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A terrible secret haunts Dr. Jama Keith. But she must return to her past—her hometown of River Dance, Missouri—and risk exposure. She owes a debt to the town for financing her dreams. If only she can avoid ex-fiancé Terell Mercer—but River Dance is too small for that.
When Terell's niece is abducted by two of the FBI's most wanted, Jama can't refuse to help—Terell's family were like kin to her for many years. The search for young Doriann could cost Terell and Jama their lives. But revealing her secret shame to the man she loves scares Jama more than the approaching danger....
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Hannah Alexander is the pen name for Cheryl Hodde, who uses the medical input from her husband, Dr. Mel Hodde, to write romantic suspense with medical emphasis, both contemporary and historical. Their first collaboration began with a blind date instigated by Cheryl's matchmaking pastor, and has continued for the fifteen years of their marriage.
Discover more about their work at www.hannahalexander.com
Doriann Streeter had never been kidnapped before, but if she'd ever tried to imagine what it might be like—which she hadn't—she'd have been wrong. She would've expected to be brave, but right now she couldn't stop shaking. If she weren't trying so hard just to breathe, she'd be surprised that she'd never expected anything like this, because she had a good imagination.
Her hands shook as she clenched them in her lap.
What had she done wrong? Why was she stuck inside a stinking, rattly old pickup truck between two dirty people with black beneath their fingernails, who reeked so badly she thought she might puke?
And what if she did puke? It could happen.
She dared a glance at the dirty man's pocket. It was where he'd stuck her cell phone when it rang. He'd grabbed it, turned it off, shoved it into his pocket with an ugly chuckle, nearly driving the truck into the ditch when he forgot to watch the road.
Some things just never occurred to a girl.
The call had to have been Mom checking up on her. Or Aunt Renee. Please, God, make them worry when I don't answer. Please!
They knew she always answered her calls, even when she was up to something she knew they didn't want her to be doing.
She gagged again at the smell that filled the hot cab of the pickup. She had a decision to make. Get sick in the truck and get killed, or ask for some fresh air and get killed.
"Could you open a window or something?" she asked finally, after working up her nerve to speak. She hated the way her voice shook. Not strong, the way she'd always thought she'd sound during a crisis, but scared, like a little kid. She hated that these two loser bullies scared her.
Neither of them said a word.
Doriann crossed her arms, holding them tightly against her stomach.
The windows stayed up.
This was not the time to throw a tantrum the way her cousin Ajay would do.
She dared a glance to her right at the skinny woman called Deb, who had teeth missing.
Maybe it was better that these two bullies didn't listen to her. If they saw her as a threat, then she'd be tied up and thrown into the back of the truck. But since she was just a kid to them—as if an eleven-year-old who'd already graduated from her trainer bra and had a 153 IQ could possibly be considered just a kid—they figured they could handle her between the two of them.
Doriann's face still stung from the slaps the woman had given her for screaming. Tears had dried on Doriann's face. The farther the dirty man drove from Kansas City, the faster the tears had come for a while. She'd even been afraid to ask for a tissue, so she'd had to wipe her nose on the sleeve of her jacket.
Can't panic. Don't let them see how scared you are. Think of something else.
Deb's teeth, maybe. Deb was a stupid name for a kidnapper. Deborah was a name from the Bible, a judge and prophetess in the Old Testament. Deborah was Mom's hero, because she "held a position of honor in a world that honored only men."
Good thing Judge Deborah was in heaven now. She didn't need to know how her nickname was being besmirched down here in Missouri.
Besmirched? Yes, that was the word.
They passed a road sign on I-70, and Doriann felt her eyes go buggy. Could that be right? Hadn't they just left Kansas City less than an hour ago? According to the sign, they were almost to Columbia. Halfway across Missouri. She knew this road well, because she traveled it with Mom and Dad whenever they went to River Dance to visit Grandpa and Grandma Mercer—which was never often enough for Doriann.
But if that sign was right, that meant they'd been on the road for two hours!
How could that be? During homeschool study hour, Aunt Renee always said that time crept by when a person was in a state of high stress, so if Doriann and her cousins would just relax and be quiet, they could complete their lessons in half the time, then go out and play.
This wasn't right, because time was passing way too fast, and if Doriann was any more stressed, this stinky cloth seat would be drenched with her pee.
Maybe she was in the middle of a bad dream.
