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By IRENE HANNON
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2013 Irene Hannon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat a lousy night to get lost.
Moira Harrison peered through the April rain slashing across her windshield. Even at full speed, the wipers were no match for the torrential onslaught. The faint line bisecting the narrow strip of pavementthe only thing keeping her on the road and out of the ditch filled with churning runoff immediately to her rightfaded in and out with alarming frequency.
Tightening her grip on the wheel with one hand, she cranked up the defroster with the other. Fogged-up windows were the last thing she needed. As it was, the high-intensity xenon headlights of her trusty Camry were barely denting the dense darkness of the woods-rimmed rural Missouri road. Nor were they penetrating the shrouding downpour.
So much for the premium she'd paid to upgrade from standard halogen.
She spared a quick look left and right. No light from house or farm broke the desolate blackness. Nor were there any road signs to indicate her location. Maybe a St. Louisarea native would be better able to wend his or her way back to civilization than a newcomer like her, but she doubted it. Dark, winding rural routes were confusing. Period. Especially in the rain.
With a sigh, Moira refocused on the road. If she'd known Highway 94 was prone to flooding and subject to sudden closure, she'd never have risked subjecting herself to this poorly marked detour by lingering for dinner in Augusta after she finished her interview.
Instead, she'd have headed straight back to the rented condo she now called home and spent her Friday evening safe and warm, cuddled up with a mug of soothing peppermint tea, organizing her notes. She might even have started on a first draft of the feature article. It wouldn't hurt to impress her new boss with an early turn-in.
A bolt of lightning sliced through the sky, and she cringed as a bone-jarring boom of thunder rolled through the car.
That had been close.
She had to get away from all these trees.
Increasing her pressure on the gas pedal, she kept her attention fixed on the road as she groped on the passenger seat for her purse. Maybe her distance glasses were crammed into a corner and she'd missed them the first time she'd checked.
Five seconds later, hopes dashed, she gave up the search. The glasses must still be in the purse she'd taken to the movie theater last weekend. That was about the only time she ever used themexcept behind the wheel on rainy nights.
The zipper on her purse snagged as she tried to close it, and Moira snuck a quick glance at the passenger seat. Too dark to see. She'd have to deal with it later.
Releasing the purse, she lifted her gazeand sucked in a sharp breath.
Front and center, caught in the beam of her headlights, was a frantically waving person.
Directly in the path of the car.
Less than fifty feet away.
Lungs locking, Moira squeezed the wheel and jammed the brake to the floor.
Screeching in protest, the car fishtailed as it slid toward the figure with no noticeable reduction in speed.
Stop! Please stop!
Moira screamed the silent plea in her head as she yanked the wheel hard to the left.
Instead of changing direction, however, the car began to skid sideways on the slick pavement.
But in the instant before the beams of the headlights swung away from the roadand away from the figure standing in her pathone image seared itself across her brain.
Glazed, terror-filled eyes.
Then the person was gone, vanished in the darkness, as the vehicle spun out of control.
Moira braced herself.
But when she felt a solid thump against the side of the car, she knew her prayers hadn't been answered.
She'd hit the terrified person who'd been trying to flag her down.
The bottom fell out of her stomach as the car continued to careen across the road. Onto the shoulder. Into the woods. One bone-jarring bounce after another.
It didn't stop until the side smashed into a tree, slamming her temple against the window of the door to the accompaniment of crumpling metal.
Then everything went silent.
For a full thirty seconds, Moira remained motionless, hands locked on the wheel, every muscle taut, heart hammering. Her head pounded in rhythm to the beat of rain against the metal roof, and she drew a shuddering breath. Blinked. The car had stopped spinning, but the world around her hadn't.
She closed her eyes. Continued to breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
When she at last risked another peek, the scene had steadied.
Peeling her fingers off the wheel, she took a quick inventory. Her arms and legs moved, and nothing except her head hurt. As far as she could tell, she hadn't sustained any serious injuries.
But she knew the person she'd hit hadn't been as luckya person who might very well be lying in the middle of the road right now.
In the path of an oncoming car.
Her pulse stuttered, and she fought against a crescendo of panic as she tried to kick-start her brain. To think through the fuzziness.
Okay. First prioritycall 911. After that, she'd see what she could do to help the person she'd hit while she waited for the pros to arrive.
Plan in place, she groped for her purse. But the seat beside her was empty. Hadn't her purse been there moments before?
With a herculean effort, she coerced the left side of her brain to engage.
Her purse must have fallen to the floor while the car was spinning.
Hands shaking, she fumbled with the clasp on her seat belt. It took three jabs at the button before it released. Once free of the constraint, she leaned sideways and reached toward the floorjust as the driver-side door creaked open.
