“It’s good training.” She looked down her nose at Joe. “You’re not going to chicken out, are you? And you can also buy me a milk shake.”

“No chicken here. Just giving you a chance to back out gracefully.” He peeled off his sweatshirt and rolled his shoulders. “I mean, it could be embarrassing for you, the ocean star, to get an old-fashioned thrashing on your turf by a pool swimmer.”

“Ha. I plan to give an old-fashioned thrashing. You haven’t been training.” She pointed to his slightly paunchy stomach before she pulled off her own sweats. The cold air brought on a shiver.

Joe proudly patted his bit of paunch. “This will only make me more buoyant.”

Casting Joe an upraised eyebrow, a cop glance reserved for obviously guilty crooks who protested innocence, Carly laid down the swim’s ground rules. “Okay, it’s a mile and a half to the buoy. Last one back to the beach buys lunch, milk shakes included.”

Joe nodded and they both pulled on their goggles and shook out their arms. She counted, and on three they ran together into the surf and dove into a wave. The cold winter water took her breath away, but Carly wasn’t worried, even when Joe pulled ahead. Joe was taller—five-ten to Carly’s five-seven—and took longer strokes, but he also carried a good sixty pounds more than she did. In spite of her teasing, it was mostly muscle, which made him denser in the water, not more buoyant. All she needed to do was settle into her stroke. This race would go to the one with stamina.

Carly warmed up fast and swam hard, determined to leave her frustration on the beach. Joe was right; this wasn’t her. She rarely indulged in pity parties. But today, as she woke up to her thirty-third birthday, everything in her life seemed to converge in a perfect storm of failure.

The divorce had started her funk; the final papers had arrived two days ago, and reading them abraded Carly’s still-raw heart. Now was the time she always imagined she would be starting a family, not filing away the proof that one had disintegrated. Nick had taken so much of her with him, she felt hollow. As good a partner and friend as Joe was, he didn’t understand.

And Carly felt like a failure when she faced her mother. No one in the family had ever divorced, until now. Mom’s solution was church, as though that would somehow fix a busted marriage. Her roommate Andrea’s response was more realistic but even less doable: “Forget about him and find a new man.”

Work used to be her respite, a place of security, support, and camaraderie, but lately her assignment in juvenile was more a black hole of boredom, sucking her life away. Compared to LA, a neighbor to the north, Las Playas was a small city, but it had its share of big crime. Carly wanted to be back on patrol, crushing her portion of it. Joe hadn’t talked about it, but she knew the entire force was on edge over Mayor Teresa Burke. The popular and high-profile mayor had been missing for four days. Carly wanted to be out in a black-and-white, chasing clues and leads, not stuck inside babysitting juvenile delinquents. She kicked the water with a vengeance.

Carly caught and passed Joe just before the buoy. Ignoring his presence, she made the turn and sliced through the swells with her best training stroke. Her shoulders heavy with fatigue, she pushed harder. She conjured up an image of Joe as a shark bearing down on her heels, his fin parting the water in hot pursuit, a mind game to keep her from slowing.

A local celebrity in rough-water swims, Carly laid claim to a perfect record: undefeated in eighteen races. “Whenever life closes in, retreat to your strength” was an adage she lived by. Lately the ocean was a second home.