The road blurred, and Doriann blinked. She couldn't cry again. The woman and the man called Clancy might enjoy it. They were the kind of people who probably liked to make kids cry. Clancy would laugh at Doriann's tears, and Deb was probably waiting for a reason to slap her again.
And so, as they drove past the sign for Columbia, Doriann counted billboards and reworded them to make them rhyme, and added the mileage in her head, while taking slow, steady breaths until her vision cleared.
They'd just passed the exit to Columbia Regional Hospital, leaving the city behind, when the corroded old scanner in the truck's open glove compartment hissed and spat, and then a tinny male voice said, "We have report of a... pft... pft... pft... male and female, possible hostage situation... pft... last seen two hours ago in the vicinity of Swope Park, possibly headed east on I-70... pft... pft... pedestrian reported seeing a child being forced into the pickup—"
"That would be me," Doriann said, voice wobbling like a baby's. "You should let me—"
Deb slapped a dirty hand over Doriann's mouth. Hard. "Shut up!"
Doriann blinked to keep the tears from falling. She breathed slowly. Tried to stay calm. Not panic. Who'd have thought it would be so hard?
"...pft...FBI's most wanted couple...at least six already dead...possible sighting at a convenience mart at exit... pft... could be en route toward St. Louis."
"Six." Clancy spat on the floor.
Doriann grimaced in spite of her fear. Eeww!
"People can't even do their job right. The count's at least nine. No, wait, that's eleven."
Deb took her hand from Doriann's mouth and reached across her to smack the man on the side of the head. "Didn't I tell you not to grab the brat?" Her voice sounded like the crackle of a campfire built with green cedar branches. "And I told you not to stop for gas along the interstate!"
Doriann nodded. That was right. Deb had told him. But Clancy seemed to be the kind of person who did exactly what he was told not to do.
"What was I supposed to do, let the truck run out of gas?"
"You could've taken an exit and found a place out of sight of cruising Feds, but, no, you had to park right out in plain sight, where anybody watching for us—"
"Everybody's watching for us!" His voice clattered like a chain saw in the truck cab, making Doriann wish she could disappear into the seat cushion. "It doesn't matter where we are, they're after us!"
Doriann held her breath as Clancy's fingers turned white on the steering wheel. She peered sideways at him, though trying to appear as if she wasn't. His lips disappeared in a red streak, and his eyes narrowed to the point Doriann wondered if he could see the road. She knew that look. Her cousin Ajay looked the same way just before one of his screaming fits.
"I'm making you famous." He spat the words at Deb as if he was shooting bullets.
"Being on the FBI's Most Wanted list isn't my idea of fame," Deb snapped back.
He cut a look at her. Would he punch her in the stomach again? He'd already done it once, when they'd stopped for gas. Doriann braced herself.
He held his cold stare on Deb, as if his eyes controlled a razor blade. And then, one by one, slowly, his fingers returned to their dirty pink color as he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. His lips regained their shape. He stuck out his jaw, took a deep breath, blew it out—the way Doriann did when her cousins were getting on her last nerve.
"Why didn't somebody call the police on us sooner?" he asked, sounding almost normal. "We're heroes, that's why. Those idiots deserved to die, and people realize it," he snapped, then muttered, "Bunch of rich thieves who make their living on the backs of the working class. Bloodsucking scum. That's why this country's in the state it's in."
Doriann stared at the dashboard. So this guy hated rich people.
"Think again!" Deb said. "The callers were probably scared. Or stupid. Or just found out about the search for us. But they called, all right?"
Clancy turned his attention to Doriann, and his eyes narrowed again, but not as if he was mad. It was as though he became a different person all of a sudden. Very weird. Very scary. Doriann couldn't take a breath.
He patted her leg, leering at her as if she was a banana split with extra nuts and chocolate syrup. "This here's our little protector. They can't get to us without coming through her."
Deb pounded a fist against the passenger door and spat out a stream of words that made Doriann's eyes bulge, and started her breathing again.
Doriann was proud of her vocabulary, and always tried to use words properly. These didn't sound like words she'd need to know, but the anger behind them scared her. They were crazy.
Jesus, help me, please! These people are killers, and I know I shouldn't have lied about being sick and skipped out to the zoo today. Oh, yeah, and I know I shouldn't have drank coffee after Mom and Dad told me I couldn't have it. But I was so far ahead in my studies after this weekend, and I was so tired of Danae and Ajay and Coral and the baby all being so noisy at once, and now the coffee's going right through me, just like Mom said it would... Oh, Jesus, please don't let these people kill me, and don't let me wet my pants.
