Read an Excerpt
"The U.S. National Weather Service has issued an updated severe weather warning. Tropical Storm Ana has upgraded to a Category One hurricane and is headed northeast at approximately fifteen miles per hour. Local authorities are warning "
"Whoa." The car rocked from side to side as the winds raged, taking turns beating against both sides. Mia James gripped the steering wheel tighter and held steady against the near eighty-mile-per-hour winds. She took a deep breath and released it slowly, trying to calm her fraying nerves.
Driving on the vast expanse of Florida's scenic Overseas Highway was usually a pleasurable experience. Divided by the emerald waters of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, the view was breathtaking. But not today. Today the waters were gray, the sky was gray and the horizon looked ominous.
Mia knew it was guilt that was pushing her to do this, but that didn't matter now. What mattered was that she was finally doing it. It was long overdue and her obligation was clear. She needed to make things right the only way she could.
Her dad was right. He was always right and yet she hadn't listened to him. If she had, none of this would have happened. Her heart wouldn't have been broken and he'd still have his honor and his legacy. But she didn't, and now she needed to put it right.
"With the eye less than seventy miles offshore, landfall is expected directly across the Florida Keys in about "
"Okay, that's enough doom and gloom from you, radio announcer," Mia said impatiently, then pressed the button on the steering wheel to tune to another station. "Let's see what else is going on."
"The storm has maximum sustained winds predicted near ninety miles per hour and with the probability of higher gusts. We're in for a major storm system today. If you're not prepared I suggest "
"Don't care. Next," she said, pressing the button again. She glanced at the empty lane beside her and noticed that the train of brake lights and bumper-to-bumper traffic had long since dissipated. There were only a few cars on the road, and all of them were headed north.
"The weather is definitely getting worse "
"No joke, next," she muttered sarcastically as she turned to the next station.
"The storm is expected to reach the area within the next five hours."
"Looks to me like it's already here, dude. You're late," she muttered, and then pressed another button, then another. Frustrated, she turned to several more stations. She'd been listening to the same rhetoric off and on for the last few hours. At this point she was tired of it. Every station spouted the same severe warnings, and she didn't need a radio announcer to tell her that she was headed into trouble.
The idea of driving directly into the path of a Category One hurricane was ludicrous. But at this point she was driving on pure adrenaline. She didn't have much choice. Her deadline was today, and getting away from it all was exactly what she needed to do.
She pressed through a few more buttons until she found something of interest. Smooth jazz played in the background, plus the DJ had a soothing voiceexactly what she needed. "Perfect."
"All right, folks, listen up, it's no joke out there. Hurricane Ana is picking up momentum. The Keys are getting hit hard with heavy rain and wind gusts. Authorities are warning to expect the worst. If you're out in this, you need to get indoors fast. It ain't pretty and it's not for the faint at heart. So do whatever you need to do to be safe."
Mia looked out the front windshield. He was definitely right, it wasn't pretty out here. The rain came down so hard she could barely see the highway through the rapid-fire windshield wipers. Thankfully this was just about over. She abandoned the highway at the next exit. Finally she was in Key West. She breathed easier for the first time in over an hour.
"For those on the road helping others, I'm tippin'my hat, thanks. We appreciate your time, devotion and dedication. On a personal note, I'd like to give a special shout-out to my homeboys, Stephen Morales and Lucas McCoy. I know you guys are helping others out there, so take care and be safe.
"One more thing. I got a message from my good buddy Deputy Sheriff Morales asking me to pass on a good word of advice. Stay in your homes and off the roads unless absolutely necessary. And I gotta add a piece to that. The streets are dangerous right now, so be safe and listen to him. He's out there doing his job. Help him out and do yours. Stay inside.
"Okay now, here's another updated weather advisory. Hurricane Ana is still hovering less than a hundred miles south of Key West. Wind gusts range seventy-five to ninety miles an hour locally. Expect fallen debris and dangerous travel, so stay inside. Sit tight and let her pass."