With a gasp, she jerked upright. A black-shrouded figure stood in the shadows, out of range of her dome light.
Her heart began to bang against her rib cage again as a cold mist seeped into the car.
"I saw the accident. Are you all right, miss?"
The voice was deep. Male. And the only clue to his gender. The monk-like hood of his slicker kept most of his features in shadows.
But she didn't care who he was. Help had arrived.
Thank you, God!
"Yes. I ... I think so. I banged my head against the window, and I'm a little dizzy. But ... I hit someone on the road. I need to call 911. And I need to help the other person."
The man leaned a bit closer, and she glimpsed the outline of a square jaw. "You've got a nasty bump on your temple. Moving around isn't a good idea until the paramedics check you out. I'll help the person you hit." He tipped his head and looked across her. "Is that blood on the passenger seat?"
As Moira shifted sideways to look, she felt a jab in her thigh. "Ow!"
"Watch the broken glass. Lean a little to the right." The man restrained her with one hand on her upper arm as she complied. "Hold on a second while I brush off the seat."
He was silent for a moment, and she shivered as the wind shifted and the rain began to pummel her through the open door, soaking through her sweater.
"Okay. I think I got most of it."
He released her, and she collapsed back against the seat. As he retracted his hand, she caught a quick glimpse of his gold Claddagh wedding ring. The same kind her dad wore.
Somehow that comforted her.
"Stay put." He melted back into the shadows, beyond the range of the dome light. "I'll call 911 and check on the other person. Give me a few minutes."
With that, he closed the door.
Alone again in the dark car, Moira tried to keep him in sight. But within seconds he disappeared into the rain.
As the minutes ticked by and the full impact of what had happened began to register, her shivering intensified and her stomach churned.
She could have been killed.
And she might have killed or seriously injured someone else.
Wrapping her arms around herself, Moira closed her eyes as a wave of dizziness swept over her.
At least help had arrived.
With that thought to sustain her, she let the darkness close in.
Why was she so cold?
Why did her head hurt?
Where was she?
Moira struggled to lift her eyelids, then blinked into the darkness.
What was she doing in her car?
Clenching her fingers around the wheel in front of her, she nudged her brain into action until, bit by bit, the mind-numbing grogginess dissipated. She'd hit someone on the rain-slicked pavement. Her car had spun out of control. She'd slammed into a treeand banged her head against the window.
But someone had stopped. A man. He'd said he would check on the victim and call 911.
Moira frowned and looked around.
There was no sign of any emergency equipment. Nor of her Good Samaritan.
Lifting her arm, she tried to read the time on her watch. Too dark. She fumbled for the dome light. Flipped it on. Squinted. The hands were fuzzy, but it looked like ... 9:30?
She'd been out cold for more than an hour?
She checked her watch again, angling it a different direction.
How could that be? Unless her eyes were lying to her, the police should be here by now. An hour was plenty of time for help to arrive. Even in the rain. Even on a deserted road in no-man's-land.
Despite the lingering sluggishness in her brain, she came to the only possible conclusionand the jolting truth shut down her lungs.
The man had never called 911.
He'd simply left.
But ... why stop at an accident scene if you didn't intend to help?
And what about the person she'd hit? Was he or she still lying in the road? Or in a ditch on the side? Perhaps gravely injured?
A surge of adrenaline shot through her, tripping her pulse into double time.
Breathe, Moira! Stay calm.
Forcing herself to keep inhaling and exhaling, she snagged her purse from the passenger side floor and dug for her phone. Once she had it in hand, she opened the glove compartment, silently thanking her father for drilling into her the importance of keeping a working flashlight in the car for emergencies.
Tonight certainly qualified.
As she shoved her door open with her shoulder, she punched in 911. At least the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle.
She lurched to her feet while the phone rang, clinging to the door when the ground tilted beneath her feet.
"911. What is your emergency?"
The question registered, but she was too busy trying to stay upright to answer.
"911. Please state the nature of your emergency."
She tightened her grip on the door and focused on forming the words. "Car accident."
"Are there injuries?"
"Yes." Moira leaned against the door, trying to orient herself.
"I'm dispatching an ambulance and the police as we speak."
"I-I don't know where I am."
"We have your location from the GPS in your phone, ma'am."
"Oh. Right." She knew that.
"How many vehicles are involved?"
"One." And it was on the wrong side of the road, she realized. Facing the direction from which she'd come.
"Can you describe the nature of"
She didn't wait for the rest. Now that she'd placed the emergency call, she needed to find the person she'd hit.
Pushing off from the car, she scrambled up the small embankment toward the road. Her flashlight picked up the skid marks at once, and she worked her way back to the spot where she'd begun to slide, all the while looking for signs of the victim.
