A mysterious beauty had nursed him back to health—and attracted the attention of some very bad men...
Somewhere over the Everglades, the airplane's engine failed and Dex Lassiter plummeted into the swamp's murky depths. Amber Callahan didn't expect to find any survivors in the wreckage, but Dex was about as tough as they came. And too smart not to dig into why a woman like her had run away to settle in remote Mystic Glades. Or why a killer circled their every move. As floodwaters rose, deputizing Dex was just what this lawless small town needed. Because escape wasn't possible. And the only thing Dex did better than starting things was defending them.
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Lena was born in Kentucky and has also lived in California, Louisiana, and Florida where she now resides with her husband and children. Before becoming a romantic suspense author, she was a computer programmer. A former Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart® finalist, she also won the Daphne du Maurier award. She loves to watch action movies, garden, or hike in the beautiful Tennessee Smoky Mountains.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dex looked out the cockpit window of his Cessna Corvalis at the vast wasteland of the Everglades racing below him at 190 knots. The monotony of sand-colored saw grass went on for miles, broken only by occasional muddy canals and vast islands of mangled cypress, their roots sticking out of the brackish water like giant knobby knees. If the Glades were anything like the marshes back home in Saint Augustine, he didn't know how anyone could stand the rotten-egg stink of rotting vegetation enough to want to visit for very long, let alone live there.
"I don't get it, Jake." He held his cell phone to his ear while he looked out the windows. "You worked your butt off to convince me to front the money to create Lassiter and Young Private Investigations. But just a few months after leaving everyone you know—including me—and setting up shop in Naples, you're ready to close the doors. For what—this swamp full of smelly plants and more alligators per capita than people? Can't you get Faye to move instead of you moving to Mystic Glades?"
He maneuvered the stick and dipped the wing, veering from his flight plan for a bird's-eye view of the town that had been at the center of their recent investigation but was now going to be his friend's new home. Unless Dex could talk him out of it.
"Hold it," Jake said. "What do you mean 'this' swamp? Aren't you still in north Florida?"
"I was. But then you called last week to tell me that you and the former target of our first and only case were an item and that you were quitting. I left my billion-dollar enterprise on the brink of ruin with people I barely trust so I could talk you out of this foolishness."
Jake snorted. "Don't give me that. Lassiter Enterprises runs so smoothly no one will even notice that you're gone. More than likely, you're using me as an excuse to hide from the latest girlfriend you dumped. Who is it this time? That intellectual property rights attorney you introduced me to last Christmas? Didn't you date her for several months? I thought you two were getting serious. Veronica somethingor-other?"
"You wound me deeply to imply that I would use our friendship as an excuse to avoid my commitment issues."
"Uh-huh. What's the name of the woman you're running from this time?"
"Mallory. I think she wants to kill me."
"They usually do. Dex? Exactly where are you?"
He tapped the touch screen of the GPS navigation system. "Good question. My state-of-the-art airplane isn't acting so state-of-the-art right now. It's blinking like a caution light on steroids." The screen went dark. "What the...?" He rapped the glass with his fist.
"Tell me you aren't flying over Mystic Glades," Jake said.
Dex looked out the side window. "As a matter of fact, I think I am. And it doesn't look any better from up here than I thought it would. I count fifteen, maybe twenty ramshackle wooden buildings down one long dirt road. Looks like something out of the Old West, or a ghost town, or both. Where are the houses? Where are the cars? Heck, where's the town? Is that all there is?"
"It's bigger than it looks. There are side roads hidden under the tree canopies. It's fairly spread out. And most of the townspeople use canoes or ATVs to get around more than they use cars. But I'm pretty sure I've told you most of that already. Do you even remember our last call? The one where I said I was getting married?"
"I remember that part. It was right before you said 'I quit.'" He pressed the stick, nosing the plane lower while pulling up on the throttle to reduce air speed for another circle. "This place is in the middle of nowhere—as in no bars, no nightclubs, probably no satellite service. How are you going to keep up with football season out here? I-75 or Alligator Alley or whatever the locals call it is the closest thing resembling civilization, but that's miles away. Tell me what it is about this place that you find so appealing, 'cause I'm sure not seeing it."
"I didn't catch everything you said. The cell service near Mystic Glades is unpredictable at best. But I can tell you the town has a way of growing on you. About me getting married—I may have."
