Authors: Sharon Sala
“Well-developed secondary characters and a surprising ending spice up Sala's latest romantic intrigue.”
“Wear a corset, because your sides will hurt from laughing! This is Sharon Sala at top form. You're going to love this touching and memorable book.”
New York Times
bestselling author Debbie Macomber on
“Ms. Sala draws you in from the very beginning. She delivers main characters who will touch your hearts and quirky secondary characters who will intrigue you as you try to figure out whodunit.”
Romantic Times BOOKclub
is a funny, heartwarming story, set in a raw, untamed land and rich with indelible characters that will stay with you long after the last page is turned. I didn't want it to be over.”
New York Times
bestselling author of
A Place to Call Home
“Once again, Sharon Sala does a first-rate job at blending richly developed characters and inspired plotting into an unforgettable read.”
Romantic Times BOOKclub
OUT OF THE DARK
Growing up the child of an alcoholic father, I felt branded by his weakness. His shame became my shame, and as I grew older, I feared his faults would surely be my own.
It has taken me a lifetime to learn that, despite what is often said, the sins of the father do not visit themselves upon the child.
I am not less, nor am I more, than the man my father was, or what he became after twenty-one years in recovery. I am just me. Responsible only to myself and to God.
And for all of my readers, who not only bore but overcame the mark of someone else's shame, this book is for you.
f Avery Wheeler hadn't robbed an armored truck in Farmington, Maine, and taken a woman hostage, the state police would never have given chase when he headed north up Highway 27. He made it all the way to the outskirts of Stanton before taking a side road toward Flagstaff Lake. The police were only a minute or so behind him, and even though it was almost dark, he knew he wasn't going to make it to the Canadian border before they caught up with him. His plan, for the moment, was to get lost in the woods around the lake and hope for the best.
At that point he was wishing he hadn't dropped out of high school back in the seventies and had taken that job in his uncle's meatpacking business. Even more, he wished to hell he'd never laid eyes on the woman in the seat beside him. She hadn't stopped screaming since he'd shoved her in the car at gunpoint. Now all he wanted was to start this day over. But since that wasn't possible, he opted for making a new start, and to do that, he had to get rid of the police and that damned screaming clerk. As he rounded a curve in the road, he saw the opportunity to do both.
With the setting sun coming in through the driver's side of the windows and the dark water of Flagstaff Lake before him, he unbuckled his seat belt, lowered the window, then stomped on the gas. The force of the acceleration slammed both him and his hostage against the back of the seat. Gritting his teeth, he braced himself against the steering wheel while the decibels of her shrieks rose. Out of patience and time, he backhanded the woman into a state of semiconsciousness as the car went airborne.
The silence that followed was surreal. Even the sirens from the police cars seemed to fade. For Avery, everything began passing in slow motion.
The slight whistle of the wind coming in through the open window blew soft against his cheek.
The last rays of the dying sun glittered on the dark, mirrored water like broken glass on spilled coffee.
The soft moan coming from the woman's lips mingled with his own panicked breaths as the water grew nearer and nearer.
Then they hit.
The impact was sharp and jarring, and Avery wondered how something so fluid could be so hard. The displaced water sent a ten-foot spray into the air, and then the car began sinking, faster than he would have imagined. When the water began spilling in through the open window, his heartbeat accelerated, even though this was exactly what he'd planned. He reached into the seat behind him and grabbed the bag with the stolen money. As he did, the woman he'd taken hostage began to come around.
A thin trickle of blood was coming out of her nose from where he'd hit her, and when she reached toward her face, it smeared across her cheek. She opened her eyes in blank confusion, then reached down for her seat belt, brushing at the water on her clothes as if it was dust. When it wouldn't come off, she looked up at him with a wide, frantic stare.
“Can you swim?” he asked.
She shook her head no.
“Sorry,” he muttered, and pushed the front seat all the way back to give himself more room in which to maneuver out the window. She was going to drown. There was nothing he could do about that.
“Don't leave me!” she screamed, and grabbed at his arm.
He hit her with his fist. Her head snapped backward from the blow as she slumped down into the seat.
“You'll thank me later,” he muttered. At least her death would be painless.