"Unfortunately, not an option," Mia muttered, coming to a complete stop and looking at the horrendous sight. The traffic signal had fallen down and the street was littered with just about everything. She looked both ways, then proceeded across. The heavy winds shook the car again, but she held tight. The storm was definitely getting worse. The rain was horizontal and the winds were brutal.
"I have a few local warnings. The Seven Mile Bridge is looking bad. It'll probably close to all non-emergency traffic "
When another strong gust of wind hit the car, Mia grasped the steering wheel tighter. This was even worse than being on the bridge. Her nerves were rattled and her hands shook. She needed to calm down.
"If you're headed out toward Tingler Island, local authorities are warning everyone to turn around. Bottom line, folks, sit tight and I'll get you through. This is Terrence Jeffries, the Holy Terror, easing your evening. Sit back, be calm, relax and listen."
Soft melodious jazz began playing. "Okay, this is more like it. Exactly what I need." Mia smiled and nodded her head to the easy rhythms. "Thanks, Holy Terror," she said, hoping to feel more at ease. She turned the volume up higher.
Holy Terror. She'd heard of him, of course. Everybody knew the Holy Terror, Terrence Jeffries. On the football field he was legendary, and his so-called antics in romance were almost as well-known. Mia had watched him play football when her father was alive. He was awesome.
"So, you're a radio disc jockey now, cool." She tried to do as he instructed and relax, but it was getting more and more difficult to see and drive. At one point she realized she had gone in circles. It was no use. She was miserably lost. Each turn was the wrong turn, and the horribly flooded roads didn't help. She reached over and adjusted her pre-programmed GPS. The monotone voice announced new directions to the courthouse.
She hadn't been to Key West or her father's house in almost three years and everything about the town seemed different. Following instructions, she turned onto a familiar street that led directly to the center of town. But the street was blocked by a huge uprooted tree. She pressed the button on the GPS for an alternate route, backed up and continued.
She zigzagged through scattered debris down the next few blocks. At one point she quickly glanced down at the clock. It was three minutes to five and according to the GPS, she was still a few miles away. That was when she heard the loud crash. Looking up, she saw the better part of a tree had just fallen across the road. She slammed on the brakes and hydroplaned before coming to a complete stop. Her heart racing, her breathing fast and furious, she stared at the tree that narrowly missed her.
"Are you kidding me?" she screamed, slamming her palm on the steering wheel in frustration. She hit the wheel again and again, then began breathing even harder. "No, no, I will not hyperventilate, I will not feel sorry for myself and I will not let this get to me," she said, trying to calm herself down.
"Okay, enough of this pity party. I can do this. I will do this," Mia affirmed with determination. After a few minutes she gathered her nerve, then glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It was five o'clock already. She backed up and quickly sped around the tree. To her surprise she met two headlights with flashing red and blue lights coming directly at her.
Reacting fast, she steered out of the way, giving the speeding oncoming police jeep just enough space to wedge between her and the fallen tree. As soon as they passed each other, they came to a complete stop. In the rearview mirror. Mia saw the officer open the car door.
"Oh crap, this is all I need," she muttered as she watched him run to her car. Frustrated, she muted the music and reached for her pocketbook to get her license and registration. As soon as he got there she opened the window, and heavy rain poured in. She began digging through her purse for her ID.
As the driving rain poured down his face, the officer hunched toward her window and squinted down at her. "Lady, are you out of your mind, driving reckless in a hurricane?" he asked. His voice boomed as loud and thunderous as the rumbling above them. Irritated and infuriated, he stood firm against the whipping wind gusts beating down on him.
"Me? What about you? You were driving like a madman around the tree. You could have killed us," she said, equally infuriated while still digging for her ID.
"What?" he yelled as a loud clap of thunder sounded right above them. "I'm a deputy sheriff on an emergency call. What exactly are you doing out here?"