The phone went silent. Dex pulled it back to look at it. The call still showed active. He put the phone back to his ear. "Jake?"
"Still here. Can you hear me?"
"I can now. Hang on a sec." He thumped the instrument panel again, but it remained dark, useless. Thankfully, it was a clear summer day with good visibility.
But he was going to raise hell with the manufacturer when he got home. The plane was just a few months out of its shiny new wrapping and still had that new-plane smell. It shouldn't have had any issues, let alone a full instrumentation meltdown. He shook his head in disgust. Maybe he should get into the airplane manufacturing business instead of high finance and investing in other people's ventures. He could teach those yahoos a thing or two about quality standards. "Dex?"
"Yeah. You said something about getting engaged?"
"Uh, about that. We decided on a very short engagement. We're already married."
Dex noisily tapped the side of the phone. "This thing must be messing up again because it sounded like you said you already got hitched. Without inviting me to the ceremony. Which means you can kiss the shamelessly extravagant gift I would have gotten you goodbye. Wait. when did you get married?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. We did the deed yesterday. We're in the Bahamas for the next two weeks. Freddie—Faye's friend, the one who owns Callahan's Watering Hole—gave us the trip as a wedding present."
Dex shook his head and sent the plane into a turn, heading in what he believed was a southwesterly direction toward Naples Municipal Airport. He'd rather head straight home to Saint Augustine, but he couldn't risk flying that far with a dead instrument panel. "Looks like this was a wasted trip."
"Sorry, man. I had no idea you'd fly out there without telling me first."
"Honestly, I didn't, either. But when I complained about you quitting our little business experiment, my assistant encouraged me to surprise you. He insisted it would be good for me to get away. And I figured I might be able to talk you out of a big mistake. Guess I should have come sooner."
"Marrying Faye wasn't a mistake," Jake bit out, sounding aggravated.
"Okay, okay. Sorry. I will graciously admit defeat. I guess I have to welcome Faye into the family now. Maybe I'll even buy you two a present after all."
"Hey, what can I say? I'm a softie."
"When we get back, I'll call you and we'll decide what to do about the company. You could always try to make a go of it without me. Just drop 'Young' from the name."
"Without my former-police-detective partner there'd be no point. Who'd want to hire an ex-navy pilot turned financier to hunt down a cheating husband or find a missing person?"
"I couldn't have solved Faye's case without your help. You're not too shabby as an amateur sleuth."
"Yeah. I can search the internet and make phone calls with the best of them."
"Actually, most of the time that's exactly what detectives do—research and interview witnesses." A woman's voice sounded in the background. Jake murmured something to her, then cleared his throat. "I've, ah, got to go."
"All kidding aside. Are you sure about this? About Faye? You haven't known her very long, and half that time you were taking turns pointing guns at each other. I just... I want to know that you're going to be okay."
"Are you getting sentimental on me, Dex?"
"I don't even know what that word means."
Jake laughed. "Well, you don't have to worry. I may not have planned this, but Faye's the best thing that ever happened to me. I love her. She's my whole world."
The certainty in his friend's voice went a long way toward reassuring Dex. Maybe Faye was what Jake needed to heal him from the mistakes of his past. God knows he'd had his share of tragedy and was long overdue for some happiness.
"Then I look forward to meeting her. Enjoy your honeymoon." The call cut out as Jake was saying goodbye. Dex shook his head again and put the phone away as he tried to judge his altitude. Lower than he was comfortable with. He was about to edge the nose up to climb higher when he noticed a young woman in a canoe.
Her dark brown hair hung in waves to the middle of her back. Even from the cockpit he could see the long, shapely tanned legs that paired nicely with a curvy body wearing only a skimpy yellow tank top and khaki shorts. He whistled low in admiration. She looked better than anything he'd seen in months. He just wished he could make out the details of her face to see if it matched the rest of the sexy package.
On impulse, he waved at her, but she didn't wave back. She might not have seen him waving, but more likely she probably thought he was an idiot. He couldn't blame her for that. He was about to increase air speed when a thick mist seemed to come from out of nowhere and wrapped around the plane like a shroud. He tapped the instrument panel again, hoping he could at least get an altimeter reading. Nothing. He was flying blind.
