Falling Darkness--A Novel of Romantic SuspenseKaren Harper
At the mercy of a treacherous sea...
Claire Britten’s training never prepared her for this—the forensic psychology curriculum didn’t cover plane crashes. Or how to help fellow survivors cope, seven frightened people huddled in two small rafts awaiting a rescue that may never come. Especially when three of them are your ex-husband, your young daughter—and the man you love, Nick Markwood, whose pursuit by a criminal mastermind forced you all to run in the first place.
When the bedraggled crew finally reaches dry land, they are still far from safe. Nick tries to secure transport to their witness-protection placement, urging everyone to stick to the identities laid out for them. They don’t need any complications. But when danger follows them to their supposed safe haven, Claire and Nick no longer know who is helping or harming them. Racked by doubt and mistrust, still hunted, they must band together—or fall.
Praise for the novels of Karen Harper
“The thrilling finish takes a twist that most readers won’t see coming. While intrigue is the main driver of the story, the able, well-researched plotting and sympathetic characters will keep romance readers along for the ride.”
—Publishers Weekly on Broken Bonds
“Haunting suspense, tender romance and an evocative look at the complexities of Amish life—Dark Angel is simply riveting!”
—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author
“A compelling story... Intricate and fascinating details of Amish life.”
—Tami Hoag, New York Times bestselling author, on Dark Road Home
“Harper, a master of suspense, keeps readers guessing about crime and love until the very end...of this thrilling tale.”
—Booklist on Fall from Pride (starred review)
“Danger and romance find their way into Ohio Amish country in a lively and endearing first installment of the Amish Home Valley series.”
—Publishers Weekly on Fall from Pride
“A tale guaranteed to bring shivers to the spine, Down River will delight Harper’s current fans and earn her many more.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Well-researched and rich in detail... With its tantalizing buildup and well-developed characters, this offering is certain to earn Harper high marks.”
—Publishers Weekly on Dark Angel, winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award
Also available from
New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper
Home Valley Amish
UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT
DARK CROSSINGS (featuring “The Covered Bridge”)
RETURN TO GRACE
FALL FROM PRIDE
THE HIDING PLACE
BELOW THE SURFACE
DARK ROAD HOME
Visit karenharperauthor.com for more titles.
Look for Karen Harper’s next South Shores novel, coming soon from MIRA Books.
I would like to thank Mary Ann and Dr. Roy Manning and Lee Ann and Jim Parsons for their friendship to us and for helpful background information for this novel.
After their airplane skidded over the water and sank, their two life rafts tied together seemed so small in the vast, dark sea. Claire held her four-year-old daughter, Lexi, close to keep her warm and calm, though she was neither of those things herself. The child had gone silent, no more screams or sobs. Claire’s husband Nick’s arm around them felt like a band of iron, a moving one, since he too was shaking from the cold and shock.
Her ex-husband, Jace—Lexi’s father—was the third person in their raft. He’d been the pilot of the borrowed private plane that had nearly plunged all seven of them beneath the surface to drown. So far, only Lexi’s nanny, Nita, in the next raft had been seasick, though they were all sick at heart and scared to death. Nita was praying aloud and, no doubt, the others were doing so silently.
“Where are we, really?” Lexi asked. “Near a beach at home?”
Her teeth chattering, Claire told her, “Not quite, but off the coast of Florida.” She didn’t add they were in the wide Straits of Florida but much closer to dangerous, forbidden Cuba.
The sea, so rough at first that their little rubber islands had slid from trough to trough, seemed to be calming now. Breaks in the clouds revealed a scattering of stars that looked like they were dancing and a crooked sliver of moon like a sharp, tilted smile.
“Nobody’s gonna find us til mornin’.” Bronco, their family bodyguard, spoke up from the other raft. The big, bold man was trying to be strong, but his voice quavered too.
Nita, who had been moaning, began to cry again, though she was sheltered in the other raft between her cousin Hector, called Heck, Nick’s tech genius, and Bronco, who had his arms around her.
Heck said, “Yeah, well, we’re valuable to the FBI, so they’ll have their net out for us. Just hope someone else doesn’t, and they tampered with the plane. You-know-who has a long arm—and an army of spies.”
“That can’t be,” Nick said. “Before we took off, Jace checked the plane and Bronco guarded it. It had to be a malfunction, not sabotage.”
Bronco said, “But you know, boss, the plane was parked by that dark Key West field. I didn’t tell you, but some guy came up and asked me how much it cost. Took my eyes off the plane to get rid of him, head him back to the terminal.”
