AMISH COUNTRY REFUGE
Colleen Brennan has one goaltake down her sister's killer. But chasing after evidence leaves her in the path of a tornado and stranded in an Amish community. With the killer nearby, Colleen must depend on the kindness of Special Agent Frank Gallagher. Although the army officer is recuperating from a battlefield injury, he wants to help the beautiful woman he rescued from the tornado's fury. He can tell she's hiding something important. But getting her to reveal her secrets may be his most dangerous mission ever.
Military Investigations: Serving their country and solving crimes
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Gripping the steering wheel with one hand, Colleen Brennan shoved a wayward lock of red hair behind her ear with the other and glanced, yet again, at the rearview mirror to ensure she hadn't been followed. She had left Atlanta two hours ago and had been looking over her shoulder ever since.
Her stomach knotted as she turned her focus to the storm clouds overhead. The rapidly deteriorating weather was a threat she hadn't expected.
"Doppler radar storms that caused damage in Montgomery earlier today moving into Georgia."
Adjusting the volume on her car radio, she leaned closer to the dashboard, hoping to hear the weather report over the squawk of static.
"Hail gusting winds. Conditions ideal for tornadoes. Everyone in the listening area is cautioned to be watchful."
The darkening sky and gusting winds added concern to her heavily burdened heart. She didn't like driving on remote Georgia roads with an encroaching storm, but she had an appointment to keep with Vivian Davis. The army wife had promised to provide evidence that would convince the authorities Trey Howard was involved in an illegal drug operation.
Hot tears burned Colleen's eyes. She was still raw from her sister's overdose and death on drugs Trey had trafficked. If only Colleen had been less focused on her flight-attendant career and more tuned in to her sister's needs, she might have responded to Briana's call for help.
Colleen had vowed to stop Trey lest he entice other young women to follow in her sister's footsteps. If the Atlanta police continued to turn a blind eye to his South American operation, Colleen would find someone at the federal level who would respond to what she knew to be true.
Needing evidence to substantiate her claims, she had photographed documents in Trey's office and had taken a memory card that had come from one of the digital cameras he used in his photography business, a business that provided a legitimate cover for his illegal operation.
She sighed with frustration. How could the Atlanta PD ignore evidence that proved Trey's involvement? Yet, they had done just that, and when she'd phoned to follow up on the information she'd submitted, they'd made it sound as if she was the drug smuggler instead of Trey.
Despite her protests, the cop with whom she'd dealt had mentioned a photograph mailed to the narcotics unit anonymously. The picture indicated Colleen's participation in the trafficking operation she was trying to pin on Trey.
Foolishly, she had allowed him to photograph her with a couple of his friends. A seemingly innocent pose, except those so-called friends must have been part of the drug racket. From what she'd learned about Trey over the past few months, he'd probably altered the photo of her to include evidence of possession and then mailed it to the police.
Too often he'd boasted of being well connected with law enforcement. Evidently, he'd been telling the truth. In hindsight, she realized the cop had probably been on the take.
She wouldn't make the same mistake twice. No matter how much she wanted Trey behind bars, she couldn't trust anyone involved in law enforcement at the local level. For all she knew, they were all receiving kickbacks.
Later tonight, after returning to the motel in Atlanta where Colleen had been holed up and hiding out, she would overnight copies of everything she had secreted from Trey's office, along with whatever evidence Vivian could provide, to the Drug Enforcement Administration's Atlanta office. Surely Trey didn't have influence with the federal DEA agents, although after the pointed questions she'd fielded following her sister's death, Colleen didn't have a warm spot in her heart for cops at any level.
Glancing at her GPS, she anticipated the upcoming turn into a roadside picnic park. Vivian had insisted they meet in the country, far from where the army wife lived at Fort Rickman and the neighboring town of Freemont, Georgia.
Colleen glanced again at her rearview mirror, relieved that hers was the only vehicle on the road. Vivian was right. Meeting away from Freemont and Fort Rick-man had been a good decision. Except for the storm that threatened to add an unexpected complication to an already dangerous situation.
Turning into the picnic park, Colleen spotted a car. A woman sat at the wheel. Braking to a stop next to the sedan, Colleen grabbed her purse off the seat and threw it in the rear. Then stretching across the console, she opened the passenger door, all the while keeping the motor running.
Clutching a leather shoulder bag in one hand and a cell phone in the other, Vivian stepped from her car and slipped into the front seat. She was as tall as Colleen's five feet seven inches, but with a pixie haircut that framed her alabaster skin and full mouth, which made her appear even more slender in person than in the photographs Colleen had seen on Facebook.
Fear flashed from eyes that flicked around the car and the surrounding roadside park.
"Were you followed?" Vivian nervously fingered her purse and then dropped it at her feet.