A scraping noise sounded against the bottom of the plane. He cursed and put it into a climb. The mist suddenly cleared. An enormous cypress tree stood dead ahead, its moss-covered branches reaching out like giant claws.
He banked hard left while throttling up. The branches made a sickening scraping noise against the underbelly of his Cessna, but she did her job, clearing the deadly tree. He laughed with relief and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. That was close—too close.
A dull thump sounded from the engine. An alarming shudder ran through the fuselage, making the springs in his seat rattle. Instead of the familiar, reassuring dull roar of the twin turbocharged power plant, all he heard now was the sound of air rushing past the windows. He watched in stunned disbelief as the single propeller began to slow.
The engine had just died.
He immediately tried a restart with no luck. At such a low altitude there wasn't much room to recover. The controls were sluggish. He fought to keep the plane on an even keel and catch some lift beneath the wings while continuing the restart attempt. But it was a losing battle with the engine refusing to catch. He flipped the button on his headset to make the one call he'd hoped never to have to make, and never had made in all his years of flying fighter jets in the navy.
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Naples Municipal, this is Bravo Two Seven One Charlie Baker, a Cessna TTX with total engine failure attempting a forced landing in the Everglades. Last known location approximately two nautical miles southeast of Mystic Glades. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday."
No answer. Not even static.
Amber fought down her panic and paddled her canoe toward shore. The pilot in that fancy little green-and-white plane had waved at her. But that didn't necessarily mean that he'd recognized her. Maybe he was the friendly type. It wasn't like there was an airport in Mystic Glades, so he was probably just a stranger passing overhead. She'd hidden out here for over two years without anyone finding her. There was no reason to fear the worst now.
Tell that to her shaking hands.
She reached the shore and realized she could no longer hear the plane's engine. The noise had stopped suddenly instead of fading away. A sickening feeling shot through her stomach. She hopped out of the canoe and ran around a clump of trees to look up at the sky in the direction where the plane had gone. It was a small spec now, probably more than a mile away. As she watched, the wings dipped back and forth and the plane dropped alarmingly low. Then it lifted, as if it were gliding and had caught a rush of air, before tilting crazily and disappearing behind a line of trees.
She clenched her hands together, waiting for the plane to rise above the trees again. Come on, come on. A full minute passed. Nothing. No plane. No sounds but the usual insects and frogs that created a constant low buzz that rarely ever stopped. He couldn't have crashed. There would have been smoke, wouldn't there? But if he hadn't crashed, she'd have seen the plane again.
Maybe he was one of the drug runners who used the Everglades as their own private highway to ferry their poison from city to city. But usually they used boats to get through the canals. And the plane she'd seen couldn't land on the water. It was sleek and expensive looking, like a minijet with a propeller—without a pontoon in sight.
She started forward, then stopped. No. Don't try to help him. People who can afford planes like that don't just disappear. Someone will notice that he's missing. They'll send a search party. At the most, he'll be out here a couple of hours while they figure out how to reach the crash site.
If he'd even survived the crash.
Outsiders would need guides through the swamp. Guides meant hiring locals, most likely from Mystic Glades, which meant soon the place would be crawling with people who would recognize her.
She ran to the canoe. Grasping the sides, she put one foot on the bottom, ready to shove off with the other.
What if he survived the crash? What if he's hurt? What if he's hurt so badly that he needs immediate care?
She couldn't help him. That wasn't something she did anymore. She'd learned that lesson the most painful way possible. A familiar stab of grief and guilt threatened to overwhelm her. But she ruthlessly locked those useless emotions away.
Okay, assume he's not hurt. He can find his own way to Mystic Glades. But he could just as easily wander into the swamp and get lost. He could stumble into a nest of alligators or step on a snake. The Glades might be beautiful but they were dangerous, teeming with wildlife, emphasis on wild. Only those who understood its dangers—and respected them—could avoid them and thrive out here.
He's not your responsibility.
But he's still a human being.
Her shoulders slumped. She couldn't pretend she didn't know he was there. She had to at least check on him.
She stepped out of the canoe and tugged it up onto a muddy rise beneath some trees. Too bad he'd gone down in one of the areas unreachable by boat. She had a good, long hike ahead of her. She grabbed her walking stick, double-checked that her hunting knife was sheathed at her waist and then headed out. She hoped she wasn't making a horrible mistake. But, then again, no mistake could be worse than the one she'd already made.
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