“I did all the checkups,” Jace told them, “but that was before I hit the john when all of you were still in the terminal. I still can’t believe it. And since the FBI arranged for that plane, who knows if we can trust them? Maybe you-know-who got to them too, or at least to that contact guy Patterson. I don’t trust anyone anymore—except you, Lexi,” he added and rubbed the child’s back.
“And you trust Mommy and Nick too!” she insisted.
�Listen up, all of you.” Nick took over the conversation again, like them, raising his voice to be heard over the wind and waves. “So far our adversary’s dealt in torment, not total annihilation.”
Lexi stirred against Claire. “What’s nilation?”
“Don’t worry about that, or anything,” Claire whispered to her. Nick was evidently using big words so Lexi wouldn’t catch on to the deadly mess they were in whether they were rescued from the water or were onshore.
They had fled Florida with the help of the Federal Witness Protection Program, WITSEC, to stay safe until the US government could locate and extradite Nick’s nemesis, a powerful international businessman with a long reach. The FBI wanted their hands on Clayton Ames as badly as Nick did, but Ames made a habit of living abroad and moving around. When it came to catching, extraditing and prosecuting the man who was now among the US government’s most wanted, Claire knew Nick wished he was a vigilante or hit man instead of a criminal lawyer who could only accuse and testify.
“Okay, enough about all that for now,” Nick said. “Whoever rescues us, the new identification papers I have for all of us in this waterproof pouch are what we will have to go by. Lexi, we are going to have new, pretend names for a while, but it’s a secret only the seven of us can share. I was telling you on the plane that we are going to live in a new place for a while, and we need to learn these names and the story of where we came from.”
“Is it like a game?”
“Yes, but a very serious, important game.”
“Like life,” Jace muttered. Then he said louder, “That box I had strapped to my wrist has some drinking water, some medical supplies and a few rations. Semper paratus, semper fi. Listen up, everybody. You’re with a former navy pilot who has never crashed before but has training for it. We’re going to be rescued, but meanwhile, we need to keep our heads up and work together. Like Claire said when we first made it into the rafts, we’ll be okay.”
Tears stung Claire’s eyes and not just from the saltwater spray. The only two men she’d ever loved were with her: Jace, her ex, who had claimed he still loved her when he’d helped her out of the sinking plane and into the raft; and Nick, who had taken her life and love by storm. They had been forced by his nemesis, Clayton Ames, to marry, but she had come to not only desire but love Nick. Thank God the three of them were getting along in this desperate flight. But to live all together as the WITSEC program had planned? That scared her almost as much as this shifting, sliding, endless sea.
* * *
As dawn broke, raising their hopes they would be spotted, Jace passed around the water canteen again so they could each take a drink as a chaser after a tasteless biscuit. Nick saw that Jace had put the dry jacket he had loaned him around Lexi. Jace looked like a Viking at sea, ruddy and blond compared to Nick’s dark hair dusted with silver.
The two men’s gazes met. They’d been at loggerheads over Claire, so Nick hoped they could work together to be rescued. But their hideout plans for that had been for Northern Michigan, not on a rubber raft in the middle of the Straits of Florida.
Nick looked away and hit his fist hard on his knee. He’d left his prosperous Naples, Florida, law firm of Markwood, Benton and Chase in the hands of the other partners. He’d used the cover story he was leaving immediately for Belgium to assist an important government figure with legal advice. He’d told them he was taking his family and a small support staff with him and asked them to cover his cases.
True, they were used to his going off to work on his private South Shores project, for which he advised and sometimes defended people shattered by suicides that could be murders. But his lies haunted him, since he wasn’t allowed to trust anyone but this group with the knowledge of his part in the Witness Protection Program, which was run under the aegis of the FBI.
Hell, he thought, forget the desertion of his friends and his law firm being the worst that could happen. Not only had their plane crashed, but he’d just seen a fin—more than one—slice through a wave near them. Sharks! Who knew how long they’d been so close in the dark. And Jace had fallen into the water getting them off the plane.
A shark—that was the way he’d always thought of the man he was certain had not only ruined his father financially, but had murdered him too and made it look like a cowardly suicide. Clayton Ames, a deadly, devouring shark.
“Jace!” Nick hissed, and the man’s eyes flew open.
What? Jace mouthed. Nick pointed at the circling fins and read Jace’s lips as he cursed silently. There were at least three sharks near them.
Nick noted Heck had seen them too. His right-hand man had mentioned these waters were full of them, a threat to Cubans fleeing the island, though it hadn’t stopped the influx to the States. The refugees included Heck’s and Nita’s Cuban parents years ago, looking for a better life for their families. It was what he wanted for his new family. Maybe he should have stuck it out in Naples, though Ames knew they were all there. He had to be stopped, and the US government’s help was the best way.
