Drowning tides, p.1
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       Drowning Tides, p.1

           Karen Harper
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Drowning Tides


  Danger is never far off...

  When forensic psychologist Claire Britten started working with lawyer Nick Markwood on his South Shores project, she had no idea it would endanger her life—and the life of her daughter. But when the little girl goes missing from her South Florida home and Nick insists his longtime nemesis is to blame, Claire frantically follows the trail to the Cayman Islands, desperate to save her daughter before it’s too late.

  Nick always knew the man who staged his father’s “suicide” was out to get him, but kidnapping the child of someone he cares about is despicable. Finding the billionaire criminal is one thing—meeting his demands in order to save Claire’s daughter is quite another. What he wants threatens their professional and personal interests beyond imagination...but what choice do they have when a child’s life is on the line?

  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

  South Shores

  CHASING SHADOWS

  Cold Creek

  BROKEN BONDS

  FORBIDDEN GROUND

  SHATTERED SECRETS

  Home Valley Amish

  UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT

  DARK CROSSINGS (featuring “The Covered Bridge”)

  FINDING MERCY

  RETURN TO GRACE

  FALL FROM PRIDE

  Novels

  DOWN RIVER

  DEEP DOWN

  THE HIDING PLACE

  BELOW THE SURFACE

  INFERNO

  HURRICANE

  DARK ANGEL

  DARK HARVEST

  DARK ROAD HOME

  Visit karenharperauthor.com for more titles.

  Look for Karen Harper’s next South Shores novel

  FALLING DARKNESS

  available soon from MIRA Books.

  KAREN

  HARPER

  DROWNING TIDES

  To our Boca Ciega friends

  Jim and Lee Ann Parsons

  and my Naples, Florida, readers.

  Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Author’s Note

  Excerpt from Falling Darkness by Karen Harper

  1

  2014

  “I’ll get her back, Claire. I swear to you, I’ll get your daughter back.”

  “We’ll get her back together,” she insisted, turning toward Nick as he drove the rental car across I-75 to Miami where they would catch their plane.

  Thank God, Claire thought, Florida was narrow west to east, but the drive across the state on what Floridians called Alligator Alley seemed endless. Claire’s four-year-old daughter, Lexi, had been kidnapped, taken to the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman. They had round-trip Cayman Airways tickets, leaving this morning from Miami and getting in to Grand Cayman early afternoon. They also had reservations for a place to stay on the island—all provided by the kidnapper who wanted much more than Lexi.

  Claire clenched her hands so tightly in her lap that her fingers went numb. She frowned at the canal where alligators basked like logs in the early morning sun, and white herons and ibis fluttered in the tops of mangrove trees. Early October was just past the rainy season, and the air seemed crystal clear. But nothing looked beautiful to her anymore.

  How could she ever have imagined when she went to work for criminal lawyer Nick Markwood that it would come to this? The two of them had been through hell enough already, but this horror was so much worse.

  “Let’s go over some things again,” Nick said.

  Ever clever, seemingly calm, even in the chaos of his own life, and now hers and Lexi’s too, Claire thought. But she clung to that. She needed that—and him.

  “Yes. Yes, all right,” she agreed. “I know we have to go along with him, play by his rules. But we have to find his weakness, a way to save Lexi and you too—if he lets any of us go.”

  “Clayton Ames controls people the way he does his international business empire,” Nick said of the sixty-four-year-old billionaire business mogul.

  “Except for you. He found he couldn’t control you, that you would pursue him for your father’s murder, even if he had it staged to look like a suicide. You’d think by now he’d ignore your attempts to prove that, since he always just slips out of reach. Nick, that’s what terrifies me about him having Lexi—and soon having us. He can make people disappear.”

  A noisy semi went around their car with a deep honk of its horn. They passed the exit to the Miccosukee Seminole Indian reservation on the edge of Everglades National Park. The lush foliage merged with the saw grass prairie of the Glades with its tree-filled raised mounds called hammocks. At last a scattering of West Coast buildings appeared along with green-and-white highway signs to Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

  She stared at Nick’s profile, which was seemingly set in stone. She was grateful he was as obsessed with saving Lexi as she was, and she loved him all the more for it. It seemed the long night they’d spent planning and packing had etched deeper lines on his chiseled face. The silver streaks along the temples of his dark hair seem
ed more pronounced and his gray eyes more intense than even during the days they’d struggled to get answers and stay alive on the St. Augustine murder/suicide case. He suddenly looked older than thirty-nine, but then, she felt far beyond thirty-two today.

