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Deep gray fog rolled over the surface of Lake Huron, slipping through the open door to the ferry deck, and blocking out the afternoon sun. Meg Duff braced her palm against the doorframe and took in a long, cleansing breath. The smell of impending rain filled the air. She stood with her feet just inside the threshold of the crowded passenger lounge. Pale blue eyes stared out into the void. Wind brushed against her face, tossing her dark, chin-length hair. A shiver ran down her spine. The deck was deserted.
Just two more days until the wedding, Meg. All you've got to do is hold it together until then. Somewhere on this boat were a young bride and groom headed to Manitou-lin Island for their dream wedding. The last thing they needed was to find out their wedding planner was having a panic attack.
She glanced at her cell phone. Twenty minutes until they reached shore. Her palm pressed against her chest. She focused on its rhythmic rise and fall. As the only professional wedding planner on a beautiful and remote island, she'd organized more than her fair share of weddings for big-city couples, who'd parachute into her community just long enough say "I do" and cut the cake. But this wedding had quickly become the most expensive and demanding of her career. The young couple were college students in Toronto, who'd agreed to get married on the island to butter up the bride's elderly grandmother who lived there, and who was paying the bills. The wedding had been organized solely with the high-strung bride, and almost entirely by phone and email. Within five minutes of joining the wedding party at the mainland ferry docks, the bride had launched into a string of ridiculously detailed questions about decorations at the reception venue, while the imposing best man had made an unwanted romantic advance that left Meg feeling both flustered and insulted.
But that was nothing compared to the panic that had coursed through her when she looked into the young groom's eyes and was struck by flashbacks of a tragic night so many years ago.
Why hadn't she realized she was actually planning a wedding for the cousin of someone whose senseless death still haunted her nightmares?
It had been fourteen years since a truck had collided with two teenaged boys on snowmobilesthe groom's cousin Chris, and Meg's younger brother, Benji. She'd been seventeen. But the young groom, Wesley, had only been seven at the time. His family had moved off the island shortly afterward. She hadn't even recognized his name until she'd seen his face. He'd given no sign that he recognized hers. Did the groom and his bride even know how that night also tore her life in two? Should she tell them? Surely if she didn't, someone else on the island would. But how could she damper the happiest day of their lives by bringing up memories like that?
A bag knocked hard against her back, almost forcing her out into the fog. She glanced over her shoulder, but the culprit had already disappeared into the crowd without so much as an apology. She turned back to the gloom, shoved her phone into her pocket and wrapped her scarf twice around her neck. Crocheted strands tumbled down her slender frame, all the way to her knees, but did little to protect against the damp. Silhouettes of the shoreline swirled into focus for a moment, before being swallowed back up by the neverending gray. She should really close the door. "Excuse me, miss?"
There was a man behind her. Tall, with the broad shoulders and the tapered build of an athlete. His brown leather jacket was faded and worn, while his tousled, sun-kissed hair would've made her presume he was just another thrill-seeking tourist if it wasn't for how very intently his dark eyes were now searching her face.
A flush of heat rose to her cheeks. "Can I help you?"
His mouth turned up ever so slightly into a casual, laid-back grin. But the intensity of his gaze never faltered for a second. The warmth spread down her neck and through her shoulders. It looked like the smile of a man who'd seen more than his fair share of danger.
It was the kind of smile that made her feel anything but safe.
"My name is Jack Brooks. I'm a reporter with Torchlight News, Toronto." Too late she saw the voice recorder in his outstretched hand. He raised the microphone toward her. "Would it be all right if I asked you a few questions?"
Her blood ran cold. A reporter? Was the press actually going to cover this wedding? As if it wasn't bad enough she'd had to watch those scandal-seeking news-hounds trampling all over her lawn as a teenager, while her brother lay in the hospital fighting for his life. They'd kept coming back, every few years, to revisit the story. Now it seemed she had to face them again, just because she hadn't been quick enough to realize a connection between that tragedy and this groom. Was the shadow of that night going to follow her for the rest of her life?
