Nadia Hamlin's friends often said her job would be the death of her. Today, it seemed they might just be right.
Nadia stared outside, sweating and shivering at once, through the glass side door of the Silver Sands Hotel. She checked her watch, pointlessly, because she already knew she was running late for the mandatory evacuation of San Amaro Island.
Securing the files she'd grabbed from her office beneath her rain jacket, she squeezed her eyes shut and used all her weight and strength to force the door open against the wind.
She'd lived on the island for most of her twenty-seven years and never experienced a hurricane until now. Evacuations, yes, and she promised God and anyone who was listening she would never push it so close to the deadline again if she could just escape safely this time.
She'd left her BMW in the closest parking spotit was the only vehicle in the entire lotjust twenty feet away, but it felt like twenty miles as she fought against the wind. Her hair was soaked before she was halfway there. Heart pounding, she swore out loud repeatedly. Not that anyone could have heard her over the roar of the storm. This might be only the early stages, but it was awe-inspiring, anywayor fear-inspiring if, like Nadia, you flirted with being stranded.
When she reached the car, she let the wind press her into the side of it, the stack of folders between her body and the door, relieved to quit fighting for a few seconds. She fumbled in the pocket of her rain jacket for her keys, unable to see a thing because her long, wet hair was blowing everywhere, mostly in her face. Damn, she should have done this inside. At last, she pressed the unlock button and steeled herself for the effort of opening the door.
When she finally got the door open, she screamed as the wind whipped it outward. She fought to hold on, to prevent it from being ripped off her beloved car. It took all her strength to pull the door closed.
She sank into the driver's seat, exhaling shakily.
As she was about to start the engine, something crashed into the front of her car. Something huge.
She swallowed, trying to get her heart out of her throat, and blinked back tears.
Her favorite swearword became her new mantra, the word steeped in disbelief and icy, paralyzing fear.
Now that she was out of the weather and her hair was out of her face, she could sort of see. And it wasn't good.
The something huge was
a sign? For real?
A mangled commercial sign was lodged on the front section of her car. Seconds passed as Nadia stared, dumbfounded. She spotted the familiar coral and green of the sombrero from Ruiz's Restaurante, which was a good quarter of a mile up the beach from here.
That realization spurred her into action.
She twisted and fished her cell phone out of her pocket. Her fingers hovered over the numbers as she tried to figure out who to call for help. Not many options when you waited until the rest of the island population had already taken off, were there?
She dialed it with her eyes closed tightly, hating that she had to call anyone. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
But she really didn't care to die in the parking lot of her family's hotelor anywhere, for that matter.
She half expected to get a lecture from the dispatcher about waiting too long to leave. Thankfully, the woman was business as usual and said a crew would be out to help her momentarily.
Momentarily seemed like eternity when you were stuck in a car during a hurricane.
Debris flew by, slamming into the side of the building and anything else in its path. Not knowing what else to doand incapable of sitting here doing nothing
she turned the key, which she'd left in the ignition, to start the car. It hesitated, turned over a couple of times, and Nadia thought for sure it wasn't going to start. It'd always been reliable, but it was six years old and had a sign lodged in it. The engine caught on the second try, though, as if the hood wasn't partially crushed.
So now what? Of course she couldn't drive itthe chunk of sign was enormous, maybe eight feet across at its widest point, and from here it looked like it had melded with her car. Futilely, she turned the windshield wipers on to high.
Something hit her side window, making her jump. Pressing her hand to her chest, she yelled, as if that would do a bit of good. Whatever it was kept blowing past. She inspected the window, surprised it was still in one piece, without chips or cracks.
At a loss for what else to do, she turned around and went through the things in the backseat. Maybe she could use something there for
whatever. Maybe there was something she needed to take with her, besides the suitcase of clothes and toiletries she'd thrown in the trunk at the last minute. Dirty beach towel, box of business cards, convention-planning folder, Frisbee, old flatiron for her hair. Maybe not.
As she turned back around, a man six feet from her door startled the breath out of her. A firefighter, she realized, registering the red truck behind him and the helmet that made him look top-heavy. The storm was raging so loudly she hadn't heard them approach. And this was the very beginning stages? Yeah, way past time to get out of Dodge.
Instinctively, she went for the handle and attempted to push the door open. The storm had other plans. Even leaning into it didn't make it budge.
The firefighter grabbed the handle and pulled, bracing himself against the back door. He managed to open it a few inches, and the noise and chaos of the weather intensified until he let it slam shut again.
Panicked, Nadia pushed the door from her side but the man, who she could barely see even though he was only two feet away, shook his head and held up his hand. Before she could question him, he made his way, obviously struggling to stay upright, around the back of the car to the passenger side. He opened that door more easily, climbed into the seat next to her and closed the door.
He'd been about to speak when he turned toward her, but as they made eye contact, they both froze in recognition.
"Penn?" Her relief at finding someone she knew was disproportionate and she attributed it to the storm. Any other time, in any other situation, she would likely barely say hi to Penn Griffinbecause he wouldn't want her to.
He closed his green eyes and shook his head, exasperated. A moment later, he returned to strict professionalism. "Are you hurt, Nadia?"
"I'm fine. Well, scared to death, actually. I guess I kind of screwed up. I had to come in to get some files because who knows how long we'll be stuck off-site and unfortunately business won't stop in the rest of the world"
She took a breath, briefly closed her eyes, realizing she was babbling like a fool. In front of a man. A man she'd gone out with exactly onceor really it'd been more like half a date when you got down to it. Losing her cool in front of a good-looking guy wasn't normal for her. Again, she blamed the fact she was in the middle of a stinking hurricane.
"Let me get this straight. You're sitting in a potentially deadly storm because of some files. For your all-important job. Why am I not surprised?"
"I know. Not my best decision," she said more levelly. "I meant to be off the island an hour ago." She knew exactly what he was thinking. After their failed night out three months ago, there was little room for doubt.
"If you're not hurt, let's get you out of here ASAP. It's going to get bad."
"This is only the beginning. The engine's running?"
"Yes, but I didn't think I should drive with
" She gestured to the front of the car.
"You did the right thing," Penn said. "By calling"
He didn't have to clarify that stopping by the hotel before evacuating was not the right thing.
It hadn't seemed so risky at the time. If she had to spend a few days on the mainland, she needed to bring work with her, particularly the materials she needed to prepare for her upcoming conference. She hadn't counted on traffic being heavy this far north on the island, since most people had left hours ago. The streets had been bumper-to-bumper, though. And then, because all the other hotel employees were already gone, including her mom, Nadia had had to find the right key for the hotel, something she hadn't done in ages. What should have been a fifteen-minute errand had taken more than an hour, and here she was.
Damn. She really hated messing up.
"What are we going to do?" she asked, reveling a little bit in Penn's reassurance.
"You are going to stay put while we get that thing off your car. I'll tell you when it's okay to go. Then I want you to drive straight to that bridge and get your rear as far inland as you can, understood?"
Nadia nodded but he didn't see her. He was already out the door. She noticed a second firefighter jogging toward Penn then. The two came together to the left of her car and she could see Penn gesturing and shouting to his colleague in order to be heard, pointing to the sign as he spoke. The other guy nodded and rushed back to the truck. Penn went to work on the sign. He peeled a couple of insignificant pieces away with more difficulty than Nadia would have expected.
As he bent over to get a better look at where part of the sign was embedded in the hood, things happened so fast, Nadia had a hard time making sense of them. A large chunk of debris blew into him and he went down, out of her line of sight. All she could see was his helmet, skittering across the pavement.
Nadia screamed and struggled to get the door open, black fear pulsing through her....