  How ironic she’d decided she would not work as his forensic psychologist again if an assignment took her away from Lexi, and now her daughter had been taken away from her—from her own front yard. Claire had vowed she’d stay home in Naples and stick to more mundane investigations through her Clear Path fraud-fighting website, but here they were, more desperate than ever.

  “As I said, expect the worst from Clayton Ames,” Nick told her, his voice hard as it always was when he spoke of his archenemy. “We have to watch what we say at all times, in the airport, on the plane, even once we get to our Grand Cayman hotel, because he could have places bugged or his lackeys hovering. Expect to be under invisible surveillance day and night. We’ll walk on the beach away from others if we want to be sure we’re not overheard. Nothing about Jace, especially. He’s risking his neck to fly down on his own in case we need him.”

  It went unspoken between them that they couldn’t have stopped Jace Britten anyway. Her ex-husband had arrived at Claire’s house just after Lexi was taken and saw the threatening note the drone had delivered. Lexi’s abductor had evidently driven a car like Jace’s and even resembled him to a degree, to get the child close enough to grab. But Claire had to agree with Nick that Jace could be a loose cannon in all this.

  “Jace and I may be divorced, but he’d do anything for Lexi.”

  “And for you,” he said, turning to shoot her a sudden stare before looking back to the road. “He still cares for you a lot.”

  “I’ll never forgive myself if his plan to fly down there on his own blows up. He’s a skilled pilot and used to jets, so it’s not that. But rather if he’s harmed once he’s there or ruins our chances of getting Lexi back.”

  “At least he knows the stakes. But as I said, Ames likes to know exactly what his competitors, even in business, are saying and thinking, what’s going on. I wouldn’t have rented this car at the last minute if I didn’t think he’d manage to bug my other one.”

  “I know,” she said, her voice shaky. She looked at the narrow, deep waterways that ran along this four-lane highway. “I’ll be careful what I say and when.” She turned toward him, tugging her seat belt out to give herself room to sit sideways. “Nick, I can’t thank you enough for risking yourself to get Lexi back. I know Ames means to harm you.”

  “He does, but I’m banking on the fact he likes to exert his power, make his enemies twist and turn, control and ruin them, torment them. I’m hoping he means to make me toe his line somehow, not just trade my life for hers.”

  Claire broke into tears again when she’d tried since yesterday to keep calm. But she felt she was spiraling down into a dark hole. At least she didn’t have a horrible dream last night from her narcolepsy in the half hour she’d gone to sleep. Right now, she didn’t need her so-called “sleeping disease” or her powerful meds that controlled it. Despite her deep exhaustion, for once, she couldn’t sleep.

  “Sorry. I’m okay. I mean, not okay, but holding up. Really,” she tried to assure him as she grabbed for a tissue in her purse on the car floor and swiped under her eyes.

  “I’m sorry too, sweetheart,” Nick said, reaching over the console to grip her knee with one hand. “But, despite all this, I can’t be sorry we met, that we—we care for each other. Again, I swear to you on my life, we will get Lexi back and get through this. Then I’ll leave your life so that bastard doesn’t try to use you and those you love to get to me again.”

  A tear trickled down Nick’s cheek from under his sunglasses, but, focused on the road again, he ignored it. She loved him desperately despite hating him too over this—didn’t she?

  Claire made herself look away from him. Fear was on his face but fury too. Did he know her heart was broken not only over Lexi but over what he’d just said—that once they got her back, Nick would leave their lives?

  * * *

  As Nick took the turn south toward Miami International Airport through a maze of curved and elevated ramps and overhead signs, the horrible day he’d found his father dead came back to him. That waking nightmare crashed in on him sometimes when he least expected it. His attorney dad whom he adored and had later patterned himself after, dead. His head partly gone. Pistol in hand. Blood spatter and brain matter on the wall behind his desk.

  He heard again his own shrill, young voice. “Dad! Dad! Dad!”

  Obviously a suicide, the coroner ruled: late at night, wife out of town, son supposedly asleep upstairs, trajectory of the bullet, spatter pattern, only the deceased’s fingerprints on the gun. And the fact his father had recently lost huge real estate investments, ones he’d made on the advice of his trusted friend, Clayton Ames, Nick’s “Uncle Clay.” Later, in his teens, Nick had found papers stashed in a metal box that showed his father had meant to expose Ames as a cheat and fraud.

  But Nick had known even then, his mother did too, that Dad would not have killed himself and left them broke and bereft like that. The only good thing that had come from their public family tragedy was Nick’s dedication to become a criminal lawyer and eventually to found two entities to help distraught people: Markwood, Benton and Chase, LLP, the law firm in which he was a senior partner; and South Shores, a secret, separate enterprise that sought out and defended those who were wrongly accused of or ruined by murder or suicide.

