| HITCHED AND HUNTED
Mariah Cooper had imagined her death a thousand times in the past four years, but never had she thought she'd be crouched in a motel room bathtub when it finally happened.
"It's going to be okay." Jake's calm voice barely rose above the wind gusts rattling the windows and howling around the corner eaves just outside the motel room. Across the tub, he locked his hands with hers, his blue eyes meeting hers with steady assurance. "Just another tornado warning, right?"
Mariah nodded. Having spent her whole life in tornado-prone areas, she'd responded to hundreds of tornado siren warnings with actions drummed into her head over the years—go to the basement or an interior room, put as many walls between you and the exterior as possible, get beneath something sturdy if possible. Right now, they were on the bottom floor of the two-story motel, and the bathroom was the only place in the room that didn't have an exterior window. The tub had a long steel handle set into the wall to hold on to if things got hairy.
But she couldn't remember ever hearing the wind howl so loudly or feeling the walls shake with each gust.
"It's close," she said, pressure rising in her ears.
Jake's gaze held hers. "It may not even touch down."
On the counter across from the tub, a battery-powered radio kept up a steady stream of chatter from a local station carrying wall-to-wall weather coverage from a television station out of Meridian, Mississippi. The meteorologist was warning people in the Buckley area to get to their places of safety immediately.
"I love you." The warmth of Jake's voice wrapped around Mariah's shivering body. She held his gaze, her heart sinking under the weight of the truth. Jake didn't really love her. He couldn't. He didn't know who she really was.
A crackling boom shook the motel room. The lights surged, then died, plunging the bathroom into utter blackness. Mariah gasped, her fingers tightening over his.
"A transformer blew. That's all." Jake shifted, turning her until she was cradled between his knees, her back against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, his breath hot against her neck. "Just a few more minutes and it'll be over."
The roar of the wind rose. Cracks and thuds filled Mariah's ears, frighteningly close. Though she closed her eyes against the darkness, as if she could shut it out somehow, the blackness pursued her relentlessly, carried on a sea of destruction encroaching from somewhere outside.
She repeated Jake's promise in her head. A few more minutes and it'll be over. It'll be over. It'll be over.
Then, suddenly, it was. The roar of wind fell quickly before dying away altogether, replaced by a steady drumbeat of rain against the windows. Jake began to stir, but Mariah clutched his arms, holding him in place behind her in the tub. They sat quietly, listening to the radio. Only when the weatherman started talking about storm damage reports trickling in from Buckley did Mariah finally move.
"We should see if the truck and boat made it," she murmured, struggling to compose herself.
Jake muttered a soft oath. "Didn't think about the boat."
The power was still out, so Mariah had to feel her way out of the tub and into the main part of the motel room. She'd spotted candles and matches in the drawer of the bureau when she was putting away their clothes a couple of days earlier, so she made her way there and opened the drawer, groping inside until she felt the smooth, cool wax of a candle beneath her fingers. A little more searching garnered the small box of matches as well. She struck a match and touched the tip to the candle's wick. The candle sizzled to life, casting a warm, flickering glow across the motel room.
Mariah turned and found her husband gazing at her, his expression tense but confident.
"Told you we'd make it through." He brushed her arm with his fingertips as he passed her on the way to the front window. He moved the curtain aside and peered out through the rain-mottled windows. His back stiffening, he spoke in a raspy voice. "Good news is the truck and boat are still there. But the shopping strip next door is gone."
Her knees buckling, Mariah stumbled to the end of the bed and sat heavily, her heart pounding wildly. There had been fifteen stores in that strip center. They'd shopped at the drugstore there just that morning. And now it was gone?
She'd known it was a bad idea to come back to Buckley.
The bad weather the night before had bypassed Victor Logan for the most part. A few trees had fallen in the woods surrounding his house, a shanty of a place that was the most he could afford to rent with the little bit of money he'd had left after his legal fees. But he'd seen nothing but a little wind and rain where he lived, despite the tornado siren. And as his old box set television couldn't pick up any channels since the conversion to digital, he hadn't watched the morning news before gassing up his van and driving to town to look for work.
So it was with some surprise that he saw the utter devastation wrought across the small town of Buckley, Mississippi, in the early hours of the morning. Houses with roofs damaged or missing completely. Vehicles upside down, including an eighteen-wheeler wrapped around the concrete piling of an overpass, the trailer split in two, spilling its payload of fresh strawberries onto the roadway. Birds swarmed like winged piranhas, pecking bits of flesh from the berries until the roadside bled red with their juices.
