"Do you know how embarrassing it is to find out you're in the wrong class? And then-" She threw up her hands dramatically. "Zack London. I can't believe it. I just can't believe it."
Throughout this tirade Zack sat on the floor with his arms draped over his drawn-up knees, watching her quizzically and patiently, waiting for her to run down. When she seemed to have run out of steam he slowly shook his head and muttered sardonically, "Well, I've gotten some pretty interesting reactions from women before, but yours is certainly unique."
"Why?" Maddy asked suddenly, getting her second wind. "Why do you do this, anyway? Teach beginners. In a place like this. It's like… it's like-" She waved her arm angrily. "Like hiring Mickey Mantle to coach T-ball!"
Zack suddenly burst out laughing. When Maddy went on glaring at him he used a hand to remold his features into somber lines and said in a strangled voice, "I'm sorry you're upset. I really am. And I'm not laughing at you. It's just-" He cleared his throat, looked away from her while he appeared to collect himself, then looked back. His face was straight and under control, but the glint of humor remained. "In answer to your question-I don't usually teach the beginners. I'm just standing in for the high-school kids and Boy Scouts until school's out next week."
"Oh," Maddy murmured. Something was happening to her as a result of that prolonged eye contact. She couldn't seem to remember how to breathe.
"I do coach the swim team and teach lifesaving, though. And I have a question for you, Maddy Gordon."
She blinked at him, suddenly apprehensive.
"How did you get to be an adult person in Southern California without learning to swim?"
"Haven't lived in Southern California that long. I'm a transplant from the Midwest- Indiana." She shivered and hunched her shoulders, wishing for a towel or a wrap of some kind.
She'd forgotten about the blanket. Zack leaned forward and drew it up around her shoulders. The movement brought his face close to hers. " Indiana has a terrific public swim program," he said. "You haven't answered my question."
The sensation produced by the warm stirring of his breath on her skin was indescribable. She shivered again, and he tugged the blanket together across her breasts.
"So… how come you never learned to swim?"
"No big deal," she mumbled. "I'm just afraid of water."
She shrugged. "I don't know. I just always have been."
"Baloney. Nobody's born afraid of water. We spend the first nine months of our lives happily immersed in it. What happened to make you afraid?"
She pushed back a strand of wet hair and said lightly, "Who knows? Maybe I had a bad experience when I was little. Maybe I almost drowned or something. I really don't remember." He knew she was lying; she could see it in his eyes. But she returned his disbelieving stare with stubborn defiance, letting him know that she'd gone as far as she was going to go.
"Well," he said, recognizing a brick wall when he saw one, "it would help if you could remember. It does a lot of good just to talk about things like that, you know."
Maddy bit her lower lip, but remained silent. Oh, she knew that-how well she knew that. But she wasn't the sort of person who went around blurting out her deepest feelings to strangers. Especially a stranger who just happened to have been an international celebrity and the object of her adolescent dreams!
Zack took a deep breath and stood up, acknowledging defeat. "Okay," he said briskly. "Let's see if we can find you an adult class. I'm sure you won't have so much trouble if you've got the company of others in the same boat."
He walked to the desk and began shuffling through papers, looking for a schedule. Maddy found that she could breathe again without having to think about it, but now she felt strangely off kilter, as if someone had removed some of the supports that kept her balanced and perpendicular to the ground. She seemed to be leaning in the direction he had gone, as if pulled by an invisible magnetic force.
"That's funny," he was saying, frowning down at the schedule in his hands. "There doesn't seem to be an adult-beginners' class this session. Guess there wasn't enough demand for one. Okay, that takes care of that." He dropped the papers back onto the desk and leaned against it, folding his arms across his chest. The stance made him look even more like a comic-book superhero. "Have you considered private lessons?"
"I hadn't," she said, focusing doggedly on the off-center dimple in his chin. "I wouldn't even know whom to ask. Look-" She stood up abruptly, gathering the blanket around her. "I've taken up enough of your time. You have a class to teach, and I've already upset the children, and anyway, it's not that important. I can learn to swim any time. Maybe next time they decide to offer an adult-beginners' class…"
She was moving past him, making for the women's shower room, trailing the blanket behind her like a queen's robes. Zack planted one foot firmly on the end of the blanket and said, "Whoa."
