falling parallel to the torrent. No one knew how many times she had snuck up here in the summer to make this leap, to fall this distance. Always before it had been to escape her pain and grief, to regain a sense of control in her life, to bruise her body over the loss of a loved one, she had lost so many. But this time the fall meant more, as she turned effortlessly in the air next to the churning maelstrom falling with her. This time she was chasing love and life, instead of fleeing pain and death. This time the fall was for someone else.
Camille twisted into and out of a pike position with an extra half rotation, hands flat above her head to punch surface. The angry white and gray frothing with spring snowmelt met her with frigid intensity Had she not been a trained diver, she would have lost her breath to its bitterness. The water in the pool at the base of the falls seemed so much colder that the river she just swam across above. Or perhaps it was her fear that made her heart feel the ice around her.
Camille could see Donnie struggling to swim upward against the pounding of the falling river, an impossible battle to win. The criminal didn’t respect the water, didn’t understand it, and it would claim him. Camille hoped to keep the unforgiving liquid from claiming another, so she swam downward past Donnie, leaving him to his fate and certain death.
Kyle was sinking in the darkness of the current, unmoving. She caught him around the forearm and pulled him further down, toward the outflow she knew lay in the dim depths below. Feeling the fluid movement, she swam harder than she ever had, towing the man she love. Years of rescuing others from Texas riptides and her own experience with the roll of the barrel beneath the Ridgeline Falls had shown her the way out of this vortex. Her need to fall had trained her to escape the swirl that trapped others, tricked them into fighting the sinking pull of this deathtrap. Suddenly, the water’s direction shifted around them again and they were rising. Wrapping her arm across Kyle’s chest, she crosscut the current to keep from being pulled back toward the falls and the vicious circle of the barrel. Bursting the surface, she greedily sucked air into her burning lungs. Inhaling and coughing as she tried to keep them afloat, and from colliding with the rocky underwater terrain ahead. Her frozen arm across Kyle was numb, but she was sure it didn’t feel him take a breath as he lay unresponsive in her grasp.
Towing him through the white water she fought for them both. Fought the water for the first time in her life, struggled with all her strength and skill against the very thing that defined her existence since the first time she jumped into a pool. Floating close to a set of boulders, she let the current to pull them around the giant obstacle and throw them into a small inlet of calmer water with its the pale gray crescent of granite sand like so much flotsam. Coughing and exhausted, she struggled to drag Kyle from the freezing water.
“KYLE!” His eyes were unseeing as she clutched at his face, shouting his name.
She turned him on his side, lifting him at the waist and squeezing to forcefully expel the filthy river water from his lungs. Dropping him on his back she yanked his head back and pulled open his jaw, breathing into his mouth, forcing his chest to rise.
“Come on Kyle, breath for me. Please baby, just one breath.”
Her trembling fingers felt the faintest flutter of a pulse in his neck and she prayed that everything she had ever heard about Hypothermic drowning was true. She breathed into him again and again, willing him to live. He made a strange gurgling sound and gagged. She rolled him onto his side as he choked noxious water out of his lungs in a great coughing fit while she sobbed her relief.
She hugged him as he turned over onto his back, “I thought you died, I thought you left me, I thought I’d lost you again.”
" I.. I knew... you’d... save... me,” he choked out between coughs, as he struggled to sit up. Holding her tightly and grateful, he silently thanked God for this chance to have her in his arms again. Looking around, he was awed at the tranquil beauty of the tiny cove and the vicious roaring river beyond. Something in the water caught his attention.
Camille turned from where her face was buried in Kyle’s neck. Together they watched the body of Tiana’s rapist ragdoll-floating through the rapids. Camille stood and took a step toward the water to but Kyle caught her wrist. “Let him go, Camille.”
“But but it could take days to find him, maybe longer. Something might eat him”
Kyle pulled her down to sit beside him, ’Let him go.”
