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The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in Him."
July 10, 3:54 p.m.
U nbelievable," Gregory Garrison muttered under his breath, his mood mirroring the prairie storm that was developing outside his Main Street office.
If there had been an award for Grumpiest Boss of the Month, Maya Logan would have known exactly who to nominate. Accepting the position as Mr. Garrison's executive assistant had been a step up in her secretarial career but she was beginning to question her decision to start working for his investment firm, no matter how wonderful the wages. The man was obsessive. And when things didn't go exactly as he'd envisioned, he could be a real bear. Like now.
Turning away to hide her amusement, she busied herself at her desk while her employer paced and continued to mumble to himself.
Tall and broad-shouldered, with hazel eyes and chestnut-brown hair, Gregory Garrison was not only good-looking, as many single women in High Plains had noticed since his recent return, he had the kind of forceful personality that competitors and allies alike admired. It was that same unbending, always-right attitude that was so off-putting to Maya. She'd had her fill of that kind of unreasonable man when
"Now look what he's doing," Gregory said, interrupting her thoughts. He gestured out the plate-glass window at a young boy riding a bicycle in tight, skidding circles.
She looked up. "Oh, that. I thought you were upset over the glitches in the Atkinson merger."
"I was. I am," he said. "But that ill-mannered little troublemaker is driving me crazy. Look, he's trying to splash mud all over mywindows."
Her brown eyes twinkled with repressed mirth. "Sure looks like it. Sorry about that."
"Well, what are you going to do?"
"Yes. There wouldn't be any mud on the sidewalk in the first place if you hadn't insisted on bringing in those planters along the walkway."
"I didn't realize they'd overflow if we got too much rain," Maya said. "Relax. Tommy's not hurting anything. He's just a kid."
Gregory was adamant. "He has no business riding that bike all over town, let alone being out in this kind of weather by himself. Why don't his parents look after him?"
She joined her boss in the center of the compact office before answering, "Tommy's parents are dead. He's in foster care with Beth and Brandon Otis."
"Aren't they responsible for him?"
"Yes, but as far as I know, that's already his third placement and he can't be more than six years old. The poor kid must feel pretty lost. My brothers and I really foundered after our parents were killed, and we weren't children. I was eighteen at the time and my brothers were even older."
"That's still no excuse for allowing him to run loose. If he's this unruly now, what will he be like in his teens?"
Mentally contrasting her wandering brother, Clay, with their other, more stable sibling, Jesse, she said, "Tommy'll be fine. He just needs to sow a few wild oats, or in this case, run through a few puddles. It's hot and muggy out there, so he won't get chilled. And the storm seems to be slacking up. It's no big deal."
"It will be when he throws mud on my building or loses his balance and crashes into the window or a parked car," Gregory insisted.
Just as he finished speaking, thunder boomed in the distance and made Maya jump. "Or gets hit by lightning. Okay. I'll go shoo him away." She raked her slim fingers through her feathery, light brown hair and let it fall back into place naturally.
"Will I have to listen to you moaning about your ruined hairdo if you get rained on?"
"You might." She wanted to add that her short cut was easy enough to dry and style in minutes, but she wanted to make a point. She was a professional business assistant, not Gregory Garrison's servant or gofer.
"Never mind," he said flatly. "I'll send the little pest packing myself." He slipped off his expensively tailored suit jacket and handed it to her without another word.
Smiling in spite of diligent efforts to keep a straight face, Maya watched Greg stride to the door, jerk it open and step out onto the sidewalk.
The rain was now coming down so hard it nearly obscured her view of the park across the street, but Maya could still see her boss through the plate-glass window. Although he was standing fairly close to the building, his blue silk shirt was plastered to him in seconds and looked every bit as wet as the boy's striped T-shirt.
"Serves you right," Maya muttered. "Imagine that. A grown man picking on a poor little kid."
Her grin widened. If Tommy Jacobs was half as wily and agile as her brother Clay had been at that age, the fastidious Mr. Garrison was in for a big, big surprise. She could hardly wait to see him get his comeuppance.
Greg paused under the carved limestone overhang of his historic building's facade. The wind-driven water found him with a vengeance just the same, making him wish he'd had the foresight to install a wide awning the way many of the other businesses on Main Street had. He should have known he'd need it. He'd grown up in High Plains and had experienced hundreds of similar Kansas storms.
Then again, he mused, disgusted, anybody with a lick of sense would have stayed inside until the rain had stopped for goodmud or no mud.
He shouted and waved to the boy. "Hey! You. Tommy. Come here."
The child slid his bike to a stop on the brick-paved roadway, almost overcorrecting and taking a tumble when his front tire bumped the curb.
It amazed him to see that much athletic prowess in one so young. Maybe the boy was older than Maya thought and merely small for his age.
Moderating his tone, Greg tried again. He didn't know a lot about boys, other than having been one himself. "I just want to talk to you for a second, Tommy. Come here. Please?"
The freckle-faced boy shook his head, sending droplets flying from his hair and the end of his little nose. "No way, Mister."
"Don't make me come over there and get you," Greg warned. "All I want to do is talk. Honest."