But no one was lying in the road.
No one was lying in the ditch.
No one responded when she called out.
She stopped in the middle of the road, flummoxed. This didn't make sense. The person had to be here somewhere.
Retracing her steps, she continued to search until she heard the distant, welcome wail of a siren. Finally. Help was on the way.
She staggered to the side of the road, above her car. Maybe a police officer whose head wasn't pounding and whose vision wasn't going in and out of focus would have more success locating the person she'd hit.
The patrol car slowed as it approached and pulled onto the shoulder. Leaving on the headlights and the flashing light bars in the front and rear windows, a youngish cop slid out. With a glance at the bashed-in back fender of her car, he crossed to her.
"I'm Deputy Davis, ma'am." After giving her a quick sweep that lingered on her temple, he took her arm and started to guide her toward his vehicle. "Why don't you sit down? An ambulance is on the way."
She held back. "No. We need to keep looking."
"Ma'am?" He paused, clearly puzzled.
She moistened her lips, trying to think coherently despite the throbbing in her head. "I hit someone."
Twin furrows appeared on his brow as he scanned the wooded area. "We don't get too many pedestrians around here, ma'am. This road isn't even used a whole lot by drivers. Are you sure it wasn't an animal? A deer, maybe? We have a lot of those."
"I know what a deer looks like, Deputy." She jerked her arm free of his and took a step back. If he wasn't going to help her search, she'd continue alone. "It was a person."
"Okay." He held up his hands, palms toward her, in a placating gesture. "Man or woman?"
"Woman. I think."
He tilted his head. "You think?"
Moira caught her lower lip between her teeth. "It was dark. I only got a glimpse of her in my headlights, and she was wet. But from the build, and her eyes ... yes, I'd say it was a woman."
"All right." He gestured toward his car again. "Why don't you sit and I'll take a look?"
From his tone, she could tell he was humoring her.
And she didn't like it.
But as long as he was willing to continue the search, she'd go along with him. Because she needed to sit. Fast.
Fortunately, she reached the patrol car at the same moment her legs buckled.
He made a grab for her and eased her down on the passenger side. "The ambulance will be here any minute. In the meantime, stay put. I'll be right back."
"That's what the other guy said too."
He cocked his head. "What guy?"
Oh yeah. She'd forgotten to mention that.
"A man stopped after the accident. He said he'd check on the woman I hit and call 911. I must have blacked out after that. When I came to, he was gone."
"Was it another motorist?"
"I don't know. He just appeared out of nowhere."
Deputy Davis's headlights were behind him, leaving his features shadowed, but Moira had no trouble reading the skepticism on his face.
"Look, I'm not making this up." She glared at him. "There was a man here."
"Okay. We'll talk more in a minute."
He closed her door, and she watched through the rain- spattered window as he examined the skid marks with his flashlight. Checked the embankment on her side of the narrow road and the ditch on the other. Planted his free hand on his hip and stared into the empty darkness.
The throbbing in her head intensified.
He'd come up as empty as she had.
But how could that be? She hadn't imagined the woman on the road. Her unsuccessful evasive maneuver was what had sent her skidding into a tree.
Based on the deputy's expression when he rejoined her, however, he wasn't buying her story.
Pulling open her door, he shrugged. "I don't see anything, ma'am." As another distant siren floated through the air, he gestured to her temple. "Head injuries can do strange things to the memory. And visibility was poor. Was this ... person ... running across the road?"
"No. I glanced away for a second to zip my purse after I felt around for my glasses, and when I looked up again, she was standing in the middle of the road, waving her arms."
His eyebrows rose a notch. "You have glasses you weren't wearing?"
Uh-oh. Big mistake. That admission would make her story even less credible.
She shifted in the seat. Time for damage control. "I have a pair for distance that I wear on occasion. As it turns out, I left them at home. But I can see well without them. They just enhance my night vision a little."
Though he didn't comment, his silence communicated a lot.
A gust of wind blew a spray of chilly drizzle through the door, adding another layer of cold dampness to her already-wet clothes. Moira shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. A real hug would be better, but this would have to do. Hugs had vanished from her life as surely as the figure in her headlights. The romantic kind, anyway.
"Where is home?" The officer shifted sideways to block some of the rain.
"St. Louis. Brentwood." Her teeth started to chatter. "It's a s-suburb."
"I'm familiar with it." The siren was close now, and he angled toward the approaching vehicle. "We'll have some help for you in a minute. What brought you out here tonight?"
"I was in Augusta."
Excerpted from VANISHED by IRENE HANNON Copyright © 2013 by Irene Hannon. 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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