"I doubled back a few times and didn't see anyone." Colleen pointed to the thick woods surrounding the off-road setting. "No one will find us here, Vivian. You're safe."
Rain started to ping against the roof of the car. Colleen turned on the wipers.
"I don't feel safe." Vivian bit her chipped nails and slumped lower in the seat. "And I'm not even sure I should trust you."
"I told you we'll work together."
"What if my husband finds out?"
Colleen understood the woman's concern. "He was deployed. You were depressed, not yourself. If you're honest with him, he'll understand."
"He won't understand why his wife accepted an all-expense-paid trip to a Colombian resort while he was deployed to a war zone. He also won't understand how I got involved with Trey Howard."
Colleen's sister had been as naive as Vivian. Briana had been used and abused by the drug dealer, which made Colleen realize how easily Vivian could have been taken in by Trey.
"My sister made the same mistake. Two other women did, as well. That's why I contacted you. You still have a chance to escape."
Vivian glanced out the window. "My husband has orders for Fort Hood. We're moving in three weeks." She raked her hand through her short hair. "I'll be okay, unless the cops find out I smuggled drugs into the country."
"I'll mail whatever evidence you brought today to the DEA without mentioning your name or mine. They won't be able to trace anything back to either of us." Colleen rubbed her hand reassuringly over the young woman's shoulder. "Besides, you didn't know what was in the package Trey had you bring into the US for him."
"I knew enough not to ask questions, which means I could end up in jail." Vivian shrugged away from Colleen and reached for the door handle. "I made a mistake meeting you."
"Vivian, please." Colleen grabbed the young woman's arm before she stepped from the car.
A shot rang out.
Vivian clutched her side and fell onto the seat.
Colleen's heart stopped. She glanced into the woods, seeing movement. A man stood partially hidden in the underbrush, a raised rifle in his hands.
A car was parked nearby. She couldn't make out the make or model.
"Stay down," Colleen warned. Leaning across the console and around Vivian, she pulled the passenger door closed.
Another shot. A rear window shattered. Vivian screamed.
Fear clawed at Colleen's throat. She threw the car into gear and floored the accelerator. The wheels squealed in protest as they left the roadside park.
A weight settled on Colleen's chest. Struggling to catch her breath, she gripped the steering wheel white-knuckled and focused on the two-lane country road that stretched before them.
"He tried to kill me," Vivian gasped. Tears filled her eyes.
Colleen glanced at the hole in the window and the spray of glass that covered the rear seat. "He tried to kill both of us."
She should have known Trey would follow her. He loved fast cars, and no matter what he was driving today, her Honda Civic couldn't outrun his vehicle of choice.
Hot tears burned her eyes. "Our only chance is to find a place to hide and hope Trey thinks we continued north toward the interstate."
He'd eventually realize his mistake and double back to search for them. By then, they would have left the area by another route.
"I'm scared," Vivian groaned.
Refusing to give voice to her own fear, Colleen focused on their most immediate problem. "What's near here that could offer shelter? We need to stow the car out of sight."
"An Amish community." Vivian pointed to the upcoming intersection. "Turn left. Then take the next right. There's a small shop. An old barn sits in the rear. It's usually empty when I drive by."
Colleen followed the younger woman's directions, all the while checking the rearview mirror.
Vivian glanced over her shoulder. "If he catches us, he'll kill us."
"Not if we hole up in the barn. He won't look for us there."
The army wife pointed to the upcoming intersection.
"Turn right. Then crest the hill. The Amish store is on the other side of the rise."
Colleen's stomach tightened with determination. She turned at the intersection and kept the accelerator floored until the car bounded over the hill.
The rain intensified. Squinting through the downpour, she spied the Amish store. One-story, wooden frame, large wraparound porch. Just as Vivian had said, a barn stood at the side of the shop.
Colleen took the turn too sharply. The tires squealed in protest. A gravel path led to the barn. The car bounced over the rough terrain.
She glanced at the road they had just traveled. Trey's car hadn't crested the hill. Relieved, Colleen drove into the barn. Before the engine died, she leaped from the car and pulled the doors closed, casting them in semi-darkness.
Outside, wind howled. Rain pounded against the wooden structure.
"Help me." Vivian's voice.
Colleen raced around the car and opened the passenger door. The woman's face was pale as death. Blood soaked her clothing. For the first time, Colleen saw the gaping hole in Vivian's side.
Removing her own coat, Colleen rolled it into a ball and pressed it onto the wound to stem the flow of blood. Holding it tight with her left hand, she reached for her cell and tapped in 9-1-1.
Before the call could go through, a ferocious roar, both powerful and insistent, gathered momentum, like a freight train on a collision course with the barn. Even without seeing the funnel cloud, Colleen knew a tornado was headed straight for them.