She tried to look back but Kyle kept her face turned toward him. “It’s finally over, Camille. Let him go.” A finger over her lips silenced any response.
He kissed her slowly, in a gently lingering caress of lips and tongues. Appreciation of a life spared while another was taken. The gratitude for hope claimed from certain death seemed to settle like sacredness around them. A perfect moment created between two souls.
Camille leaned back slightly, looking into his rich blue eyes, the same color as the butterfly tattooed over her heart and confessed her soul’s absolute truth. “I love you Kyle. I never stopped loving you. I never will stop loving you.” Her eyes told him her sincerity and her fear.
His fingers drifted along her jaw, down her neck and to the swell of her breast, he gazed at her tattoo heaving and fluttering as it had before while he traced the edge of it. The beauty that had been lost to him was his again, in this moment.
“I love you, Camille,” he responded, meeting her swirling hazel irises that were gray and jade green and tawny golden all at once. He could feel himself fading, growing pale but he had to ask one last thing.
“Kyle, what’s wrong?” She sounded far away, concerned.
“Will you marry me?” He swayed slightly but fought to sit up until he had an answer.
“What?!?” Her shocked exclamation made him chuckle weakly.
“Camille Wallace, my beautiful blue butterfly. Will you marry me fifteen years late?”
When she laughed, he half-smiled, it was a beautiful last sound to cherish and she said what he expected of her practicality.
“Ask me in a few months when things calm down.”
His knuckles brushed her cheek as he vowed, “I promise.” Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed back onto the granite sand.
“Kyle? Oh gawd. KYLE!” Looking down at him Camille realized the warmth by her knees wasn’t from her body, it was blood leaking out of kyle’s leg and staining the gray beach red.
She yanked off her torn shirt and pressed it into his thigh. She had never seen his skin so pale. She begged him, “Please don’t you die, Kyle. I promise, I’ll say yes when you ask again, just don’t leave me.”
Over the rush of the river, Camille didn’t hear the approach of a rescue helicopter or people shouting at her. Her heart was dying again, just like it had that night, the night before her world ended. She was startled when a man in a medic flightsuit and helmet touched her shoulder. Stammering out the answers to his questions as he cut away Kyle’s jeans to reveal a gaping wound torn through his thigh. Tank arrived on the ATV as the flight medic was finishing bandaging Kyle’s leg. She helped them load Kyle onto a rescue basket to be hoisted up before the AirRescue flew away without her. Camille stared upriver at the Ridgeline Falls, and she vowed she would never make that dive again.
Tank wrapped his coat around Camille, “Come on, beautiful. Let’s get back to the ranch, your daughters are worried.”
The helicopter was already out of site. He heard Benton say over the radio they were heading back. Benton was also explaining to Vick what had transpired. The Sheriff said into his mic, “Coach Wallace and I are headed back up to the trucks. We’ll catch up.”
He turned back to Camille who looked ready to collapse. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he gave her a gentle nudge. “Time to go, Camille.”
Camille nodded, but her eyes never left the river, her voice was empty as she answered, “Donnie floated past. He’s dead, drowned. I think he killed Giovanni before he and Kyle went in the river.”
Tank’s mouth made a grim line, “Hmrph, so he’s dead too, I guess it’s over now. Rand said it looked like Giovanni was shot several times. We thought you or Kyle did it.”
“No, it was Donnie.” Shaking her head, Camille climbed onto the ATV in front of Tank. She stopped his hand from flicking the starter. “He saved me, Thomas. Giovanni saved me twice when Donnie was going to kill me. He was rambling about Ron and killing him to protect me. Giovanni said my purpose was to heal him, because that’s what blue butterflies do. Then his cousin attacked us and he saved me. I don’t understand what happened today.” Her voice was emotionless but he heard his best friend’s pain.
