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He wasn't looking for trouble, but if Pete didn't act right now, at least one person was going to die.
And more than anything, SAR incident commander Pete Brooks was sick of failing, of seeing lives destroyed. Especially on his watch.
"You should wait." His co-rescuer, Aimee, grabbed the back of his shirt, as if to keep him from sliding down the slope into the churning black floodwaters of the Meramec River. The 218-mile river had overflowed its banks two days ago under a torrent of rain caused by the tail end of a Cat 4 hurricane that ravaged the Gulf Coast, then traveled northward. All six Ozark highland counties, nearly three thousand square miles, sat under grimy waters, and the rain continued to fall.
Pete and his disaster team had spent the past twenty-four hours hauling people off roofs, pulling them from debris, and searching for the unaccounted.
Now, heading back to their hotel in their SUV, they'd come upon a washed-out bridge. And in the frothing waters, a caravan, drowning fast in the swift current.
Please, let there not be a family inside.
"We don't have time. We need to move, now." The SUV's headlights scraped over the bridge, most of which was submerged, having taken a hit after an old railroad bridge from upstream slammed into the girders.
Pete had watched it happen, wanted to scream at the caravan edging its way over the swollen waters. He'd pumped his brakes, slammed the SUV into park, and was halfway out when the bridge collapsed.
"You can't go in there alone," Aimee said, scrambling up the bank after him.
"I'm not an idiot," Pete snapped, and instantly regretted it. It wasn't Aimee's fault he'd had barely four hours of sleep in the past day and a half. Everyone on his team was functioning on raw, serrated nerves, their veins pumping more coffee than blood. "Sorry." He turned to Jamie Walsh, who was climbing out of the SUV. "Walsh — throw me that rope and tie it off."
The recruit, ex-navy, all muscle and get-'er-done, pulled the coil of line from the back end and secured it to the jack. He tossed the rest of the coil, plus a harness, to Pete.
Pete pulled the harness on, one eye on the gray caravan as Aimee shined the Maglite on his movements.
"Don't lose them!" he said to Aimee. He could buckle on his gear in his sleep, for Pete's sake.
She directed the light across the frothy waters.
He clipped on the carabiner, buckled on a helmet, and grabbed the life jacket Walsh handed him. "Give me two more."
Walsh loaded him up, and Pete also grabbed another harness.
The roar of the river drowned the thunder of his pulse.
Maybe he should wait. Going in the water was always the last choice. The waters frothed, choked with debris and who knew what lethal underwater booby traps.
But now the caravan lay on its side, half-submerged, trapped fifty feet downstream against a cement pylon that could give way at any moment.
"Turn the truck and keep the lights on the river," he said to Aimee, then glanced at Walsh.
Good man. He'd anchored himself in with webbing to a nearby tree and would belay Pete into the wash.
Don't let go. He wanted to say it, but it sounded, well, weak.
Afraid. As if he expected disaster.
Although, with his recent run of luck ...
Instead, "Call for backup," he said to Aimee, because, well, he wasn't an idiot. His simple plan in this torrent was to get whoever was trapped in the car out and wait for help.
The night sky was dark as ink, the drizzle insidious as it soaked his shirt, his canvas pants, and sent a shiver down his back.
He waded into the wash. The current nearly swept his feet out from under him.
He should wait. He nearly turned back, except for the voice lifting from the vehicle, haunting across the waters.
"Help!" A man had crawled out of the van and was waving his arms, screaming, the words eaten by the violence of the storm.
Pete still made out the word child. Went cold.
"Stay put! I'm coming for you!"
A tree with stripped arms twisted past him. Pete let it go, then plunged into the frigid water. It rose to his shins, then his knees. When it hit his waist and higher, he sprang out, swimming hard for the other side.
He'd always been a strong swimmer, but he was no match for the flow as it caught him up, tumbling downstream. Walsh belayed out his line, and twenty feet from the vehicle, Pete turned onto his back, feet downstream, and let the current have him, paddling hard with his arms for the right trajectory.
The river had yanked the caravan around, and the passenger side was downstream, submerged. Pete slid by, grabbed the bumper, and wrestled himself around. He jammed his feet against the carriage as the water crested over him, filling his eyes, his mouth.
Gulping a breath, he forced himself up onto the vehicle's side. A man lay on the side of the car, reaching inside. He didn't look at Pete. "I can't get them out!"
A woman was wedged inside against the dashboard, her belt pinning her, her mouth just above the rising tide.
A toddler screamed in a seat just behind the driver's side, still above the rising waters, but —
"I got 'em." Pete pulled the man up and buckled his life preserver around him. "You need to get to safety."
"Not without my family!"
Okay, Pete understood that tone. And didn't have time to fight him. "All right. But put this on." He unhooked the second harness and handed it to the man. Then he took his belay rope and hooked it to the harness. "Stay put. I'll get your wife."