The barn shook. Hay fell from the overhead loft. The noise grew louder. Colleen's ears popped.
Swirling wind enveloped them. Clods of Georgia clay and shards of splintered wood sprayed through the air like shrapnel.
She threw herself over Vivian, protecting her. God help us, Colleen prayed as the tornado hit, and the barn crashed down around them.
"Frank," Evelyn screamed from the kitchen. "There's a tornado."
Startled by the tremor in his sister's voice, Frank Gallagher pulled back the living room curtain. His heart slammed against his chest at what he saw. A huge, swirling funnel cloud was headed straight for her house.
"Get to the basement, Evie."
Her sluggish footsteps sounded from the kitchen as she threw open the cellar door and cautiously descended into the darkness below. Injured in a car accident some years earlier, Evelyn's gait was slow and labored, like a person older than her 42 years.
"Duke?" Frank called. The German shepherd, a retired military working dog, appeared at his side.
"Heel." Together, they followed Evelyn down the steep steps.
An antique oak desk sat in the corner and offered additional protection. Frank hurried her forward. "Get under the desk, Evie."
A deafening roar enveloped them. Frank glanced through the small basement window. His gut tightened.
Debris sailed through the air ahead of the mass of swirling wind bearing down on them.
His heart stalled, and for one long moment, he was back in Afghanistan. The explosion. The flying debris. The building shattering around him.
Trapped under the rubble, he had gasped for air. The smell of death returned to fill his nostrils. Only he had lived.
"Frank," Evelyn screamed over the incessant roar. She grabbed his arm and jerked him down next to her.
Frank motioned for Duke to lie beside them. The thunderous wail drowned out his sister's frantic prayers. All he heard was the howling wind, like a madman gone berserk, as chilling as incoming mortar rounds.
He tensed, anticipating the hit, and choked on the acrid bile that clogged his throat. Tightening his grip on his sister's outstretched hand, Frank opened his heart, ever so slightly, to the Lord.
Save Evie. The prayer came from deep inside, from a place he'd sealed off since the IED explosion had changed his life forever. Just that quickly the raging wind died, and the roar subsided.
Frank expelled the breath he'd been holding.
Evelyn moaned with relief. "Thank you, God."
Crawling from under the desk, he helped his sister to her feet and then glanced through the window. Mounds of tree limbs, twisted like matchsticks, littered the yard. At least the house had been spared.
He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket. No bars. No coverage.
Evelyn reached for the older landline phone on the desk. "I've got a dial tone."
"Call 911. Let them know the area along Amish Road was hit and to send everything available. Then phone the Criminal Investigation Division on post. Talk to Colby Voss. Tell him the Amish need help."
"Colby would tell you to stay put, Frank. You're still on convalescent leave."
Ignoring her concern for his well-being, Frank patted his leg for Duke to follow him upstairs.
Another close call. Was God trying to get his attention? A verse from scripture floated through his mind, Come back to me.
In the kitchen, Frank yanked his CID jacket from the closet and grabbed leather work gloves he kept nearby. Pushing through the back door, he stopped short and pulled in a sharp breath at what he sawa different kind of war zone from what he'd experienced in Afghanistan, but equally as devastating.
The tornado had left a trail of destruction that had narrowly missed his sister's house. He searched for the Amish farmhouses that stretched along the horizon. Few had been spared. Most were broken piles of rubble, as if a giant had crushed them underfoot.
A sickening dread spread over him. The noise earlier had been deafening. Now an eerie quiet filled the late Georgia afternoon. No time to lament. People could be trapped in the wreckage.
"Come on, boy." Frank quickly picked his way among the broken branches and headed for the path that led through the woods. He ignored the ache in his hip, a reminder of the IED explosion and the building that had collapsed on top of him. Thankfully, a team of orthopedic surgeons had gotten him back on his feet. A fractured pelvis, broken ribs and a cracked femur had been insignificant compared with those who hadn't made it out alive.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE "Stranded"!!!! By the top of the second page, I was hooked. It was like the author had opened a door, and I was engulfed in the world of the story! The story kept twisting and turning and spinning and swirling! I really, literally could hardly put it down. This is one of the top 5 books I have read in the past year (and that's saying a lot!!!!!). The language, the writing was vivid and full. The characters had hidden secrets that kept me guessing. It was just a Great Book!!!
Another good mystery by Debby -- This was another good read by Debby, only the second one of her books that I've read, but I have enjoyed both of them now. I was on the edge of my seat sometimes and found it hard to put the book down. I like her writing style and will try to find some more of her books, I may just have to think about reading some more of her books. If you enjoy a good mystery you will enjoy this book.