"Got to get off this highway," Deb snapped. "Now!" She reached in front of Doriann and grabbed the steering wheel.
Doriann wished she had a seat belt; there was no exit. The truck bounced off the road and nearly hit a tree and Doriann closed her eyes and focused on not screaming as her chest bounced against Deb's arm.
Clancy was going to kill somebody for sure this time.
Doriann thought about home and Mom and Dad and the great work both her parents did at the hospital, and about how Jesus was always with her, and about how she loved her cousins even though they drove her crazy, and about her schoolwork, and the great future Aunt Renee said Doriann would have when she graduated high school early and—
Clancy jerked the wheel hard to the left. Deb's head hit the window. Doriann screamed.
On Monday morning, when Dr. Jama Keith stepped from her ten-year-old Subaru Outback onto the gravel parking lot in front of the brand-new River Dance Clinic, a chorus of birdsong merged with the familiar splash and gurgle of multiple waterfalls. A serenade. Like old friends welcoming her home.
A wave of unexpected hope and longing struck her.
She fought the hope. This would be a temporary stop. An extended one, yes, but temporary. She had to keep that in mind.
Maybe memories would be short for the citizens of River Dance, her tiny, isolated childhood home. Maybe, at least, those memories would be gentle, smoothed over and worn down by time.
"Hey, Dr. Keith!" someone shouted to Jama from across the street.
She turned to see sixteen-year-old Kelly Claybaugh on her way to school. Jama waved and smiled, surprised that she recognized the kid after so many years. And that Kelly had recognized her. And called her "Doctor." Very cool.
"How's your great-grandpa?" Jama called to the pretty teenager.
"Still at the nursing home. He said you visit him every time you come to town."
"I'll be by to see him in a couple of days."
"He'd love that!" Kelly said, and Jama guessed by the perky sound of her voice and the bounce in her step that the girl must be a cheerleader at River Dance High. Her great-grandfather, Ted Claybaugh, former teacher and football coach, must be proud.
Jama was an hour early. She needed time to adjust before putting on her professional face for the new director.
River Dance, population eight hundred and thirteen, was a picturesque town built into the hillside above the northern bank of the Missouri River. The location's charm and beauty drew tourists in spite of the remoteness from more commercial river towns such as Washington and Hermann and the state capital, Jefferson City.
River Dance had inspired more than one calendar company to feature the quaint, restored homes, gift shops, waterfalls, gardens and vineyards. The new clinic was within sight of two rivers, if one could catch a view through the trees. The scent of pine needles wafted over Jama, along with the moist perfume of fresh water and rich, freshly tilled soil.
The whisper of the wind in the treetops harmonized with the mad waterfall rush of the rocky Show-Me River as it danced steeply downhill and into the mighty Missouri. The springlike gentleness of the air belied the weather forecast of a freeze tonight.
Someone honked from the street, and Jama waved instinctively before she recognized Mildred Lewis on her way downtown to her café. Best pies on the riverfront for fifty miles in either direction.
Jama's new, thick-soled shoes crunched gravel as she strolled to the log building that had recently replaced Charla Dunlap's sprawling old bed-and-breakfast. To Jama's joy, the construction crew had managed to preserve five of the seven grape arbors that Charla had so lovingly tended on her property over the years. Grapevines were the lifeblood of this town.
The solid pine porch of the new River Dance Clinic echoed Jama's footsteps as she strolled past the wooden rockers to one of the multipaned windows and peered inside. The waiting room was well furnished, with tasteful prints on the walls.
She hoped Mayor Eric Thompson had arranged for enough staff to support this place. She grinned to herself. Eric Thompson. Who'd have thought that wild rascal would someday be mayor?
The racket of a loud engine broke the tranquility of wind and water. Jama turned to see a faded blue pickup slide into the parking lot and lurch to a stop barely three feet from her Outback.
She'd have known that farm truck anywhere—she ought to, she'd learned to drive in it. And the brawny sixty-year-old rancher inside had been her teacher out on the dirt tracks that crisscrossed the vast Mercer Ranch.
"Monty?" Jama rushed down the wheelchair ramp at the side of the porch and approached the truck as Monty Mercer slowly opened the door to the sound of protesting metal.
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Book Description Steeple Hill, 2008. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110373786409
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