The man obeyed, his face grim in the shadows.
Shouting came from shore, probably from Aimee.
Pete unbuckled his helmet, shoved it into the man's hands, took a breath, and climbed in, submerging himself next to the woman. His hands scraped over her writhing body. Her grip clawed into his arms as he searched for her buckle and the other debris that imprisoned her.
Her legs were pinned against the dashboard, but if he could unbelt her, move the seat back —
His lungs burned, and he came up gasping.
The man was screaming. "It's over her head!"
Pete took another breath and plunged back into the depths. She clawed at him, frantic.
He found the buckle, popped it, and she floated up.
But not enough. Her feet were still trapped. He came up for air, gasping, as her hand clutched his shirt.
"You have to let me go, ma'am."
"I'm scared —"
"I know — trust me!"
She shook her head, but he grabbed her hands, wrenched them away — yeah, he probably hurt her, but it was better than dying — and plunged back in.
The seat was electric. Foolishly, he tried to move the seat back, then, in desperation, grabbed her and tried to tug her out.
His lungs turned to fire before he surfaced. The water had crested over her again.
Above him, into the night, the man was screaming, his hands entangled with his wife's. "Save her!"
Pete went back under.
He couldn't open his eyes and cursed his lack of equipment. But he'd see nothing in this darkness, and maybe damage his eyes in the dirty water and debris. Feeling his way around her body, his hand landed on the seat tilt-back lever. Miraculously, it was manual.
He popped it and gave the seat a push. It fell back.
She released, just enough for him to grab her around the waist.
He pulled with everything inside him.
Please let him not be breaking bones.
She came free and he propelled her up.
He surfaced, the water now at the level of the driver's seat. The woman kicked him in the face as her husband dragged her out through the window. Pete shoved the second life jacket at her. "Put this on!"
She coughed, doubling over. "My baby!"
Below, in the depths of the car, the baby was screaming.
He spotted more lights panning across the water, heard shouting. A glance toward the lights suggested more vehicles had arrived.
The tumult rocked the van.
"You both need to get to shore. I'll get the baby."
The man pulled his wife into his arms. "He'll get her," he said to his wife, talking of Pete.
And yeah, he would. Because when he said he'd do something ...
Pete unclipped his harness and worked it over her legs, around her waist. "Belt her in and clip her to yourself," he told the man.
He climbed into the back. The water lipped the bottom side of the car seat, rising fast. The child — maybe less than two years old — was wedged into the seat, facing backward, arching her back, screaming.
Pete found the buckle and unlatched it, pulling the child free and holding her above the rising tide.
The entire van shook as he climbed to the front. Pete shoved the child into waiting arms, and when he followed, he discovered that another man wearing a life vest and rescue gear had reached them. Pete recognized him from the private crew of volunteers out of Minneapolis. Somebody Jones. Military build, a grim set to his lined face.
A guide rope strung along the opposite bank. Another man from their team was maneuvering a raft into the water. Walsh still had hold of the belay attached to the husband.
Jones had unhooked the wife from her husband and was re-hooking her onto the rescue line, not an easy feat with the husband clutching her.
Pete climbed up onto the seat, tried to reach for the baby, to hold it while Jones hooked the woman onto the line. "Trust me, ma'am. We've got her." She trusted him. He saw it in her eyes as she loosened her hold. He started to ease the child from her arms.
And that was when the cement pylon shifted.
The current caught the vehicle, tearing the child from his grip. The baby!
The woman jolted from her perch as the van jerked hard into the current. She crashed into the water.
The van rolled over.
Pete was suddenly trapped, half in and half out of the window, under the car.
How he'd managed a breath, he didn't know, but the vehicle pinned him as the force of the water corkscrewed the vehicle into the wash.
And then he was slamming against boulders, darkness and water filling his eyes, his nose, his throat.
Not. Like. This!
He wouldn't die with blackness choking him, the river twisting him, pummeling him.
And not without seeing Jess one more time.
Even if the sight of her with another man might drown him more than this moment.
Pete kicked against the car, straining to shove himself away, his lack of breath searing his lungs.
Air. He ached for it, the burn compelling him to take a breath, draw in the lethal water.
Not ... yet ... His hand dragged against something firm, a pole — maybe rebar from the cement pillars that had buttressed the bridge. He gripped it.
The momentum of the vehicle, carried away in the torrent, tore Pete free.
His feet found bottom, and he surged to the surface with everything inside him.
Sweet, glorious air. He drank it in even as he fought the churn of rapids surging him downriver. The frothing water roared in his ears as the gulf crested over him, swamping him. His shoulder sparked as his body slammed against a boulder.
He'd break a leg like this. Or worse.
Lay back. Defensive swim.
Pete fought to get his legs around, to sit back, to turn his body to ride on top of the water.
He'd never been good at surrender.