"What?" she yelled and continued looking for her license and registration.
He leaned in closer, bowing the brim of his hat against the wind. "All nonessential personnel are ordered off the streets. You need to be inside now," he yelled over a loud roll of thunder as wind-driven rain peppered his face harder.
Finding her ID, she finally looked up. The first thing she saw was smooth caramel skin, dark eyes and a too sexy mouth. Like her, he was wet, soaked. Her breath caught in her throat. She half smiled, as chapter three, page thirty-seven of her book quickly popped into mind, Getting Wet for Two. Feeling herself flush, she covered her face and shook her head. Good Lord, between that book and the sexually repressed thing, she was becoming obsessed with men and sex. But that wasn't the point right now.
"Ma'am, hey, are you all right?" the officer asked, softening his tone with concern after seeing that she was obviously distraught by their near collision.
She nodded and quickly looked away. "Yeah, I'm fine, just a little rattled."
"You shouldn't be out here."
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't see you coming around the tree."
"I had my siren on," he said sternly.
"With the thunder and wind, I didn't hear it," Mia said.
"Ma'am, you realize you're driving down a one-way street? You could have been killed, or killed someone driving that fast around an obstruction."
"Sorry, I didn't realize it was one way and I didn't realize anyone was coming." She glanced up quickly, looking down the street then finally up at him. She lowered the brim of the baseball cap she wore and covered her face with her hand as she blinked away the rain pouring down. "All the other streets are blocked and this is the only other street I knew to get me into town. The tree just fell in front of me."
"As I said, the roads are all closed except for emergency personnel. You need to get off the streets. A mandatory evacuation had been issued. I'll be happy to escort you back to the highway or to the nearest shelter."
"What if I don't want to be evacuated or go to a shelter?"
"That's not an option. All tourists must be evacuated."
"But I'm not a tourist. I was born here and I lived here. I'm just trying to get home," she insisted.
"You have Georgia plates, ma'am. That makes you out of state."
"I borrowed the car," she lied quickly.
"Ma'am " Obviously he did not believe her.
"Okay fine, it is my car, but I'm just trying to get to an appointment in town and I'm already late."
"The town's businesses are all closed."
"No, they're expecting me."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, visitors and tourists are being ordered to evacuate now. If you keep straight and go down to the next intersection and make a right, you'll see the entrance ramp to U.S. 1 north. It'll take you back to the mainland. The bridge will be closing shortly. You'll have just enough time to clear the area." He nodded. "Thank you, please drive carefully." He turned and hurried back to his jeep.
She sat for a moment, thinking that he was right. This was insane. "Why am I doing this?" she asked, nearly in tears.
The question didn't linger long. She knew exactly why she was doing this. Still, she couldn't help thinking that just twenty-four hours earlier another school term had ended and she was packing to separate herself from the personal drama that had been unfolding. Paradise Island had been her destination. White sand beaches, crystal-blue water and not a cheating, backstabbing man in sight.
But that was before the call came, alerting her to the situation. The Monroe County courthouse clerk was formal and detached when she stated the facts. Since Mia had failed to pay the taxes and mortgage owed on the property, the house was going into foreclosure. All attempts to contact her had gone unanswered, so the county had no alternative. The bank was going to sell the house and land, recoup the debt payments, then forward her whatever was left.
Mia was still too stunned to believe it. Her father's home, the only thing she had left of him, was about to be auctioned off without a second thought. Her ex-fiancé had evidently decided not to tell her about the foreclosure, and by the time she'd found out it was almost too late. Now her plan was simple, to drive to the county clerk's office in town, fill out whatever papers she needed to fill out, and then get to her father's house and ride the storm out there.
But truth be told, she needed to get away. She couldn't stand being in Atlanta another minute. Knowing that her ex-fiancé and his new coed wife were coming back to town only prompted a quicker retreat from the city. Of course, driving into the storm wasn't a great idea, but it did give her a valid reason to leave.