The women turned to look at her with skepticism. They clearly felt in charge. They were middle-aged with soft bodies and reddish dyed hair tucked in hats that matched the pastel colors of their nylon jackets. Even behind their sunglasses Carson could tell they were checking her out.

“It’s a dead dolphin,” the woman in the pink nylon jacket told her with authority.

“So it seems.” Carson slipped off her backpack and dropped it on the sand, then knelt beside the tiny dolphin, hoping she was wrong. In truth, it didn’t look dead. It was a neonate, likely just born, still with its folded dorsal fin and faint neonate stripes. It was perfect, not a bite nor a mark on it. Just a sweet baby with that sweet smile dolphins had that melted the heart. Immediately she thought of Delphine and fear shot through her that this might be her calf.

Carson opened her bag and pulled out her stranding-report form, a pen, and plastic gloves.

The women watched her carefully. “Are you with the dolphin team or something?” the woman in the aqua-blue gym jacket asked with suspicion.

“Yes,” Carson replied, trying to be friendly. “I just have a few things to check off my list. Do you mind stepping back a bit? . . . Thanks.”

“We’re the ones who phoned it in,” the lady in pink informed her with an air of self-importance. “We were taking a walk and found it and called the police.”

“I tried to push it back into the ocean,” the lady in blue said in a woeful tone. “I didn’t know if it was dead and wanted to save it. But the waves just pushed it right back on the beach. Look at my pants.” She lifted her left leg. The nylon pants were indeed wet to the calf.

Carson put her gloved hand on the dolphin. Without question it was dead. Poor baby, she thought as she took measurements, then filled out the forms. Male neonate. Thirty-nine inches in length.

She looked over her shoulder and spoke to the women behind her. “Thanks for calling it in. You did the right thing. But in the future if you see a stranded dolphin, please don’t touch it. Stranded animals are often sick, and diseases can be transmitted to humans. Not to mention, they could bite. Best to call it in, like you did, and wait for help.”

“You’re touching it,” the lady in blue argued.

“Yes, but I’m trained to do this and I’m wearing gloves.”

The woman in pink harrumphed softly. “It could’ve died while we waited for you.” They watched a few minutes longer, then apparently bored, the women meandered on.

“Thank you again,” Carson called after them, but they didn’t respond. She finished the form, then put her supplies back into her backpack. Now all that was left to do was wait.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long. She’d sent out the NOAA pager, as directed, but she’d also called Blake directly. It helped to know the guy in charge, she thought as she watched his pickup driving toward her along the shoreline. Carson waved her arms overhead.

Blake climbed from the truck and strode straight toward her. Even though it was only April, he was already tanned, wearing shorts and a navy NOAA T-shirt. He had that laid-back, old-fashioned masculinity that always set her blood thumping. His dark eyes lit up when he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her in for a kiss. “How’s my girl?”

“Sad.” Her lips turned down in a frown.

His gaze shifted to the beach where the dolphin lay. “A neonate.” He dropped his arm and walked directly to the dolphin. “Yeah, it’s always sad to see one of these.”

Carson followed Blake. “Look at him. He’s so cute. He looks like he should just swim off with his mama.”

Blake pulled gloves from his back pocket and slipping them on, bent at the knees to survey the animal while Carson watched. Without speaking he went to his truck and pulled out a case, then returned to the animal. He spread out a thick piece of blue plastic and lay the small dolphin on this. Blake was as precise as a surgeon as he took blood and skin samples and placed them in tubes. Then he wrapped the tarp around the dolphin.

“Would you grab the case?” he asked as he carried the wrapped dolphin to the truck. He placed the carcass and case inside, then closed the tailgate.

“Where are you taking it?”

“To the NOAA offices. Wayne McFee will do the necropsy. Researchers are able to gather a wealth of information from strandings that will help support the live ones out there.”

Thinking again of Delphine, she asked, “Why do you think it died?”

“For neonates, if it isn’t a shark attack, the culprit is usually water quality. The toxins in the water build up in the mother. When she gives birth, she purges the toxins from her body through the calf. Thus the stillbirth.”

“Could that happen to Delphine’s calf? Could it be hers?”

Blake lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know. It’s a fresh birth. I’ll only know when I see Delphine next.”

Carson looked out at the sea. These were tough times for all the animals in the oceans. But Delphine was her friend. She cared about this dolphin. “I hope not.”

“I don’t think it is,” Blake added reassuringly. “I can’t be sure, my guess is she has a ways to go yet.” Blake took his gloves off and tucked them into his pocket. “Hop in, I’ll drop you off.”

“I’m parked on Third, but I’ll ride with you.” Carson hopped into the cab of the truck. The truth was she wasn’t ready to be alone just yet, needing Blake’s comforting presence a bit longer after witnessing that heartbreaking scene of the dead calf.

The truck rocked on the uneven surface as she looked out at the sea. Though the day was gray, there were no waves to speak of. Still, one young man in a wet suit was out there. Probably someone on vacation determined to practice. Carson had surfed since she was sixteen, usually right here on Isle of Palms. She glanced at the man beside her. He clearly hadn’t shaved yet. The dark stubble rimmed his jaw. Was it only a year ago that Blake had taught her how to kiteboard? She smiled, remembering. That might’ve been when she knew she could fall in love with him.

“This would make carting all my boards and kites onto the beach easy,” she said, tapping the truck with affection.

“Yeah, right?” He laughed lightly. “But don’t get any ideas. I can only do this on official business.” He reached out to push back a lock of hair that had escaped from her dark braid. “You done good today, Carson. I’m proud of you.”

Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance