The building roar of a plane engine overwhelmed the gentler sounds of the seaside, invading the tranquility of Seahorse Key. Meagan Berry looked up from the canvas in her lap. Tension spiked through her. It wasn’t just the volume. Something was wrong. As she listened, the pitch dropped, and a series of sputters interrupted the flow of sound. She laid aside the canvas and pencil to hurry down the path leading to the beach. A small plane flew several yards above the water, too low to be on course for the Cedar Key Airport.
The roar became a whine, and the nose dipped. Her pulse quickened and she froze, holding her breath. The pilot leveled it out, but a second later the plane slammed against the water, sending spray shooting twenty feet into the air.
Meagan let out a startled scream and sprinted back to snatch her phone from her camera bag. She dialed 911 while running to her boat, then made her way over the waves with her four-horse motor wide open. The plane appeared to be sitting lower in the water than when it had first crashed. It was sinking.
Panic spiraled through her, sucking the air from her lungs. Help would never arrive in time. There was no good way to die, but gasping for air as water filled the lungs had to be one of the worst.
She coasted to a stop in front of the plane and peered through the windshield, relaying what she saw to the dispatcher. There were two occupants, the pilot and a passenger. The pilot’s head was cocked at an unnatural angle, his neck apparently broken. She grimaced, but forced herself to study him. If he was breathing, it was too shallow to be obvious.
The passenger was unconscious, but his chest rose and fell in a slow, steady rhythm. She steered the boat around to look through the side window. Water seemed to be rushing in from below. It swirled around the men’s legs, already halfway covering their thighs. The Cedar Key Fire rescue boat would be on its way. But the plane was sinking fast. She had to do something.
She disconnected the call with the emergency operator and donned her life vest. As she prepared to leave the safety of the boat, her chest tightened, the lingering remnant of a lifelong fear of water. She brushed it aside. The man’s life depended on her keeping a clear mind and acting quickly.
She threw herself over the side of the boat and into the warm Gulf water. When she reached the plane, she braced both feet against its side, gripped the door handle and pulled. Twice. It didn’t budge.
When she attempted it a third time, desperation added to her efforts. She yanked with all her might, summoning a strength she didn’t know she had. The door opened a crack, creaking in protest. Renewed energy spiked through her.
After several more tugs, she had the door open far enough for her to slip through. She reached for the seat belt, but the latch was jammed.
“Come on.” She pressed and pulled and yanked, but the belt refused to release its prisoner.
Her heart stuttered. Time was running out. The water was already past his waist. She had to free him. She scanned the cockpit, but didn’t see anything useful.
Maybe she had something. She mentally ticked through the items in her tackle box—sunscreen, rope, a waterproof flashlight and…a multitool. Hope surged through her. She could use the knife to cut the belt.
Moments later, she set to work, sawing until she had sliced halfway through the thick nylon. The water had risen to the man’s chest. His head rolled to the side, and a groan made its way up his throat.
“Hang loose. I’m getting you out of here.”
Meagan resumed sawing, her motions more frantic with every passing second. When the last thread finally let go, breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding spilled out in a relieved sigh.
But it wasn’t over yet. She still had to pull him from the plane. Then if she could get her spare life jacket on him, maybe she could free the pilot. She gently lifted the shoulder harness over the man’s head, then grasped his arms and pulled. The left one came forward. A gold wedding band glistened in the sunlight. He was married, maybe even still had kids at home. People who needed him.
It took several more tugs to wrestle him through the opening. When she glanced back inside, the plane was almost full of water. Her chest clenched. She was out of time.
During the next minute, she kept the passenger afloat and watched the water rise over the pilot’s face, covering his mouth, his nose and finally his eyes. She drew in several sharp, jagged gasps. The worst way to die…
No, he wasn’t suffering. There was no struggle, no response at all. He was likely already dead, killed on impact, neck broken. He wasn’t drowning.
She closed her eyes against a sudden wave of nausea. Weakness washed through her, and a ringing sounded in her ears, slowly building to a roar. She opened her eyes and turned. A boat was speeding toward her, nose in the air. Some distance behind was a second, quickly closing the gap.
The lead boat reached her first, carrying Cedar Key police officer Hunter Kingston. Dressed in a white T-shirt with a picture of a fish spanning his chest, he apparently wasn’t on duty. But as he drew up next to her, she had to admit he looked as good out of uniform as in.
