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With lashing rain and brutal winds bearing down on them, residents of southwest Florida prepare for evacuation. But Julie Minton cannot leave. Her fourteen-year-old daughter, Randi, left home earlier that morning to go out on a Jet Ski with Thad Brockman, a boy Julie barely knows. Now Randi and Thad are missing — and the hurricane that hours ago was just another routine warning has turned toward shore.
With local law enforcement absorbed in emergency response measures, Julie has only the help of Zack Brockman, Thad's father. Together they begin a race against time to find their children — but first they must battle not only Mother Nature, but an enemy willing to use the danger and devastation of the storm for their own evil ends.
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Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of romantic suspense. A former Ohio State University English instructor, she now writes full time. Harper is the winner of The Mary Higgins Clark Award for her novel, DARK ANGEL. She also writes historical novels set in Tudor England. Please visit or write her at her website at www.KarenHarperAuthor.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
All right, heads up everybody out there on this lovely morning. Tim Ralston here from storm watch WSEA-AM radio in Naples for your 10:00 a.m. weather report, August 16, 2003. I know it's a beautiful Sunshine State Saturday, but air reconnaissance has just confirmed that the tropical storm we've been watching in the Atlantic has officially become a hurricane. Dana is only a Category One at this point, on a zigzag course 400 miles southeast of Havana and 88 miles southwest of Jamaica. But as she comes over warmer water, she will strengthen — how much, we're not certain yet. Be assured we'll be keeping an eye on her and let you know if her path threatens our own little piece of paradise.
Standing on the dock of the Gladesport Marina, Julie Minton saw Kaylin was keeping an eye on the girls. Julie counted them herself anyway as their Jet Skis cut sharp silver patterns on the windy, sun-swept bay. Were two of them missing?
"I only see ten girls," she called to her friend and coworker. Her stomach knotted instantly, for the young women they'd taken into their lives these last two weeks were more counselees than campers, and she was ultimately responsible for their safety. "Where are the other two?"
"At the last minute, Bree and Jen weren't ready to get on one of those things. I meant to tell you they're swimming at the beach just beyond the marina — still a buddy system," Kaylin assured Julie.
Yet Kaylin's voice sounded terse. She didn't turn toward Julie, but, with both hands shading her eyes, kept looking out into the bay. She had walked toward the far end of the dock, while Julie stood only partway out on the long, doubleE-shaped structure to which fishing boats, sailboats, speedboats and four visiting yachts were tethered, along with the old ferry that belonged to Julie. The dock was deserted for once; both locals and guests were at the Fish Fest up on the shore.
With Kaylin watching the girls so intently, Julie thought, she could take a quick break from two weeks of hard but rewarding work. Their charges were cutters, teens caught up in aberrant behavior in which they abused themselves with knives or razors in a warped attempt to gain control of their bodies and lives. It was a practice psychiatrists were calling "the new age anorexia." Julie owned the tropical island resort where she and Kaylin worked and lived alongside the girls and Julie's fourteen-year-old daughter Randi.
Just to be sure all was well before she got out of the sun for a minute, Julie counted the number of Jet Skis again. That simple task seemed almost impossible as they circled and crisscrossed in the sun and their own foaming wakes.
"I guess Randi's at the Fish Fest," she called to Kaylin.
But Kaylin evidently didn't hear her. She stood at the end of the dock, not shading her eyes now, but with both arms wrapped around the top of her head as if the sky were falling.
Randi Minton thought she would totally die of excitement. And not just because this part of southwest Florida was so awesome, even if she still did miss Michigan despite the three months they'd been here. It wasn't even because she'd gotten loose from her mom and their guests, for once. It was because, bouncing over the waves of Mangrove Bay on Thad Brockman's Jet Ski, she had the perfect excuse to be close to a guy who had no clue how much she liked him.
At least Thad hadn't freaked when Kaylin McKenzie, Osprey Resort's other guidance counselor besides Mom, had seen he was going out on a Jet Ski alone and had yelled at him, "Hey, got room for one more?" She'd practically pushed Randi on behind him. Randi hoped he didn't think she was one of the cutters who came to the resort for counseling. Thank heavens, sitting ahead of her in the long saddle seat, Thad couldn't see her red cheeks. She could hardly blame that on sunburn since she'd been fine when she got on the Jet Ski.
Wearing only baggy swim trunks, Thad looked totally phat, with his buff, bronze body, black hair and blue eyes he hid behind wrap-around shades. He was seventeen and really cute. She knew she had no chance with him, ever, even though they'd be in the same high school this winter. She barely knew him, though they'd talked briefly once or twice. But she'd thought about him so much, she felt she knew him really well.
As they whipped along with sun and wind in their faces, Randi pretended he was her guy and that the rooster-tail spray behind them spit at everyone to just leave them alone. She hoped Thad didn't totally hate her for being dumped on him like this. He probably thought she was some stupid Northern snowbird with her cutoffs and Johnny Depp pirate T-shirt with red sequin flowers, especially when the other girls were in swimsuits today. Randi had her new two-piece on under her clothes, but she thought she looked too skinny in it, with hardly any boobs — so far, at least. Her mom was really built and promised Randi she'd get shapelier too, but when? She was already almost fourteen and three months old.
She pretty much kept her mouth shut because it seemed as if Thad was in a bad mood. That was probably because he'd just had an argument with his girlfriend at the Glades-port Marina, where he worked part-time. Their voices had been raised pretty loud. The girl's name was Grace Towers — gorgeous, slender, not skinny — who went to boarding school in Connecticut, but had spent the summer with her father over on Marco Island. Grace's father didn't like her hooking up with Thad, either. And Grace was leaving soon; Randi had overheard that, too.
