|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of romantic suspense. A former Ohio State University English instructor, she now writes full time. Harper is the winner of The Mary Higgins Clark Award for her novel, DARK ANGEL. She also writes historical novels set in Tudor England. Please visit or write her at her website at www.KarenHarperAuthor.com
Read an Excerpt
By Karen Harper
MIRACopyright © 2006 Karen Harper
All right reserved.
January 11, 1994
Her feelings ran deep and sure out here. They had never included fear or even foreboding -- until now.
Jordan Quinn stopped to survey the view. Islands of trees dotted the blue-green grasslands of the Everglades. Everything seemed normal, so what was the icy prickle along the nape of her neck? Shoving back her spill of copper hair, she sucked a steadying breath deep into her lungs, then sighed. She jostled her backpack to shift her load and, watching for snakes, picked her way across the spongy soil.
Maybe that distant sound made her so uneasy, she thought, squinting into the sun. A droning hum like a mosquito became the buzz, then roar of a motor. An old white one-engine prop plane circled, dipping its inner wing. Then, to her amazement, it swooped low at her, like an old-time stunt plane.
Despite the billed cap she wore, Jordan shaded her eyes to glare up at it, and as it passed, she shook her fist. She knew they could see her; someone was leaning out with binoculars. Two men aboard, she could tell that much.
At first she had assumed it was the plane used by the Endangered Panther Research Team, but that one was newer and painted blue. Her husband was on their staff so they would have recognized her and just wagged their wings as they had once before. Perhaps thesemen were illegal hunters. Or it was just some jerk's idea of thrill riding, like the tourists and locals who roared around out here on their swamp buggies, airboats, and ATVs, scarring the land and scaring the animals.
Right now, damn them, they were scaring her. The plane circled, then dived toward her again. "Idiots!" she yelled but ducked instinctively. That crazy scene from Alfred Hitch-cock's movie North by Northwest darted through her mind: Cary Grant fleeing a low-flying plane flown by people trying to kill him.
The plane's next swoop blasted hot air at her; this time the wheels missed her head by about twelve feet. Jordan scrambled away, then ran. It came around, lower, at her. She zigzagged now, not daring to slow to look up and back. If she hit the ground, they would miss her, and on their next pass she could make the trees. At least they didn't have hunting rifles, or did they?
Jordan threw herself down as the tall grass whipped and thrashed around her. Her heart pounding, she squinted up: no numbers painted on the plane.
Bent over, keeping low, she ran for the hammock where she had been headed. Things in her backpack jogged in rhythm with her steps. She darted erratically until she was close enough to the tall trees that the plane dared not dive at her. Still running, she glanced up and back to look at them again.
Just then the earth moved under her feet.
She stumbled and gasped. She hit the ground, facedown, her feet plunging into a limestone solution hole the grass had covered. Feeling herself sliding, she thrust both arms stiffly to her sides to grab something. Her knees, shins, then stomach scraped a hidden ledge, slick with damp grass at the lip. She bit her tongue. Her baseball cap was yanked off, then her sunglasses. Clawing the shrinking surface, she spread her legs and dug her toes into the slick rock. Her boot wedged against something.
She stopped skidding.
She hung suspended, her breasts, shoulders, spread arms, and head above the edge of the hole worn away by water puddling in the porous rock bed. The plane buzzed her but not as low, then circled higher.
She clung, trying to decide whether to risk one big lunge up or try careful, tiny movements. Her chin had raked over the grass, not sawgrass with its razor-sharp edges, but she tasted blood. Her backpack felt like a lead weight. Maybe no one would find her if she slipped clear in. She'd seen these pits with bones of animals from who knew how long ago. All she needed was a cottonmouth or diamondback down this one.
Grunting, sweating, she inched, shoved, and clawed her way up, straining and balancing, the way Dad had taught her in one of his numerous wilderness survival lessons years ago. At last, she rolled onto the bulk of the backpack, panting, staring up at the now empty sky. "Thank God," she whispered. They had just been joy riders, sick bullies wanting to scare her.
She dropped her backpack and moved her limbs. As far as she could tell, she was bloodied only where she'd bitten her tongue and scraped her elbows. She washed her face and sponged her arms with a Handi Wipe. She felt bruised and sore, but darned if she was going to return to her car. She had just set off for her day in the Glades.
She brushed off her jeans and khaki shirt and took a steadying swig of water from her canteen. Rehooking her arms through the straps of her backpack, she retrieved her sunglasses and her dad's old fishing cap. Watching each step, she went on, limping a little, perspiring, though this was the cool, dry season of the year.
Only a few ponds dotted this part of the Everglades today, but in the saunalike summers and autumns they became part of the shallow water her Seminole friend Mae called Payhayokee --"river of grass." Her original goal of the small, elevated area of hardwood forest called a hammock lay just ahead. Beyond other, distant hammocks dappling the horizon, two huge ranches shared boundaries with the Big Saw-grass Seminole Indian Reservation and various government land preserves.
