By Connie Mann
Publication date: 1/29/19
The river runs wild
Former Fish & Wildlife Officer Charlotte “Charlee” Tanner still carries the guilt of a tragic drowning accident that occurred on her watch. She hoped moving back home to the wilds of central Florida would provide a safe haven-until she learns the death was no accident, and she’s the intended target.
But no wilder than their passion
Tough and decisive, Lieutenant Hunter Boudreau loves his new job as a law enforcement officer with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Charlee is his best friend, so when she comes under fire, he’s not letting her out of his sight until the killer is caught. But Charlee won’t sit by and let anyone else die for her.
As danger closes in and Charlee and Hunter’s attraction threatens to consume them, Charlee has to decide if she can trust Hunter. And to save Charlee, Hunter will have to trust her, too.
Charlee set her paddle across her kayak and ignored the fine trembling in her hands. Even though no wind churned the placid Ocklawaha River and the cypress trees shading the banks stood still in the warm sunlight, she couldn’t settle. She pulled out her smartphone and checked the radar yet again. A scan of the cloudless sky above the tree canopy confirmed there were no storms in the area. She sighed and glanced at the time. Only one eternal hour before she could get off the river.
She heard a bark of laughter and looked around. As usual by this point in the trip, the teens had started getting restless. Troy and Wyatt stood in their kayaks, while Luke filmed them falling in slow motion.
“Enough, y’all,” Charlee called, and all eyes turned in her direction.
“Quit trying to be somebody, Wyatt. Geez, you’re nothing but a total dweeb,” Brittany sneered.
Charlee looked in Paul’s direction, surprised again that he didn’t put a stop to his daughter’s name-calling. Charlee and her brothers had always ragged on each other, but it was never this mean-spirited.
When Paul turned his back on the group and glided away, Wyatt hung his head. Charlee paddled in the boy’s direction, pushing aside how much he reminded her of JJ. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, think about last year. Right now was what mattered. “Just ignore her, Wyatt,” she said quietly. “You’re not the dweeb, she is.”
That got a sideways smile from the teen, and Charlee smiled back. “For a guy who’s never been in a kayak before, it looks like you’re enjoying yourself.”
Smiling shyly, Wyatt nodded. “It’s pretty awesome out here. I can’t believe this is, like, your job.”
His words reminded her of Hunter’s earlier encouragement to enjoy herself and made her grimace. She wanted to be glad she was out here, but she couldn’t, not anymore.
“Brittany! Brittany! Where are you?” Luke called.
Charlee’s head snapped around at the panic in the boy’s voice. Three quick strokes had her alongside Luke, who held on to an empty kayak. Wyatt pulled up right behind her.
“What happened?” Charlee asked as she slipped off her life jacket, voice calm. She pushed everything aside and focused on the boy, trying to ease his panic.
“Brittany said she dropped her phone and dove down to get it. But she didn’t come up, so Troy went in after her.”
Paul rammed his kayak into the others as he paddled over, eyes wild as he stripped off his life jacket. “Where’s Brittany?”
“We don’t know.” Luke’s eyes were miserable. “Troy dove in after her.”
Charlee eyed the life jackets both teens had left behind, and she turned to Paul. “Is Brittany a good swimmer?”
“I don’t know! Maybe. She used to be.”
Charlee turned to Wyatt, who shrugged, eyes wide and panicked. She turned to Luke. “What about Troy?” He nodded, and she heard a splash as Paul dove in after Brittany.
Seconds later, Troy popped to the surface. “I can’t find her!”
She glanced at all three boys, expression stern. “Stay here. I’ll get her.” She waited until they all nodded, and then dove into the river, straining to see through the tea-colored water. It was clear but brown from tannic acid.
She spun in a circle, waving her arms and legs as she turned, trying to connect with Brittany. She counted the seconds in her head as she expanded the search area, reaching wider, deeper. Come on, come on. Where are you?
A suffocating sense of déjà vu wanted to paralyze her, take her back to that day at the shoals, but she shoved it aside. If she let herself go there—for even one second—she wouldn’t be able to function. Just find Brittany.
She dove deeper. Yes. There. She reached a flailing arm and tried to pull Brittany up with her, but the girl wouldn’t budge. Was she stuck? Charlee felt her way down the girl’s torso and legs, finally realizing her foot was wedged under a log. She tugged and tugged, her lungs screaming for air, but she couldn’t pull Brittany free.
A flash of movement caught her peripheral vision, and suddenly, something grabbed her ankle in a viselike grip, clamped tight, and tried to drag her downriver. Her brain shouted alligator, but she didn’t feel teeth, just an unbreakable hold she couldn’t escape even though she kicked with all her strength. No. No. No. Let go.
Frantic, Charlee kept kicking with both legs, desperate to free herself. If she didn’t get more air, quickly, she and Brittany would both drown.
She finally broke free, sent up a quick prayer of thanks, and latched on to Brittany’s arm. She fought the current as she felt her way down Brittany’s body to find the submerged tree that trapped her. Charlee braced her feet against the trunk and pushed with everything
she had. She managed to move it just far enough to slip Brittany’s foot free.
Lungs screaming for air, Charlee grabbed the girl to guide her to the surface, but Brittany just floated in the water. Another wave of panic clawed at Charlee’s throat. Not again. Not again. Not again.
She grabbed Brittany around the waist and used her legs to propel them to the surface. Once they popped up, Charlee spun Brittany face up so she could get air while she towed the girl to shore.
Her feet touched the bottom near the banks, and she staggered through the mud until she found solid footing near a fallen cypress tree, then stood, pulling Brittany up with her. She had to get the girl up on shore, start CPR.
As she straightened, the water around her suddenly exploded, and she heard several loud bangs in rapid succession. Water splashed her face, momentarily disorienting her. But then the noise registered.
Someone was shooting at them!
“Heart-pounding excitement…left me sitting on the edge of my seat.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author DEBBIE MACOMBER for Angel Falls
Author website: https://www.conniemann.com/
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