By Geri Krotow
Copyright © 2013 by Harlequin Books S.A.
“Val, you need to get over to the pool area.”
The tone of Maggie’s voice sent fear coursing through Val.
“What’s going on?”
“Just go. I’ll be right behind you.”
Val made it out of the office, around the lodgings and through the pool fence in under two minutes.
Pepe, the six-year-old son of a U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant who’d died in battle two years ago, was the child she’d told Lucas about during their last briefing. He stood atop the pool’s small diving board, hands clasped in front of his little chest, his hair wet, his eyes screwed shut.
Lucas was treading water under the diving board, fully clothed. His voice was low and steady as he spoke to Pepe, but Val was too far away to make out his words.
Serena, Pepe’s mother, was on the concrete deck with the other group members, two of whom held their arms around her. Val wondered if it was for support or to keep Serena from lunging after her son. Gold Star families tended to be more reliant on each other than other families, but Val had noticed that Serena was especially protective of Pepe. And why wouldn’t she be? He’d been barely five when his father was taken from him.
Val saw Tanya and walked over to her. “What’s the deal?”
“Lucas asked everyone what they were most afraid of. Pepe said he was scared of heights. So he wants to jump off the diving board—to prove he can do it.”
“The pool’s supposed to be a backdrop for the sessions, not part of them!”
“Pepe was wearing his swim trunks. He and Serena have gone in the pool each day after the workshops.”
“But Lucas wasn’t dressed to swim.”
“No, he wasn’t, but he took his phone out of his pocket before he got in and told Pepe to get up on the board.”
“If that kid doesn’t jump, Tanya…”
“He will jump, Val. If he doesn’t, he’s not ready yet, and that’s a good lesson, too.” Tanya’s expression remained neutral, but Val caught the innuendo that was aimed at her.
“I’m not afraid to jump.”
“Hmm.” Tanya gave the uniform counselor’s reply.
Val kept her gaze on Pepe and the swimmer below him. Pepe’s eyes had opened. The air was still and Lucas had raised his voice.
“Everyone’s afraid to make the first jump, Pepe. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a buddy. I’m your jump buddy for this one. Your mom can be your buddy, too. You can ask anyone you want. Remember, if you jump, you won’t be alone.”
“If I don’t like it, I’m not doing it again.”
“You don’t have to, Pepe. You can even decide not to jump this time. Whatever you decide is okay.”
Pepe looked up, his eyes shimmering with unshed tears as he searched out his mom.
Serena smiled at her son, her lower lip trembling. Tears spilled from under her sunglasses.
“Go for it, mi hijo.“