As he started out the window, the car began to flip. Panicked, he slung the shoulder strap of the bag over his head and began climbing out the window, desperate not to get caught in the sucking undertow. Twice the bag got caughtâonce on the gearshift and once on the side-view mirror on the outside of the door. Both times he thought about just letting go and saving himself, but he'd gotten into this mess because of the money. He wasn't yet ready to give it up.
Suddenly he was free, and the elation of the moment gave him renewed hope. He felt along the underside of the frame until he came to a wheel, climbed up on it and pushed himself off, praying that he was swimming up and not down.
The water felt thick, as if he was swimming in gelatin. He knew it was from the weight of the bag, but he was strong and a damned good swimmer. Moments later he surfaced, only to realize the sun had gone down. Treading water, he dared a glance at the shore. Although he could hear shouts from the police who had finally arrived, all he could see were the red-and-blue flashing lights and the vague silhouettes of the men as they ran back and forth in front of the cars. He didn't think they could see him any better than he could see them, but the knowledge that they might made him swim even harder. He swam and he swam, until his arms felt like lead and his lungs were about to burst.
Once again treading water, he stopped and looked behind him. The shore he'd come from was alive with flashing lights and the faint sounds of men's voices, shouting to one another. With a satisfied grin, he tugged the heavy wet bag to a more comfortable position and began to swim again. The opposite shore was nothing but a vague blur above the surface of the black water, but he could see one small lightâprobably someone's porch lightâthrough the trees. He fixed his eyes on that light and began to stroke.
At first he didn't even feel the pain in his chest because the water was so cold. But when it spread to his arms and then shortened his breath, Avery knew he wasn't going to make Canada after all. Unable to believe it was going to end like this, he finally turned loose of the money, but it was a case of too little, too late. The sodden bag bumped against his knee and then his foot as it drifted toward the bottom. Moments later a pain seared his chest so severely that he shrieked aloud. The sound carried across the stillness of the lake, giving back an eerie high-pitched echo. In that moment, Avery knew he'd heard himself die. His eyes rolled back in his head as his body went limp. He sank into the dark water without another sound, following the money's descent.
Divers from the county sheriff's office were onshore when morning broke over the trees. The beauty of the impending autumn was lost in the cold, hard facts of why they were here. Amber-and-ruby-streaked leaves faded against the overwhelming task that lay ahead of them.
Deputy Danny Baldwin had been with search and rescue for over six years. He was proud of what he did but hated this part of his job. This time there was no rescue, only a search and recover.
His partner, Will Freid, was also his brother-in-law. Will had ten years on him in age and experience, but not in earnestness. Danny knew that the woman who'd been taken hostage had a husband and two teenage sons. The only way he could give her back to her family was to find her body and let them put her to rest. Will was as focused as Danny on the job ahead but kept his emotions closer to his chest.
“Here comes the sheriff,” Will said.
Danny looked up, then went back to checking the pressure gauges on his air tanks. Within minutes the area was crawling with law enforcement, including an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who'd come to monitor the scene because money belonging to a bank insured by the FDIC had been taken. But none of it mattered to Danny. He let the powers that be do their pushing and shoving as to who was in charge, because ultimately, nothing happened until recovery was made.
“Looks like they brought in some other divers,” Will added.
Danny looked up, recognizing the figures getting out of the vehicles as men he'd worked with before, and nodded.
“We'll need them.”
Will turned and gazed out across the lake. “Damned big body of water.”
Ignoring the obvious, Danny adjusted the neck of his wet suit and shouldered the air tanks. “You ready?”
Danny waved the sheriff over. “We're ready, sir.”
Ron Gallagher took off his hat and shoved his hand through his hair.
“You know the routine. Stick to the grid I gave you, and I'll start the other divers to your south.” Then he glanced at the sky. “If we get any wind, I'm pulling you out. I don't want any more bodies in this damned water.”
“I ain't drownin' myself in no dark water,” Will drawled.
Danny grinned. “And I'm not drowning myself at all, so we're gonna be fine.”
Franklin sighed. He knew their lighthearted teasing was a cover for the grimness of the task that lay ahead of them.
“Just be careful.”
“Always,” they said in unison, and headed toward the small motorboat tied up at the shore.
