By: Sandra Brown
After Kendall Keaton pulls herself and her baby out of a wrecked car, a mixture of courage and terror gets her to the top of a ravine, where she flags down help. But she doesn't dare give the hospital her real name or the true identity of the car's injured driver. She tells them only that he is her husband. And as quickly as she can, she starts to plan their escape. Kendall's nightmare began when she came to Prosper, South Carolina, to be the best public defender the county ever had. She quickly fell in love with Prosper's most eligible bachelor, and after a whirlwind courtship had a fairy-tale perfect wedding. Her father-in-law made her feel like part of the family, the kind of close, loving family she had always dreamed could be hers. When she became pregnant, Kendall's happiness seemed complete. She never suspected that coming to Prosper had plunged her into the midst of a chilling conspiracy of bigotry and hate or that she had become a player in an abhorrent deception. Soon Kendall starts losing cases she should have won. She feels surrounded by whispers and secrets, fear, and frightened eyes. Finally Kendall becomes a witness to a horrifying crime. With shocking clarity she realizes she has misjudged the people around her. Worst of all, she has confused the happiness she wanted so badly with the nightmare she is now forced to endure-a precarious existence that will keep her on the run until justice prevails in Prosper...and until her child is safe.
The infant's mouth sucked at his mother's breast.
"He seems like a real happy baby," the nurse observed. "Somehow you can just tell whether or not a baby's contented.
I'd say that one is."
Kendall managed only a weak smile. She could barely form a coherent thought, much less engage in conversation. Her mind was still trying to absorb the fact that she and her child had survived the accident.
In the examination room of the hospital's emergency wing, a sheer yellow curtain provided patients with a minimum of privacy from the corridor. Next to the white metal cabinets that stored bandages, syringes, and splints was a stainless steel sink.
Kendall sat on a padded table in the center of the cubicle cradling her baby son in her arms.
"How old is he?" the nurse asked.
"Only three months? He's a big one!"
"He's very healthy."
"What'd you say his name is?"
The nurse smiled down at them, then shook her head in wonder and awe. "It's a miracle that you two walked away from that wreck. Must've been awful for you, honey. Weren't you scared half out of your wits?"
The accident had happened too quickly for fear to register.
The car was practically on top of the felled tree before it became visible through the downpour. The passenger in the front seat had shouted a warning, and the driver had sharply cut the steering wheel and stomped on the brake, but it had been too late.
Once the tires lost traction on the wet pavement, the car went into a 180-degree spin that propelled it off the road and across the soft, narrow shoulder. It leveled the inadequate barricade. From there, it was a matter of physics and gravity.
Kendall recalled the sounds as the car plunged down the heavily vegetated ravine. Tree limbs scraped off pains, peeled away the rubber nick guards, and knocked off hubcaps. Windows shattered. The car's chassis was brutalized by boulders and tree stumps. Oddly, no one inside the car uttered a sound.
She supposed resignation had rendered them silent.
Although she'd anticipated the inevitable final crash, the impact of the car hitting the massive pine tree that blocked its path was incredible.
Inertia forced the rear wheels off the ground. When the car crashed down again, it landed with the graceless, solid thud of a mortally wounded buffalo, then seemed to emit a wheezing death rattle.
In the backseat, strapped in by seat belt and shoulder harness, Kendall had survived. And even though the car was precariously perched on the steep slope, she had managed to get out of the wreckage with Kevin in her arms.
"That's rugged country out there," the nurse observed.
"How in the world did you climb out of that ravine?"
It hadn't been easy.
She'd known that the climb back up to the road would be difficult, but she'd underestimated the physical effort it required.
protecting Kevin in the process had made it doubly tough.
The terrain wasn't sympathetic; the weather was downright hostile. The ground was a mush of humus and mud. Covering it was a tangled blanket of undergrowth interspersed with jutting rocks. The wind-driven rain was falling almost horizontally, and in minutes she was soaked to the skin.
The muscles of her arms, legs, and back began to burn with fatigue and strain before she had covered a third of the distance.
Her exposed skin had been gouged, scraped, cut, bruised, and lashed. At several points she had thought it was futile and longed to surrender, to stop and sleep until the elements claimed albeit lives.
But the survival instinct was stronger than that lulling temptation, so she kept going. Using vines and boulders for handgrips and footholds, she had pulled herself up until she finally reached the road, where she began walking to seek help.
She had been on the verge of delirium when a pair of head lights appeared through the rain. Relief and exhaustion over came her. Rather than run toward the car, she had collapsed to her knees on the center stripe of the narrow country road, waiting for the car to reach her.
Her rescuer was a garrulous woman on her way to a Wednesday night prayer meeting. She drove Kendall to the nearest house and notified the authorities of the accident. It amazed Kendall to learn later that she had walked only a mile from the site of the accident. It had seemed like ten.
She and Kevin had been transported by ambulance to the nearest community hospital, where they were given thorough examinations Kevin was uninjured. He had been nursing when the car plunged over the cliff. Acting on instinct, Ken dall had clutched him to her breast and bent forward before the shoulder harness caught and held. Her body had protected him.
Her numerous cuts and scrapes were painful but superficial.
Splinters of glass had been picked out of her arms individually, an uncomfortable and time-consuming process but insignificant when compared to what she might have suffered. Her wounds were treated with a local antiseptic; she had declined a painkiller because she was breast-feeding.