“I was fishing over on the other side of Atsena Otie Key when I heard the plane.” He threw the motor into idle and dropped the anchor. “Was anyone else inside?”
“Yeah, the pilot. I’m pretty sure the impact killed him, broke his neck.” At least that was what she would keep telling herself. “I didn’t have time to feel for a pulse or anything.”
The Cedar Key Fire rescue boat approached, its engines drowning out Hunter’s next words. Wade Tanner stood at the helm, Joe Stearn next to him. After taking a few seconds to get details from her, they went to work. Joe got into the water with a plastic backboard while Wade circled around to the other side of the plane. Its wings floated on the surface of the waves, the body submerged. Wade would work to free the pilot, but it would be too late. Probably six or seven minutes had passed since he’d sunk beneath the water.
A lump formed in her throat, and she once again reined in her thoughts. She would keep focusing on the man she was able to save instead of the one she’d lost. Within minutes, Wade and Joe would be speeding toward the marina, where an ambulance would be waiting, or possibly a helicopter. The man still might not survive, but she had done all she could. The rest was up to fate.
Before returning to her boat, she glanced back down at the plane’s passenger. Joe had worked the backboard under him. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. And there wasn’t any blood. Of course, there could be internal injuries. And broken bones. And likely a head injury, since he still hadn’t regained consciousness.
Hunter followed her gaze. “You know who that is, don’t you?”
Dread slid down her throat. Please, not somebody famous.
Hunter continued before she could answer. “Richard Daniels. He’s one of our US senators.”
The dread morphed to full-blown anxiety. Reporters. News cameras. She had to get out of there before they arrived. She began to swim toward her boat. It had drifted about thirty feet from where she had left it.
Hunter’s voice stopped her. “Need some help?”
“I could use it.” Hers was a small johnboat, and she wasn’t sure she could get in without capsizing it.
Hunter helped her onto his boat, then pulled up beside hers and held it steady while she stepped in. Once she had settled onto the seat, she looked back at him, ready to offer her thanks. But her words caught in her throat. He was smiling over at her, a warmth in his gaze that she’d never seen before.
“You saved Daniels’s life. You kept your head and acted fast. You should be proud.”
Proud? She hadn’t thought about it. But Hunter was proud of her. She could tell. And it created an odd flutter in her stomach. With that soft, sandy blond hair, those gorgeous blue eyes and the fact that he was just an all-around nice guy, she was surprised he was still single. But from what she’d heard, he was too busy to devote time to romance. Besides his full-time job with Cedar Key Police Department, he taught a middle school boys’ Sunday school class and had his hand in almost every volunteer activity on Cedar Key.
Yes, Hunter was a special man. A year ago she would have been interested. Now she knew better. She’d been there and done that. And had the scars to prove it.
Hunter tilted his head toward the island. “Let’s get you to shore.”
She followed his gaze to where a small group had gathered. When the plane went down, she’d been alone. Now three boats dotted the shoreline. With her focus on the fire guys, and their motor left idling, she hadn’t even heard the others approach. At least none of them looked to be reporters.
Within moments, a low rumble filled the air and a helicopter approached to circle the island, Channel 20 News, WCJB-TV painted clearly on the side. Meagan flinched, the instinct to run and hide overpowering. Seahorse Key was covered in trees, but at low tide there would be any number of places for the aircraft to land.
She gave a couple sharp tugs on the pull rope, and her motor roared to life. As she raced toward the island, Hunter matched her speed. Ten or twelve sets of eyes watched them approach. One of the bystanders was Buddy, a local fisherman. The others she didn’t know. Probably tourists.
The moment she stepped ashore, she was inundated with questions. She held up a hand. “The pilot didn’t make it. The other guy’s unconscious. That’s all I know.”
The terse answer had the intended effect. The curious group fell back, and she hurried down the path leading to the lighthouse. Hunter followed. The chopper descended a short distance east of them and disappeared behind the trees. She corralled the urge to leave everything and run back to her boat, and instead willed herself to remain calm. But as she jammed the unfinished canvas into her portfolio case, anxiety chipped away at her composure and her hands shook.
Hunter lightly touched her forearm. “Are you all right?”
He had likely intended the gesture to be comforting. But she jumped as if she’d been burned. “I’m fine. I’m just ready to head home and get into some dry clothes.” She pushed her dripping bangs aside and forced a smile.