Bodies of farm animals dotted the highway into Buckley, buzzards circling overhead. As he neared town, traffic slowed to a grind due to a roadblock on the highway ahead. The cops must be screening people to be sure they had legitimate business in the storm zone, he realized with a grimace.
He didn't want to talk to the cops, so he turned off as soon as he could, parking in front of a small diner. He'd eaten there a few times. Good food, low prices, and the staff mostly left you alone. Inside, he sat at the counter and ordered the breakfast special—eggs, sausage and a gravy biscuit.
Nearby, a half dozen fellow customers huddled around the diner's small television, murmuring in low tones of horror and concern. Victor could see part of the television screen between their bodies, enough that he got a good look at the devastation in downtown Buckley and on the south side, where the road toward Flint Creek Reservoir had taken a hard hit, wiping out a shopping strip center and several dozen residences.
Victor watched for a moment, his only emotion curiosity. The destruction might open up the job market for him. He was a good mechanic. He could also do construction work if necessary. He just needed someone to look past the black marks on his record. He was starting to get anxious—he'd never been a thief, and he didn't want to become one now just to keep his head above water. Theft was Marisol's crime, not his.
As he started to look away from the television screen, a face in the crowd behind the male reporter caught his eye. Dropping his fork, he walked closer to the television screen, edging another man out of the way to get a better look.
Marisol. As if his thoughts had conjured her up.
Four years later, she'd changed little, her hair still long and coal black, her eyes so light they looked like pools of silver against the dusky olive of her skin. She gazed straight into the camera, as if looking right at him, and his heart beat a thunderous cadence in his ears.
Her eyes widened and she looked away quickly, as if she'd seen him watching her through the television screen, and turned to speak to a tall, dark-haired man standing beside her. He put his arm around her shoulder and they walked out of the frame.
Victor stared at the screen, barely breathing. He forced himself to listen to the reporter's drivel. The talking head was near a residential subdivision the tornado had nearly wiped out. The people behind the guy were volunteers for the rescue and recovery efforts. More volunteers were needed.
Victor returned to the counter and wolfed down his breakfast. He was on the road within a few minutes.
He bypassed the main highway into Buckley, taking side roads that snaked through the forest and farmlands hemming in the town on all sides. A policeman flagged him down as he entered the affected area.
Victor willed himself to remain calm. He'd done his time. He'd gotten out on good behavior. Seeing his parole officer weekly, as required, and still looking for a job. Plus, he had skills the rescuers could use, didn't he?
He said as much to the policeman who rapped on the driver's side window of his van to ask what business he had in the area.
The cop eyed him a moment before giving a nod. He told him where to park the van and where to find the fire department officer who was coordinating volunteers.
Victor parked where directed and walked to the staging area, a pavilion tent set up in the middle of the road near the tornado strike zone. Inside, volunteers were taking names and handing out bottles of water to those who'd come to support the first responders.
Hers was the first face he saw.
Victor's heart jumped. Marisol was only a few feet away, bending to open another crate of water bottles. She pulled several bottles from the package and set them on a collapsible card table set up in the middle of the staging tent.
She was as beautiful as ever, though time had blessed her, at twenty-five, with a more womanly shape and a leaner, more mature face than she'd possessed at twenty-one. Her dark hair was twisted into a careless braid down her back, humidity giving it a hint of curl in the tendrils around her face. She smiled as she handed a volunteer a bottle, and Victor saw she'd fixed the upper left bicuspid she'd broken as a child.
The man he'd seen her with on TV was nowhere around.
Victor slipped from the tent, not yet ready to be seen. He needed to know why she was here. Was she still living in the Buckley area? Surely not. He'd looked for her in vain as soon as he got out of jail.
Who was the man she'd been with, who'd put his arm around her and led her away from the reporter? Her new lover?
Victor wasn't jealous—he'd never consider sullying himself with her. She'd been an intellectual passion, not an object of sexual desire.
But he hadn't plucked her out of filth to watch her whore her way around Mississippi, either. He hadn't schooled her in the classics, filled her formerly dull mind with the precisions of science and the exquisite mysteries of mathematics to watch her throw her knowledge away on frivolous, romantic dreams of marriage and maternity.
She was supposed to be a different sort of creature, dedicated to knowledge and beauty, not a slave to her baser drives and emotions.
Marisol Mendez had been a great disappointment to him.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.