Kaylin, who'd put her on the Jet Ski, and Bree Nichols, one of the girls being counseled, were the only ones who knew about her feelings for Thad. Randi had been watching him all summer, not like some sick stalker but like an admirer from afar, just like she might keep an eye on Hugh Jackman if she ever spotted him somewhere. No way she'd ask for an autograph — she'd just kind of memorize him and make up stories in her head about him, how he'd noticed her and started talking to her, how he was looking for someone real, not plastic like Thad's Grace, or Grace's sister Tanya Towers, who played sexy Ginger on the soap Dangerous Women. Thad and his dad were obviously working guys with a fishing boat, while Grace and Tanya's dad had a big yacht and sold luxury real estate worth gazillions around here.
After the girls'half hour rental time, two to a Jet Ski, Thad began to herd them in toward shore. Randi sat up straighter and waved to the girls, ten of the twelve, who would be going home tomorrow. A couple of them gaped to see her riding with Thad.
Randi looked back across the bay at the distant silhouette of the kiddie rides, game booths, and eating places for the annual Gladesport Fish Fest going on in the park behind the marina this weekend. She wondered if she'd see Thad there tonight and if he'd talk to her after this ride, even if he was with Grace.
"They're all heading in," he shouted to her, turning his head slightly so she could hear over the noise of the motor. His chin was so close she could see beard stubble on it.
"Want to take a spin? I've been cooped up in the marina rental shop and pretty soon I'll be swabbing my dad's boat."
"Sure — great!"
Little did he know that she would have agreed to ride clear across the Gulf of Mexico with him.
Julie scolded herself for being paranoid and acting as if Kaylin were a babysitter and not a certified counselor. Everyone was heading back in and Randi was evidently off on her own at the Fish Fest. Julie understood that. She had no right to expect her daughter to hang out with the groups of girls who came and went from the Osprey Resort every two weeks.
The last she'd seen Randi, she'd been with Kaylin but had said she might head for the Fest in the park behind the marina. She'd joked about not getting hit by a flying mullet from a fish-throwing contest. Kaylin, who must have been reacting dramatically earlier to the sharp, show-off turns some of the girls were making, now waved to them as they headed, full throttle, along the dock toward the shore.
Julie was proud of this group of girls. Most of them had made progress in their two weeks of counseling and support activities at her Osprey Resort. It was only the fourth set of guests in this new endeavor, but it was great to see the old family lodge come alive again with chatter and laughter, even mingled with tears and troubles.
Osprey lay in a dazzling stretch of water called the 10,000 Islands, studded by tropical isles between glitzy Marco Island and the raw beauty of the Everglades National Park. On its long, narrow barrier island of the same name, the resort was a half mile off the coast, where tiny Gladesport still exuded its old fish-camp charm. The Osprey Lodge and out-buildings dated from the 1930s and had been her beloved great-uncle's passion. She'd been thrilled to inherit the island and resort last year, even if the place had become dated and overgrown while Uncle Phil languished for years in a convalescent center and then while his will was probated after he died.
The staff was still just the two of them: Julie was thirty-four and Kaylin twenty-six, but they had the same academic credentials in counseling. Eight years ago, Kaylin McKenzie had been the first cutter Julie had ever known and helped. The upbeat, bubbly woman had blossomed over the years. The big joke between them was that Kaylin had once sent her photo to the Today Show for a Katie Couric look-alike contest. Lately, the petite, once withdrawn woman had a man in her life. Nate Tomzak was the hunky assistant to the area's ecology and wildlife maven, Liz Lawson.
Her sarong skirt over her bathing suit fluttered around her legs in the hot blast of humid breeze as Julie shouted to Kaylin over the noise of the Jet Skis. "I'm going to pop inside the marina store and grab a soft drink before we head back. Want anything?"
"I'm fine right now," Kaylin said, though she still sounded on edge. Surely, she didn't think Julie was upset because she didn't mention two girls opted to go swimming. It was just that she'd paid the Brockman boy in the marina for six Jet Skis, and she'd have to correct that when she saw him.
Julie went into the old store; it was not air-conditioned, but open to the breezes. Distant country music —"Achy, Breaky Heart" — drifted in from the Fish Fest.
She greeted Loreen Blackwell, whose family had run the place for years. Julie remembered Loreen's parents and grandparents from the weeks she and her own parents had spent on Osprey Island years ago. Loreen might be near her age, but her eternally bronzed skin and sun-bleached hair made her look older. Still she wasn't nearly as ancient as the dusty black-and-white photos of long-dead anglers and their prize catches tacked to the wall behind the checkout counter. "I need something cold to drink," she told Loreen who wore her usual ball cap, which read Swamp Buggy Races, 2000. Though Julie had the impression that the Blackwells were barely making ends meet, Loreen, husband Clint and their two kids were into all kinds of racing. The friendly woman was also into talking, so if anyone needed local news, this was the place.
"You could get you some real drinks up at the Fest," Loreen said, her voice its usual calm drawl as a radio droned away in the background. "The Seaside Restaurant booth makes great mai tais, better'n the Bloody Marys at the Flamingo booth. Skip the beer and head straight for those babies. We're closing early today, "cause everyone's gonna be there by noon, including all the folks that came in by boat or plane. Our boy's parking cars for a buck in our side lot, some clear from Miami. Clint's charter's s'posed to be back in by noon. He couldn't pass up the extra money, even if he does hope to win the hundred dollars for the fish-cleaning contest later."
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