He didn’t return it. His mouth was set in a firm line. Of course he would see right through her excuses. He was a cop. And behind that handsome face was a discerning mind that wouldn’t give up its quest for the truth.
She snatched up the chair and began to fold it. Hunter picked up the cloth cover and held it open.
“Tell me what’s going on. What are you afraid of?”
Her heart began to pound, and moisture coated her palms. As she slid the chair into its case, she gave an uneasy laugh. “Spiders. Snakes. The usual things women are afraid of.” Drowning. Edmund.
More than anything, Edmund. Her dream come true. How quickly dreams could become nightmares.
She tucked her portfolio case under one arm and slipped the other through the camera bag strap. Leaving Hunter to follow with the chair, she started back up the path at a full jog.
His footsteps pounded behind her. “That’s not what I meant.”
No, that wasn’t what he meant. But it was the only answer she could give. Her life depended on keeping her identity secret.
From everyone. Even handsome, kindhearted cops.
Especially handsome, kindhearted cops.
When they reached the beach, three people had joined the others, two loaded down with camera equipment and a third holding a microphone.
One of the tourists pointed. “That’s her there.”
Before Meagan could react, all attention turned to her. A camera clicked, and a DVR began to record. She threw her hand up a half second too late.
No! They couldn’t put her picture on the news. The only reason she was alive was because the world believed Elaina Thomas was dead. Her hair was different, cut short and dyed dark. But her face was still the same.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Can you tell us what happened?”
With her head dipped, she placed her portfolio and camera bag into the boat, ignoring the reporter’s words. Hunter loaded the chair, and she continued her tasks—pushing the boat off the beach and into the water, moving her things to make way for her wet feet, and finally stepping into the boat.
Not getting anywhere with her, the reporter turned his attention to Hunter. “Someone said the lady pulled Senator Daniels from the plane. Can you verify that?”
Meagan gripped the pull rope and started the motor. As she began to back away, Hunter’s voice came to her over the rumble of the four-horse.
“She did. She’s a hero.” He glanced toward her, then continued. “But apparently she’s a modest hero and doesn’t want the recognition. I think we should respect that.”
“What’s her name?”
She shifted into forward, holding her breath. Hunter wouldn’t give her away, would he?
He gave a noncommittal shrug. “She’s not from around here.”
She turned the throttle and let her breath out in a rush. The reporter would assume she was a tourist and wouldn’t look any further. And since Buddy had returned to his fishing, no one on the beach knew her. At that moment, she could have kissed Hunter.
What he had said was true—she wasn’t from around there. She’d been in Cedar Key all of two months. Ever since her cross-country bus trip following her middle-of-the-night escape from her psycho ex-fiancé.
It wasn’t just the abuse. It was the threats to her family. And the fact that she had learned Edmund’s secret. And Edmundknew it. So she’d had no choice. Edmund would have never let her go.
Unless she was dead.
So she’d faked a fever with the help of a heating pad, gathered up minimal belongings and disappeared. Edmund’s rowboat would have been found the next day with her blood on the gunnel and her hair caught under one of the oar brackets, pulled out by the roots. There would have been only one conclusion: in her delirious state, she’d taken the boat out, hit her head, tumbled overboard and drowned. In spring-fed lakes, bodies could disappear indefinitely. Edmund knew her fear of water. And that she couldn’t swim.
He had underestimated her determination. And the effectiveness of YouTube videos.
A day and a half later, she’d shown up in Cedar Key with all the accoutrements of her new life—two changes of clothes, a few toiletries, a single loved photo, a bag of cash and new IDs. And an old book of poetry, cherished because it had belonged to the closest thing to a friend she’d had in over a year.
She cast a glance back at Seahorse Key. The reporters had turned their attention from Hunter and appeared to be speaking with the woman who had ratted her out. Tension spread through Meagan’s shoulders, and she shook it off. The woman didn’t know anything that could hurt her. Hunter did, but he had read her fear and, without knowing her past, had chosen to protect her.
She released a sigh and turned back around. The mouth of the channel was ahead, the route that would take her home.
Home. The word didn’t mean what it used to. But she had come to accept that. With no real connections to the community, home would never be any more than an address. And a temporary one at that.
The night she fled from California, she’d walked away from everything—her family, her possessions, a promising art career.
But she was alive. Her mother and sister were alive.
And that was all that mattered.