Tank tightened his embrace around her. “Neither do I. Benton said Donatello was shooting to kill but Giovanni wasn’t. That Giovanni let you disarm him before he carried you away from the shoot out. He was a very bad person, he hurt a lot of people. He tried to kill Katy, he burned Tonia’s house to destroy the evidence connecting Donatello to Tiana, and Kyle said he was the man that made Kyle’s brother betray them but today... Something changed today. I don’t know if we’ll ever understand but I am glad he acted differently. I am glad he saved you, Camille, but I refuse to be sorry that he and his cousin died.”
“What if they don’t make it, Tank? What if Kyle and Katy die because of them?” Her voice sounded so small, like the first time she had told him what happened between her and Ron.
“Katy’s fine, Gramma Doreen called and said she woke up this morning, that’s why I was headed to Durango. Gramma Doreen is being released, she was sitting with Katy when she woke. Doreen called and said Kat wanted to talk to me, that there was a box with copies of all her evidence at the bakery. She’s amazing, I can’t wait for you to meet her.” Trying to reassure Camille by telling her a bit of good news, “Maybe she knows where Tonia is.”
“Tank, you need to arrest Tonia as soon as we find her. Donnie Valtini told us it was Tonia’s idea. That she...” Camille had to stop to swallow the bile in her throat. “Oh gawd, Thomas, Antonia sold Tiana to that monster. Donnie bragged that he would have paid more, he acted like he owned Tiana, like she was a broodmare or prize bred heifer. It made me angry, crazy angry and I attacked him. I had him on the ground and I wanted to beat him to death. I have never wanted to kill anyone, not even Ron. If Giovanni hadn’t stopped me... ” She dragged a breath in, terrified at what she was ready to do as a mother, offended for a young woman who wasn’t even her child. But in those moments it didn’t matter that Tiana was hers by birth, she was hers in spirit, a victimized girl and fellow diver.
“Thomas, I was going to kill him and I wouldn’t have regretted it. I should have kept Sheridan’s gun instead of giving it to Gracie. I should have just shot Donnie myself when we first ran into him. I... I’m the reason Kyle’s going to die. He asked me to marry him and I didn’t even... I didn’t say yes.” She was shaking, not just from being wet and cold, but from trying to quash the tsunami of fear and regret that was overwhelming her from her confession.
“Did you tell him no?” Tank asked quietly.
“Uhh, no. I said ask me in a few months when things calm down.”
Tank reached forward and put his hands on the handle bars. “Darlin’, Kyle’s tough, he’s hurt but he’s determined not to ever lose you again, he won’t die, especially after he didn’t get a no.”
“But he was so pale, he almost drowned, I had to do CPR, and he was shot. What if...” Camille’s worry was interrupted by the growl of the ATV engine.
Tank’s voice was loud in her ear as he drove them back toward the path up the Ridgeline cliff. “Like I said, he’s too stubborn to leave you so quit worrying. Let’s get back to the girls and head to the hospital.”
Camille could only nod her head, she swallowed her tears and her fear. Kyle wouldn’t die, she couldn’t let herself think about that. Her girls needed her right now. From the top she stared at the Ridgeline Falls, thinking about chasing Kyle into the depths, she vowed a second time she would never make the dive again.
Willow stood outside the ranch house staring at the toward the Ridgeline trail. Waiting for anyone to drive back down, her ears straining for for the sound of the ATV or one of the dirtbikes or one of the Sheriff’s vehicles. It was taking every bit of patience she had not to go stomping toward the trail on her bad leg. She was silently freaking out, even thinking about jumping off the roof into the pool. She now completely understood her mom’s need to dive when she felt out of control.
Dr McConnell came around the house and put his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t hear him and jumped when he touched her. The old vet walked quieter than a cat.
“Cajun is going to be fine. He’s a tough old cattle pony,” He said as he followed her gaze toward the trail to the ridge. “Don’t worry, honey. Sheriff Tanner and my grandson will bring your ma and sister back safe.”