A few minutes later they were in the boat. With a couple of pulls on the rope, the outboard motor coughed to life. Danny steered the boat away from the shore and headed toward the place of impact. Even though the car that had gone into the lake was probably within twenty or thirty feet of where it had entered, there was no telling where the bodies would be. If they'd made it out of the car before drowning, they could have drifted away from the area. But there had to be a starting point, and Danny and Will were on it.
Moments later, Danny killed the engine and tossed an anchor over the side.
“You ready, Will?”
Will nodded, then glanced up at the sky, wincing against the glare of the new day.
“At least we got us some sunshine.”
“Yeah,” Danny said. “Now all we need is some luck.”
They found the car within the hour and quickly began the process of hauling it out of the lake. The divers all watched from the shore until it was pulled onto dry land. The woman who'd been taken hostage was still buckled into the seat. Realistically they'd known she would be dead, but the sight of her lifeless body was depressing, as if they'd failed in what they'd come to do. But the driver was still missing, which meant their job wasn't over. Last night the authorities had feared the driver might have gotten away, but they had yet to find signs around the shore of anyone coming out of the water. So, operating on the theory that he was still in the lake, the divers went back in the water. Until Avery Wheeler's body was found, the search would go on.
It was about an hour before sundown when Danny found the bag. The moment he realized what it was, he knew that Avery Wheeler would be nearby. He signaled Will, who came quickly to his side, then motioned for him to surface, taking the bag with him. Will signaled an okay and began to swim upward, trailing air bubbles in his wake. Danny shone the light on his watch, checking the time against how much air he had left in his tanks. It would be dark topside soon. If they didn't find Avery Wheeler before long, they would have to come back tomorrow, which wasn't good. A cold front was predicted for tonight, and the water would be miserable tomorrow, even with the wet suits that protected their bodies from the worst of the cold.
His flippers stirred silt on the bottom of the lake as he turned in place, taking a complete three-sixty-degree turn and trying to decide where to look next. The underwater light Danny carried was barely more than a pale aura, cutting little of the darkness in which he floated, but the absence of light didn't bother him. He felt more at home in dark water than he did on dry land and wondered if it had to do with old memories of floating in his mother's belly before he'd been born.
Aware that time was running out, he resumed the search by taking five steps forward, then turning to his right and walking in a circle. Once he'd completed the circle, he took five steps farther out and began to circle again. It was on the third circle that he saw the foot. Even though he'd spent the bigger part of the day looking for the body, in the back of his mind, he had wondered if the man had gotten away. Readjusting the light, he moved it forward, painting Avery Wheeler's body in a faint, shimmering glow. For a long silent moment he stared, listening to the sounds of his intake valve and then his own breath as he exhaled beneath the mask, wondering how men like Avery came to be. It wasn't until he started to send a marker topside that he realized Avery was lying on something other than the bottom of the lake.
He moved forward, his steps slow and measured, then bent down and pushed at Avery's body. It floated sideways and then dropped into the mud, revealing a large oblong metal box on which Avery's body had been lying. One end of it was half-buried in the mud and silt, with the opposite end protruding a bit upward. Knowing the history of the area and the fact that three small towns had been sacrificed in the creation of Flagstaff Lake, he suspected it was nothing more than a remnant of someone's belongings that hadn't gotten moved. It appeared to be some sort of old metal footlocker, and heavily rusted at that. He was about to move on when he saw the padlock on the clasp. That piqued his curiosity in a way nothing else could have. It wasn't legal, but dumping in the lake wasn't unheard-of. However, he'd never seen anything that had been dumped that had been locked up first. Knowing that the marker he'd sent up would bring Will back at any moment, he took his knife out of the scabbard and jammed it into the hasp of the lock. It popped open like a ripe apple against a brick wall.
Just as he was about to open the lid, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned. It was Will, with a what-the-hell-are-you-doing? look that made Danny wink. He pointed to the body and then to the lock he'd broken off. Danny could see Will roll his eyes through the mask and knew he would hear about this later. He motioned to Will again, indicating he wanted to lift the lid. Will shrugged and then moved into place, bracing his knees against the metal box and lifted, but nothing gave. Danny motioned for them to try again, and again they pulled. But the hinges were frozen with rust, and the lid wouldn't budge.