As always, she felt a coolness and expectant hush as she entered the vaulted, pillared cathedral of living green. At the fringe of forest, she leaned against a tree until her heart and breathing quieted. The sweet silence of soughing breeze greeted her. Among the leafy trees, the bald cypress stood like bleached skeletons of primeval fossils, cradling their orchid and airplant bounty in bony arms. Automatically searching for them, Jordan looked up. She never took so much as cuttings or seeds of the native bromeliads or rare orchids unless she had written permission: it was just the search and discovery that mattered, for she had a booming business with such plants she cultivated in town.
She soon lost herself in the lush splendor, photographing the pale green umbrella epidendrum and purple-spotted dollar orchids dangling from stalks over her head. She walked in deeper, and there, with a big cowhorn orchid on either side as if to guard it, was what she always hoped to find, an endangered orchid.
Like a white frog flying in midair, the rare ghost orchid displayed its fragrant flower from its leafless stem. She clicked through all her extra film. As her camera began its buzz through automatic rewind, she jumped at the sound of a woman's scream.
Who was that? She leaped behind a tree trunk, then heard yelping dogs, a man's shout, the distant crack of a gun, the screech again -- no, it was not quite human.
Maybe the research tracking team was shooting a panther with their tranquilizer dart, she thought. But more likely she had heard an illegal hunter with his dogs. That plane might have been a spotter for them, trying to scare her out of the area. Though fines and jail terms for harming a Florida panther were severe, no one -- private owners, park rangers, or Seminole -- could police all the land.
Though frightened again, she couldn't just ignore someone in need. And she wasn't going to stand by while animals that had every right to this land were harmed. She'd found out the hard way that potential problems were best handled by confrontation, not flight. Steeling herself, she cut straight through the heart of the hammock, then emerged in the grasslands again. From here the sounds of the hunt were unmistakable, but she felt immensely better when she recognized, parked at the edge of the next hammock, the balloon-wheeled yellow swamp buggy of the panther team.
She slowed her pace, careful where she put each foot. She'd never seen a capture. Lawrence had described it, but never invited her along.
She plunged into the next hammock, following the jumbled noises, men's shouts, too. She'd just stay back, she assured herself, and watch from a safe distance.
The two men had to talk loudly to be heard over the noise of the plane's engine.
"I can't believe she went just the opposite way you wanted," the pilot yelled at his passenger.
"She's braver than I thought, but it won't matter in the end."
"At least she got outta that hole."
"That one maybe," the passenger muttered and shoved his side window open wider in the old Cessna to stick his binoculars out into the rush of warm wind. "But I'm going to make her need me."
"Wha'd you say, chief?"
"I said, don't call me that. Head back to the airstrip," he ordered, pointing and gesturing. "We don't want the team on the ground spotting us."
As the plane tilted and banked again, the passenger shook his head in dismay. He'd told his man watching her to page him if she went near her old apartment, but he should have asked to be warned if she was near the scene of the hunt.
"Good thing you had me paint over the numbers on this baby or she could of read them, low as we got," the pilot yelled. "There'd be hell to pay if she could identify us later."
The passenger bumped his binoculars against the window as he pulled them in. "Hell to pay anyway," he said, his voice so low the pilot shook his head and pointed to his ear.
He ignored him and pressed his forehead to the glass, frowning down at the writhing trails all-terrain vehicles and swamp buggies had made like random worm tracks through the sweep of blue-green earth. He would like to have everyone banned from all this land, so only his people could use it.
As Jordan crept closer to what she knew now was an official capture, examination, tagging, and release of a panther, her pulse pounded in anticipation. Finally, she was getting close to the heart of Lawrence's work.
He was a consulting virologist for the team, and his passion these last years had been a study of the rare panther's apparent immunity to a feline AIDS-like virus, and in turn, a possible cure for human HIV. It was worthy, thrilling, secret work. She admired him for that, even though in the process he had shut her out of his life.
There it was. In the distance, draped loose-limbed on a branch of a gumbo-limbo tree forty feet above her, was the beautiful, furious focus of Lawrence's obsession. It bared razor-sharp teeth, its deep brown eyes narrowed, its tail whipped as it protested human interference in its private affairs.
Jordan carefully stepped closer. She knew that no Florida panthers on record had attacked a human being, but Lawrence had mentioned how one of their mountain lion cousins out West had mauled and killed a female jogger the year before.
She bent low to keep the cat in sight. Even from here she could tell the animal looked sedated; the tranquilizer dart gun had begun to do its work. She saw the cat's head loll. The jaws dripped saliva and merely emanated muted outrage and defiance at being chased and treed by dogs, now gone strangely silent, she realized.
Excerpted from Black Orchid by Karen Harper Copyright © 2006 by Karen Harper. Excerpted by permission.
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