All this and it was still only Thursday. How was she ever going to make it through this weekend without falling apart?
Jack Brooks could waste all the handsome grins on her that he wanted. She knew the look of a man who was after something. He wasn't going to get it from her. "No. I'm sorry. I don't talk to reporters."
Then before he could say anything more, she pushed through the open doorway and out into the cool, damp air, barely even noticing something clatter behind her. He didn't follow. A thick blanket of gray enveloped her body. She strode down the deck. The babble of voices faded completely. Then the light of the lounge disappeared in the fog.
There was muffled sound to her right. A rustling, like footsteps shuffling. Hang on, had someone else actually wandered out on deck in this weather?
Meg turned. "Hello?" No one there. Silence filled her ears, except for the thrum of the engines beneath her. A jittery feeling brushed along the back of her neck. She slid her hands onto the railing.
Enough of this. She was stressed. Rattled. Nothing more. She just needed to pray. A deep breath filled her lungs. She let it out slowly. Her eyes closed as the words of her favorite hymn moved through her mind like a prayer, "Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well. It is well with my"
The full-body blow was hard and without warning as her attacker pushed her into the railing. The air was knocked from her chest. A scream barely escaped from her lungs before a leather-gloved hand clamped over her mouth, forcing her silent.
Ice-cold panic gripped her chest so tightly her body felt paralyzed. The attacker's other hand grabbed the scarf at her throat and twisted it like a noose. Slowly he squeezed the air from her windpipe. The desperate need to breathe burst through her body. She shoved back against her attacker with every ounce of energy she had. Her head thrashed. The gloved hand slipped just enough to let her glance back. But all she could see was the orange hood of a raincoat.
He shoved her forward again, pinning her body against the railing, her small frame no match for his strength. Then he let go of her mouth. She opened her lips, but could barely make a sound as she gasped to fill her lungs with air. He grabbed hold of the bottom ends of her scarf and twisted them around her wrists, tying her hands together. Then he lifted her off the deck. She kicked out hard, her feet desperately searching for grip while she wrenched her bound hands, trying to get them free. But even as she struggled, he forced her over the railing toward the unforgiving water below.
Jack leaned back against the door and pulled a page of crime pictures from his jacket. His eyes scanned the images: a ransacked college dorm room, a garbage-strewn alley and a trashed apartment. Places where three different young women were killed. The only connection anyone had been able to find was security camera footage and witness statements that described someone in an orange raincoat at each of the crime scenes.
Oh, Lord, why am I the only one who believes this is the work of a serial killer? He was risking his entire professional career on a hunch. Monday afternoon, he'd finally talked his editor at Torchlight News into running the article he'd cobbled together laying out his investigation thus far on the "Raincoat Killer." The story ran on the front cover of Tuesday's paper, and on Wednesday morning the chief of police himself had called a press conference to announce the murders were unrelated and that Jack's article was nothing but the product of an amateur sleuth jumping to ridiculous conclusions. His editor had suggested Jack take the rest of the week off while the publisher figured out whether or not to fire him.
Jack had decided instead to chase one final lead all the way up to Manitoulin Island. Either he'd find the proof his story was solid or face the fact that when he walked back into the office it would be to kiss his job goodbye. Every well-honed instinct in his journalistic gut was convinced these three murders were somehow connected. Especially now that he'd looked across a ferry and locked eyes on her.
His eyes zeroed in on a picture of the final crime scene. There, amid the broken glass and chaos, two flyers lay on the floor, next to where a young woman had been stabbed. One was an island ferry schedule, with this afternoon circled. The other read Meg Duff, Island Weddings above the picture of a beautiful woman with troubled blue eyes. The very same woman who'd just disappeared off into the fog.