"My dog'll bite you if you touch me," Tommy replied. "Charlie takes care of me."
For the first time, Greg noticed a medium-sized, black-and-white mongrel standing beside the boy. That poor dog looked even more soaked than Tommy. If the dog weren't panting and looking extremely pleased with its current adventure, he'd have assumed it was suffering.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Greg assured Tommy. "I just wanted to ask you why you were trying to mess up my building?"
"I dunno. 'Cause it's fun?"
"Not for me, it isn't."
"Is that all you have to say for yourself?"
"Guess so." He straightened the handlebars, put one foot on a pedal and leaned to the side, obviously getting ready to ride off.
"Wait," Greg said, eyeing the blackening sky and recalling similar unsettled weather conditions from his own childhood. "How far is it to your house?"
"I don't have a house. I'm an orphan." The boy's words were clipped, angry-sounding.
"I mean the place where you live right now."
"None of your business." Tommy winced as the first bits of hail began to pelt him. "Ouch!"
"Get in here under cover," Greg shouted, realizing the danger. "That stuff can get big enough to knock out a full grown cow."
Ignoring him, Tommy dropped his bike and began swatting uselessly at the pellets of ice that were now falling in far greater numbers. "Ow, ow, ow!"
At the end of his patience, Greg took four long strides and made a grab for Tommy while he was distracted. The wind had picked up and was driving the already nickel-size chunks of hail at them with stinging force. There was no more time to argue.
A siren began to wail. Bending against the wind and struggling to stay on his feet, Greg hunched over the boy to shield him and glanced down Main Street where a distant police car had begun flashing its red-and-blue lights.
Townspeople were scattering right and left. Umbrellas were turning inside out with a quick snap, making them worse than useless. Passersby had pulled jackets and whatever else they had at hand over their heads and were scrambling for cover. In the park across the street, a mother grabbed her toddler and made a wild dash for safety, abandoning his plastic-canopied stroller and the rest of her belongings to the storm.
Trash cans along the street and in the park toppled with a bang and dumped their contents.
Some rolled in tight arcs, kept from blowing away by the slim chains that held them to their stanchions, while others tore loose and tumbled toward the High Plains River to the north.
This newer, more powerful wind carried strange odors, as if a freshly plowed field suddenly had become airborne. There was grass and cedar and ozone in the mix, too. That meant the weather was about to become even more perilous.
Freezing for only an instant, Greg strained to listen. Every sense was alert. His pulse was pounding in his ears so loudly he wasn't sure what he was actually hearing. A dull humming echoed in the distance, then increased in volume.
Frightening memories came flooding back, fears that he had kept buried since childhood.
How could this be happening? The morning had been warm. Balmy. There had been no tornado watches or warnings in effect that he knew of, nor had there been a peep out of the town's antiquated alarm system.
That didn't matter now. The hum had grown to a roar and seemed to be coming from the southwest. Unless he was imagining things, High Plains was about to be hit by a twister!
Greg pivoted and peered into the sheeting rain and ice crystals, trying to make out anything definitive. It was hopeless. All he could see was blackness in the distance and a gray pall overhead.
Wind-driven hail had punched holes in the bright red-and-white awning over the front of Elmira's Pie Shop next door. The canvas was whipping so violently it was beginning to shred and tear away from its frame. Other bits of material were blowing past, too, some large enough to do serious damage to anything or anyone in the way.
"Come on, kid. I'm done arguing," he shouted, staying bent over and slinging the small child into his arms.
The boy struggled. His loose bicycle went skidding across the pavement and on down the brick street as if it were weightless.
Shrieking, "Charlie!" Tommy reached toward the place where his dog had been. Instead of staying with him, the mutt had tucked its tail and was headed for the park across the street.
He was frantic. "Charlie!"
Greg ducked into the safety of the office door archway just as the police car finally reached them and cruised past, its occupant broadcasting a "take cover" order over the sound of the wailing, pulsing siren.
Tommy was kicking and pounding on him with his tight little fists. "No! I have to get Charlie!"
Struggling to stay balanced while holding the child, Greg paused in the doorway. Using its protruding stone frame as a temporary shelter, he took one last look at the menacing sky.
There was no doubt about it. He couldn't spot a funnel cloud yet but he was positive trouble was comingwith a vengeance. Straight-line winds were already causing plenty of havoc and a tornado would probably finish the job.
Lush cottonwood trees across the street bent and thrashed about as if they were about to be ripped to shreds. Many small branches and leaves had already torn loose and were flying away like tattered green confetti.
A few foolish people had taken to their cars, apparently hoping to outrun the storm, and were now reduced to peering through shattered and pocked windshields as they crept along the street in newly dented vehicles. At least the cars' windshields were made of safety glass and didn't completely fall apart when they were hit. If those cars didn't end up airborne, their occupants would probably be okay. If a twister caught and lifted them, however, they would be in serious, possibly deadly, trouble.
During the years he'd spent up north, Greg had forgotten how terrifying the forces of nature could be in the plains. Unfortunately, it was all coming back to him. Vividly.
Maya had been watching with growing concern and already had her car keys in hand when she jerked open the door to admit her boss and Tommy. "Get inside. Quick!