“Time for the name game,” Jace whispered. “Let’s not focus on new dangers.”
“Hard not to,” Claire put in, as she’d seen them too.
Nick wondered how she had stayed so calm. Despite her disease of narcolepsy, the woman had guts and stamina. He’d seen that up close and personal in the two murder/suicide cases they’d worked together. He also saw now that, though her eyes were wide on the fins, she quickly shifted Lexi lower between her spread legs rather than on her lap so that the girl could not see the sharks. Now, if only everyone else would keep their mouths shut...
“Let’s not talk at all about things we see here,” Claire called out, “but instead learn our new names and identities. That way, when we get ashore, we can just get some help before we all head to Michigan—to Mackinac Island, with all the horses, remember, Lexi?”
“I’m going to find one I like to ride.”
“Right,” Nick said, opening the seal on the plastic pouch he wore under his shirt like a wide belt. He’d kept their newly created passports, credit cards and quite a lot of cash in mostly big bills dry. He pulled out what he’d thought of as his cheat sheet with the names he and Rob Patterson, their FBI contact, had come up with for everyone.
“Okay,” he said, giving his stepdaughter a one-armed hug, “we will start with Lexi. Our family’s new last name—you, Lexi, your mom and me—is Randal. Oh, yeah, Jace’s too.” He spelled Randal and let her repeat it. He tried to ignore Jace’s scowl. As supportive as he was being, since he was on Ames’s hit list too, Nick knew Jace was thoroughly teed off that he had to act the part of Nick’s brother and Lexi’s uncle.
“And your first name, Miss Randal,” Nick went on to Lexi, “is Megan, but you can be called Meggie if you want. It’s up to you.”
For a moment he figured she was going to say she wanted to keep her own name or take her best friend and cousin’s name Jilly, but she said, “Meggie is more like me.”
“Good!” he said. “Did everybody hear that? This is Meggie Randal. Her mother’s name is Jenna Randal, mine is Jack Randal, and Jace is Seth Randal, my brother and Le—Meggie’s uncle.”
They all went around and said their new names: Heck was now Roberto, called Berto, Ochoa; Nita was his cousin, Lorena Ochoa; and Bronco Gates was Cody Carson.
Bronco piped up. “Suits me. Nothin’ much suits me but glad I’m here to help all you and ’specially Lorena Ochoa, here,” he said, giving Nita’s shoulders a squeeze. “Glad to make your ’quaintance, Senorita Lorena.”
Heck rolled his eyes and shook his head over that. He knew Bronco had eyes for Nita, and that obviously annoyed him. No, he must be looking at the sharks again, staring off a ways at the horizon.
But was Jace nuts? He was getting to his knees in the raft, rocking it more than the waves did.
“Seth,” Nick said. “What?”
“To the south. Is that a boat?” he asked, pointing.
Everyone sat up and craned to look. It was, even though the silhouette was small. It was slow moving but seemed to be coming straight for them.
“We need to make a flag, a banner that shows up against the sea and sky.”
“I’m wearing something bright,” Nita said. “My skirt.” Without a moment’s hesitation, she wriggled out of it as Heck twisted around to look at the boat again and Bronco stripped off his jacket to cover her panties and bare legs.
“Everyone sit tight!” Jace ordered. “I’m the only one who stands.”
Nick tried to brace Jace’s legs as he got up and stood shakily. Using his arm as a flagpole, he waved the bright pink skirt until they were certain the small vessel turned even more their way. Unfortunately, the sharks were still circling, and the ramshackle craft looked like it was coming from the direction of Cuba, where it was rumored Ames might be living all cozy with the Castro brothers. So, Nick thought, as desperate as they were, with all the deceit and treachery they’d faced already, would the boat bring friend or foe?
Claire prayed silently that the boat would be American, but, as it came closer from the south, she knew better. It was all wood, with peeling green-and-white paint, draped with fishing nets, old and battered, maybe twenty-five feet long, so unlike the solid, sleeker fishing boats she’d seen going out of Naples or Miami. Held up by four poles, a makeshift canvas canopy flapped over the back half of the boat. The hand-painted name on the prow read Alfredito, and the flag that flapped above the stern had blue and white stripes and a single white star in a red triangle.
“Cuban,” Nick said over the loud but uneven sound of the motor. “But not an official boat and with only one man. I think we’re safe, but can we get him to take us north, not south? I have some cash. Heck, you do the talking. Maybe he doesn’t even speak English.”
Claire knew some Spanish but only caught a quick word or two in the shouted, rapid-fire exchange between the fisherman—if that was what he was—and Heck. She’d learned not to trust anyone but those closest to her since she’d worked two cases with Nick and had seen Clayton Ames up close and personal.