A heavyset man jostled past him, his coffee slopping over the rim of his cup and onto the page. Jack leapt back and tripped over something. A cell phone. Was it Meg's? Had she dropped it in her hurry to get away from him? He slipped the phone and the wet pages into his bag. Well, she might not want to talk to him as a journalist, but he wouldn't be much of a gentleman if he didn't at least try to return her phone.
Jack shoved the door back open and walked outside. Wow. It's like soup out here. He strode down the deck, choosing a direction at random.
A scream split the air. Female. Terrified. He started running. Then he saw them. A figure in a raincoat had wrestled Meg over the railing. Her hands were tied. Her feet kicked frantically. Adrenaline surged through Jack's body, pushing his legs into a flat-out sprint.
Meg's attacker threw her overboard.
* * *
Screams filled Jack's ears as Meg's body disappeared. The man in the raincoat turned. Was he face-to-face with the Raincoat Killer? The thought hit Jack like a punch to the gut. His eyes searched the hooded form for some clue to his identity. But he barely had seconds to look before the killer took off running.
Jack gritted his teeth. How long would it take him to find a member of the crew and tell him to sound the overboard alarm? Minutes. He'd learned that from covering too many drownings. Then even more precious minutes would pass as they stopped the ferry, lowered the lifeboat and went back to search the foggy water for the woman now fighting for her life. How long would it take them to find her? Could she even hold on that long? Was he willing to risk it?
His bag hit the deck. Jack tossed off his leather jacket, grabbed a life ring from the railing and clutched it to his chest. Dear Lord, please give me the strength to save her. He leapt overboard. Air rushed past him. Choppy water hit Jack's body like a tidal wave, knocking the ring from his hands and throwing his sense of direction into chaos. The ring's towrope unraveled in the water around him. Identical walls of gray filled his vision on all sides. If he wasn't careful, he'd end up swimming in circles until both he and Meg drowned. "Hey! Hello! Shout if you can hear me!"
No answer but the rumble of the ferry departing in the distance. For a fraction of a second he closed his eyes and focused on the fading sound of the engine. Then he tied the end of the towrope to his belt and took off swimming in the opposite direction, dragging the ring behind him. "Hang on! I'm coming!"
Oh, Lord, please let her still be alive. Help me reach her in time.
"Help!" Her frightened voice pierced the gloom. "I'm" The sound was swallowed up by the gurgle of water filling her throat.
"Hold on! I'm here!" Please, Lord, please, help her hold on. "I'm coming for you." His long limbs tore through the water. The fog parted and he saw her, breaking through the surface, thrashing against her bonds. Her eyes met his. Terrified. Exhausted. Water swept over her head again. She disappeared under the surface.
He dove for her. His eyes peered blind through the cold, dark depths. He found her, churning the water as she kicked frantically toward the surface. Her foot made contact with his knee. His leg went numb. He gasped and nearly swallowed a mouthful of water. If she didn't calm down enough to let him save her, neither of them would make it out alive.
His left arm slid around her waist. He pulled her against him. His right hand grabbed her bound wrists and slid them over his head. To his relief, her body fell still against his chest. Now he just had to be strong enough to swim for both of them.
His lungs burned with the urge to breathe. His heart pounded through his skull. The cold seeped through his clothes as his legs battled against the weight of his boots. But the rope tied to his waist kept him tethered to the life ring above. They burst through to the surface. He spluttered, then gasped for breath. She coughed hard; her body shuddered against his. Her head fell onto his shoulder, and he impulsively turned his face toward it, feeling her forehead brush against his chin. Her legs started treading water. Thank God. Just. Thank. You. God.
He pulled the life ring over. "I need you to let go of me so I can untie your hands. Okay?"
She nodded as shallow gasps slipped between her lips. Carefully he slid her arms off his neck, pushed the life ring between them, and helped her lean her weight on it. They floated there for a moment, panting for breath, resting on opposite sides of the ring, their hands linked over the center. Tendrils of dark hair framed her face. Blue eyes looked up into his. Fragile and brave.