Besides, now that they had been rescued and medically treated, she had to figure out how to sneak away. Sedated, she would be unable to think straight. In order to plan another disappearance, she needed a clear head.
"Is it okay if the deputy sheriff comes in now?"
"Sheriff?" Kendall repeated. The nurse's question had jarred her from her musings.
"He's been waiting to talk to you ever since they brought you in. He's got to go over the official stuff with you."
"Oh. Of course. Ask him to come in."
Having nursed his fill, Kevin was now sleeping peacefully.
Kendall pulled together the hospital tunic that she had been given after stripping off her wet, dirty, bloody clothes and taking a hot shower.
At a signal from the nurse, the local lawman stepped through the curtain and nodded in greeting. "How're you doin', ma'am? Y'all okay?" He politely removed his hat and looked at her with concern.
"We're fine, I think." She cleared her throat and tried for more conviction. "We're fine."
"I'd say y'all're real lucky to be alive and all in one piece, ma'am."
"Easy to see how it happened, what with that felled tree lying across the road and all. Lightning got it. Broke it clean off at ground level. Been storming 'round here for days. Seems like the rain ain't never gonna quit. Floodin' all over the region. Ain't no wonder to me that gingham Creek sucked your car clean out of sight."
The creek had been no more than ten yards in front of the battered car. Once she had climbed out of the wreckage, she had crouched in the mud and stared at the creek with fascination and fear. The muddy water had crested far above flood level, carrying with it all manner of debris. It roiled around trees that lined its normally placid banks.
She shuddered to think what would have been their fate if the car had skidded a few more yards following its collision with the tree. She had watched in horror as the car slid down the incline and was claimed by the raging creek.
For several moments the car had remained buoyant, bob bing its way to the middle of the swift stream before flipping into a nose dive. Within seconds it had disappeared beneath the churning surface. Aside from the scars left on the trunk of the felled pine tree and the deep, parallel furrows plowed by the tires, the accident had left the landscape unscathed.
"Miracle y'all got out in time and didn't drown when it went down," the deputy was saying.
"Not all of us got out," Kendall corrected him in an emotion-husky voice. "There was a passenger in the front seat.
She went down with the car."
At the mention of a fatality, the deputy's routine interrogation suddenly became anything but routine. He frowned.
"What? A passenger?"
As though watching from outside herself, Kendall saw her face crumple as she began to cry, a delayed reaction to the trauma. "I'm sorry."
The nurse passed her a box of Kleenex and patted her shoulder. "It's okay, honey. After the brave thing you did, you just go right ahead and bawl all you want to."
"Didn't know there was anybody else in the car 'cept you, your baby, and the driver," the deputy said quietly, in def erence to her emotional state.
Kendall blotted her nose. "She was in the passenger seat and was already dead when the car went into the creek. She probably died instantly, upon impact."
After making certain that Kevin was unharmed, and noting how quickly the creek was rising, Kendall had approached the passenger side of the car with trepidation, almost certain of what she would find. This side had sustained the brunt of the collision. The door was caved in and the window had been broken out.
At a glance, Kendall had known the woman inside was dead. Her pleasant features were no longer recognizable from the facial bones and tissue that had been ravaged. The dash board and a mishmash of engine parts had been driven into her chest cavity. Her head lolled against the headrest at an unnatural angle.
Ignoring the blood and gore, Kendall had reached in and pressed her fingers against the woman's neck in the vicinity of the carotid artery. She felt no pulse.
"I thought I should try and save the rest of us," she explained to the deputy after describing the scene. "I wish I could have gotten her out, too, but, knowing that she was already dead"
"Under the circumstances you did what you had to do, little lady. You saved the living. Nobody can fault you for the choice you made." He nodded down at the sleeping infant. "You did a damn sight more than anybody could ask of you. How'd you go about getting the driver out?"
After determining that the passenger was dead, Kendall had laid Kevin on the ground and covered his face with a corner of his blanket. Although he would be uncomfortable, he would be safe for the moment. Then she stumbled around to the other side of the car. The driver's head was slumped over the steering wheel. Swallowing her dread, Kendall had called his name and pressed his shoulder.
She remembered giving it a slight shake, and how startled she'd been when this caused him to flop backward against the seat. She had recoiled as blood trickled from the corner of his slack lips. There was a deep gash on his right temple; otherwise his face was intact. His eyes were closed and still, but at that point she wasn't certain that he was dead. She reached in and placed her hand on his chest.
He had a heartbeat.
Then, without warning, the car had shifted on the uneven ground and slid several feet down the slope, dragging her along with it. Her arm, still inside the car, was nearly wrenched from its socket.
The auto came to a rocking, unsteady rest, but she'd known it was only a matter of time before it would be swallowed by the floodwaters, which were already lapping at the tires.
Saturated ground was giving way beneath the weight of the car. There had been no time to contemplate the situation, or to carefully weigh her options, or to consider how badly she wanted to be rid of him.
She had every reason to fear and despise him. But she didn't wish him dead. She would never want that. A life, any life, was worth saving.
So, with a surge of adrenaline, she used her bare hands to scoop aside mud and tear at tenacious vines that prevented her from opening the driver's door.