Calm down. He willed himself to take even breaths, despite the water sloshing over him, burning his eyes. Float. Just for a moment, to get his bearings. The roar filled his senses, the surge of it turning his body to ice.
He'd been in enough training scenarios to know that if he just kept his head, he could find a way to shore.
But wow, he was tired. The kind of fatigue that poured through him, turned his body to a rock. Probably the adrenaline of wrestling his way to the surface now dropping hard.
Or maybe the fatigue went deeper. The kind that seeped through his bones to his spirit. The weariness of striving. Wanting. Failing.
Of trying to break free of his broken heart.
"I choose you, Pete."
Jess Tagg. Her voice had the audacity to linger in his head, and he hated it.
No, no she hadn't chosen him.
Not that he should have been surprised, really, in the end. He didn't know why he'd let himself believe in happily-ever-afters.
Ahead, a great shape burgeoned in the darkness, lights on it reflecting out onto the river. A bridge. Which meant submerged girders and lethal footings.
He'd break every bone in his body.
The voice echoed over the rim of wave and froth, lifting then bouncing into the night.
He searched for it, thrashing. The roar of the river deepened.
"Pete!" A light skimmed across him, and he followed it.
A raft. Speeding down the river in pursuit. A man — he recognized him from the other team — knelt at the helm, swinging a rescue throw bag.
The orange bag arched over Pete and dropped into the water past him. The rope shifted over him, the roughness against his legs, and he grabbed it.
But his frozen hands couldn't grip the slippery line. It ripped at his skin as it reeled out, the current wrestling him away from rescue.
Don't let go!
Maybe someone shouted, but the words rooted, found his bones. Galvanized him. He rolled over, kicking, winding the rope into his hands and tightening his grip.
"I got you!" The man on the raft was reeling him in toward shore. "Roll over! Put the rope on your inside shoulder."
His training kicked into his brain and he obeyed, letting the rope ease him to shore. The earth scraped his legs, and as he bumped onto the rocks, he rolled over to grip them.
The raft motored up to assist.
But Pete had already crawled his way into the mud and grass to pillow himself on land.
He rolled over, breathing hard.
The man piled out of the raft and kneeled beside him. "You okay?"
Pete put a hand to his chest. Alive. Yeah, his heartbeat confirmed it.
In fact, it might be the first time he'd felt it beat since the woman he loved walked out of his life into the arms of another man.
He just needed to lie here awhile and try to figure out how to get back up.
* * *
Jess Tagg had nowhere else to run.
But it didn't mean she couldn't try. Except for the grip her fiancé, Felipe St. Augustine, had on her hand, she would have already been fleeing out the front door of the seven-story mansion located in the heart of what used to be called Billionaires' Row on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Right into the throng of paparazzi just waiting to pepper her with questions, trail her every move, splash her grimaced face onto Page 6, and turn her into clickbait for a syndicated slew of tabloids that lit up the internet.
So, no, she couldn't flee out the gold-gated front door.
And she'd already tried escaping to the red-tiled roof patio earlier, where more guests had gathered for cocktails. Unfortunately, she'd spotted a couple cameras from the high-rise across the street. That was what she got for attending a fund-raising event that also included the likes of George Clooney and Ivanka Trump.
Thank you, Vanessa White and her philanthropy-minded superstar chums.
"Champagne, ma chérie?" Felipe set his empty glass on one of the skirted tables and motioned for a gloved and tuxedoed waiter to swing by with his tray.
"No, thank you," Jess said, her stomach too empty for anything bubbly. Or any of the canapés. The wasabi shrimp and avocado on the rice cracker churned in her gut.
What she wouldn't do for a ham sandwich.
Felipe glanced at her, his dark brown, nearly black, eyes running over her, a crease in his brow. "Are you all right?" He lifted his other hand, as if to touch her cheek, and she gave a quick nod.
His hand dropped away, just a flicker of something she couldn't place in his gaze. He squeezed her hand, however. "I'm sorry about earlier. We'll go out the back, or —"
"It's okay, Felipe. I'm used to it."
His mouth tightened, but just then a woman slid up to him, her hand finding his tuxedoed arm. A tall drink of water, the brunette probably walked the runway for one of the haute couture houses in Paris. She wore a dress that gloved her body, black, with a slit that hit her high on the thigh. The high neck made of sheer lace only added to her regal demeanor. Jess felt a little garish in her red strapless asymmetrical sweetheart gown. Nor was she in possession of the fluent French that rolled off this woman's elegant tongue. Jess hadn't a hope of understanding the words, but she did notice Felipe's strange expression, the way he kept glancing away from her, anywhere but on the woman's face, on her curves, even as he answered her.
His hand heated, slicking with just a hint of sweat, in hers.
Or maybe he hated being here just as much as she did.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wait for Me"
Copyright © 2018 Susan May Warren.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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