“What about Tiana? Huh? She’s your great-granddaughter.” Willow took out her stress on the elderly veterinarian in the form of being offended for her friend’s sake. “Don’t you care if she comes back? Tiana is alone and she’s pregnant because she was raped, and now that bas*tard is chasing her and my sister all over the mountain and wanting to do gawd knows what to them if mom and Tank can’t save them. I am worried about Mom and Gracie but I am also worried about T and her baby.”
Willow’s voice had become a snarl as she accused, “Are you and the rest of her dad’s deadbeat family just going to abandon Tiana? Bail on her like they did when she was 7? She just wants a family and Lloyd is the only of of you who even acts like she exists. Tonia may be a bi*tch but at least she acts like she cares about Tiana part of the time.”
The old veterinarian stepped away from the teenager, shocked by the vehemence behind her words and the accusation they held.
“Willow, we’ve always wanted to be a part of Tatiana’s life. It was her mother who kept her from us. After a few years... well, it just was too much to put the family through. There were two years while Antonia was married to Lloyd, during which we got to see Tatiana on the holidays but even then there was conflict with her mother. After she divorced Lloyd and sued the family for more money, it was just easier to stay away. Antonia made problems for all the other families who live here. We never wanted Tatiana to feel like we loved her less.”
“You don’t even know her, she hates being called Tatiana.” Willow scoffed, looking at him with a judgmental expression that only a teenage girl could manage. “TI-ANA doesn’t feel like your family loves her less, she feels like you don’t love her at all. Has anyone except Lloyd and her dad ever seen her dive? Come to see her get her academic and athletic awards? Ever sent her a birthday or Christmas present? No, no, you haven’t and it hurts her. I have lived my whole life without my real family because they’re dead but my aunt adopted me, and my few surviving relatives all love me. T has a family, a huge family but only her dad and stepdad act like they care. Her cousins won’t even talk to her at school and it hurts her feelings. None of them came to her sweet 16 and she invited all of them against her mom’s wishes.” Her eyes were as sharp and hard as cut sapphires from Montana, the fierceness of their intensity was striking in the black fringe of her lashes. “You know, don’t worry about it. We’ve got her back. We’ll be T and Tadpole’s family.”
Dr McConnell stared at feisty girl, open mouthed. He had never been so disrespected by child but under his shock was the nagging acknowledgement that the teen was correct. They had had given up on Tatiana as a family because of her mother. They had missed the milestones and accomplishments of a child of their family because of pride. He scrubbed his thinning hair and put his worn Stetson back in place. “I guess we have some fences to mend,” he said quietly. “I am glad Tiana has friends like your family, Willow. Thank you for looking after her.”
“Don’t thank me, it’s what teammates do for each other, we’re family.”
The chirp of Vick’s radio had them both Willow and Dr. McConnell turning, he listened, with a scowling expression.
“Mr Benton says they are on their way back, McConnell and Hightower are being airlifted to the trauma center in Durango. The suspects are both dead.” His words were clipped.
“What about Gracie and Mom and Tiana?” Willow demanded.
Deputy Vick repeated the question into the mic and waited, listening to his ear piece.“Mr. Benton and someone named Rand are driving the girls back now. Sheriff Tanner is bringing Coach Wallace up from the bottom of the Falls.” Vick looked confused then shocked as he said. “She jumped off the Falls when Mr. Hightower and one of the Valtini men went over.”
“Coach Wallace jumped off the Ridgeline Falls, that must be 50 feet!” Dr McConnell exclaimed.
“Forty-two feet,” Willow corrected coolly, “Forty-six if the river is running really high.”
Both men stared at her like she lost her mind so she shrugged and in her most blase tone, retorted, “Whaaaat? Mom’s done it before. At least once a year since her parents died. She’s a freaking Olympic medalist for F*’s sake.”
Then Willow gave them her best eye roll and hobbled back to the house as they gaped after her. Once inside and alone, she sank down on her bed and wept in relief.