  Once he’d seen forensic psychologist Claire Britten testify in court about interviewing witnesses and suspects, he’d known he needed her on his South Shores team. The problem was, it hadn’t taken him long to learn he needed her in other ways too, though he’d tried not to mix purpose with pleasure. They had not yet made love, but he wanted her desperately. Before this chaos, he’d had hopes he could convince her they should be seriously looking at a life together. Now, he might even lose his life, but he was not going to forfeit hers—or Lexi’s.

  “You need to try to sleep or at least rest, now, on the plane too,” he told Claire. “We’re going to need, as they say, our wits about us.”

  “I can not only do my best, but what is necessary. My mother used to say that. I suppose she got it from one of her books she always had her nose in. My sister and I say it sometimes to get through tough times. Nick, I wish I could have told Darcy what happened. She’s going to think I’m nuts, that I’ve taken Lexi and run off with you, like I stupidly eloped with Jace. But I had to leave her that note about us taking time away so she wouldn’t call the cops. No cops, Ames’s note said.”

  “She’ll understand when you get Lexi back, when you can explain the truth, or some of it. We’ll be there soon. Trust me, Claire. Again, on my life, I swear we’ll get her back. Close your eyes. I’ve got to keep mine on this heavier traffic.”

  Out of the corner of his vision, he saw her settle back in her seat. But a big 747 jet taking off overhead from the Miami airport made her open her eyes again, sit forward and look up. Her ex was an international airline pilot, so what was she thinking in that beautiful head of hers? He was afraid to ask because he knew in his gut that she and Jace still cared for each other and not just because of the endangered child they shared.

  Besides, unfortunately, Jace was blond and rawboned handsome, a real take-charge guy. Emotional, even volatile for a former navy pilot, Nick thought, so that could spell more trouble if the guy was frustrated or cornered in Grand Cayman. Still, even when Jace Britten was angry, he radiated that top gun charisma women probably went for. Evidently, Claire had fallen for him and hard. She’d said she’d eloped with the guy.

  After she settled herself again in her seat, Nick stole one more glance at her. Her body stayed tense. Here in South Florida, she always seemed slightly unworldly, out of place with her porcelain complexion and stunning re
d hair—natural red hair, the color of a sunset over the Gulf. Most tourists and Floridians were tanned like he was, and her hue of hair was so—so Irish, or like a painting of an angel.

  But her delicate appearance was deceptive. She was strong, great at psyching out people’s lies and deceits and patching together the truth. She performed what lawyers called forensic autopsies, where a person, living or dead, was dissected through their statements and deeds to ferret out guilt. When he’d hired her, Claire already had a small consulting firm she called Clear Path. He wished he could find a clear path for her and Lexi—and himself—out of this looming catastrophe.

  He felt guilty that he’d caused this crisis and at how much he still wanted her. He figured she knew that. And he was scared, not at how finding someone he could trust and love had finally come his way, but that, even if he saved Lexi, he had to lose Claire so Ames couldn’t hurt her like this again.

  * * *

  Jace cruised over Cuba in the Cirrus SR22 turbocharged plane he’d borrowed from an old buddy who was a lot richer than he was. It was legal to pass over the embargoed island in a small plane. Several of his hotshot pilot friends had faked engine problems and asked for an emergency landing there just to look around in off-limits Havana. This was one heck of an emergency, but no way he was stopping anywhere but Grand Cayman.

  He planned to get there in slightly under the three-hour flight plan he’d filed back at the Marco Island Executive Airport. He’d picked that smaller facility instead of Naples Municipal Airport, hoping the spying eyes of that damned Clayton Ames would have more trouble finding him there. Jace had obviously been researched and watched. He’d been sent photos of Nick and Claire together at an address no average outsider should have, but Ames’s long arms seemed to pull a lot of strings. He felt really guilty that the guy who had snatched Lexi had resembled and pretended to be him.

  The distance was just under 400 nautical miles, and he was pushing the Cirrus near its top speed of 180 knots, hovering just under its ceiling of 17,500 feet since the plane was not pressurized and he didn’t want to mess with supplemental oxygen. He wanted to land at MWCR in the Cayman Islands as if he was a tourist. He’d case the area where Nick and Claire would be staying and, no doubt, where they would be contacted. Just as when he’d flown jumbo jets to Singapore and back or when he’d gone on Middle East combat missions, he wanted to be prepared and ready.

 

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