It was either stop or make her exit in nothing but her bathing suit. Maddy stopped.
"It's important," he said. "It was important enough that you signed up for lessons and showed up for the class. You said that took courage, and I believe you. It was important enough that you stuck it out when you found yourself in a class full of babies, and important enough that you put your face in the water even though you were scared to death to do it. So what's changed? Not a damn thing. You know what I think? I think you need to learn to swim." He tapped his head. "Psychologically. Not just because it might save your own life or somebody else's someday. Right?"
She stared resentfully at him and didn't answer. Who did he think he was, anyway, a psychologist or something? And why was he so determined to make a crusade out of her inability to swim? Why should he care? She would have thought that after the mess she'd made of his swimming class he'd be more than glad to be rid of her. And she couldn't understand the way he was looking at her, with his brows drawn together and his eyes that smoke color she found so unsettling.
"Well, look," he said abruptly, as if he'd just come to the same conclusion she had about wanting her out of his hair. He turned to scribble on a message pad. "Here's a couple of phone numbers. These are lifeguards here at the pool who give private lessons during the summer. Right now they're still in school, but as soon as school's out they'll be available during off hours. Why don't you give one of these guys a call? They'll be glad to take you on, and I think they'd be pretty reasonable, too." He strolled toward her and tucked the paper inside the overlapping edge of the blanket. "And," he added, his voice unexpectedly gentle. "Promise me you'll do it, okay? It really is important." He smiled at her, the same warm, reassuring smile he'd used to break the ice with Theresa.
Theresa, Maddy thought. She'd almost forgotten. There was something she needed to tell him about Theresa.
With a sizable effort she pulled herself together, took a deep breath, and said, "Okay, I'll look into it. I promise. Zack… um…" She cleared her throat and focused on him, steeling herself against the distraction of his charisma. If anything was important, this was. "I think there's something you should be aware of. It's about that little girl-the one you thought-"
"Theresa." He was suddenly alert. "Yes, what about her?"
She hesitated. It wasn't as difficult to talk to him now that she was on familiar footing-her home territory, so to speak-but this kind of thing was never easy. "I'd like to ask you a question," she said carefully.
"Why did you let Theresa wear her T-shirt in the pool? The pool rules state specifically, 'No T-shirts or cut-offs.' "
Zack's eyes narrowed slightly. "I noticed the way she was hanging on to it, and it didn't seem like a good time to make an issue of it. Why?"
"Because I think there's at least a possibility she may have had a good reason for wanting to keep it on."
"I see." He straightened, looking thoughtful. "Marks, you mean. Something she's embarrassed about."
"More likely afraid," Maddy said, lowering her voice. "I may be wrong. I hope so. But… there are signs. Certain things you learn to look for."
He was silent for a moment, looking gravely at her. "You sound like you know what you're talking about," he said finally. "Are you a psychologist, or a cop?"
"No, but I often work with both. I work for a county social-services agency called the Family Crisis Center." She took a deep breath. "I work with abused children."
"Oh, boy." Zack exhaled slowly and rubbed a hand over his face. "Okay. So what do you want me to do?"
It warmed her, that unquestioning acceptance. Nearly everything about him either warmed her or unnerved her. "Just keep an eye on her. And if you do notice anything… suggestive, please give me a call, okay?"
Except for his nod he was very still. "All right. I'll do that."
She murmured, "Thanks," and after a moment's hesitation, turned to continue on her way to the showers. Halfway there she looked back. He hadn't moved a muscle, but was still watching her with eyes that were dark and unreadable, like smoke.
Maddy was still thinking about those odd, enigmatic eyes as she drove down the dark, leafy tunnel of avocado trees to her house. Her house was what the rental agent had called "a rare find." It was in the part of town known as the Heights, a hilly area that had retained most of its rural character in spite of the fact that its avocado orchards and citrus groves had been converted to well-designed and marginally expensive housing tracts. Still, a few small groves remained, and some of the homes were the original ranch houses or converted outbuildings, where people kept goats and chickens and indulged eccentricities that wouldn't have been tolerated in the city's limits.