A WARM SUMMER NIGHT.
Music on the radio.
A young girl driving a red Mustang convertible.
It sounded perfect—only the evening was humid as hell, the radio was stuck on a stupid gospel station, and the car, well, it was stolen.
Chewing on my nails, I debated on pulling off to the side of the road and putting the top down, but this wasn’t a pleasure ride. Obviously. I had to get out of Snowden, North Carolina before I lost my nerve to run away.
An image of my father loomed. He’d pop a blood vessel when he discovered I’d not only stolen his car but also most of the money from his wallet. I pictured his barrel chest and the way his thick fingers clenched when he was angry. He’d be grabbing his Bible and snapping his belt up. If he found me, he’d—
I shook myself, focusing on Atlanta, Georgia. I had family there on my mom’s side, people my father refused to talk to. I’d be safe . . .
For the hundredth time, I checked the rearview mirror and saw nothing but black highway, pine trees, and mountains. No one was following me, and I hadn’t met a car in half an hour. I could almost imagine I was the only person alive in the world.
I fiddled with the radio station to find something besides gospel. I got nothing but static. Suddenly a raccoon dashed in front of me, and I swerved.
The tires locked and the car went into a tailspin. I froze up, helpless as I was pressed against the seat of my Tilt-A-Whirl. A thud. Screeching metal. The car ground to a halt against a guardrail that lined a narrow bridge.
I ran shaking hands over my face and the rest of my body. I was injury free except for my chest aching from the seatbelt catching me. No airbag had gone off and the engine was still running. Thank God. Maybe if I made it to Knoxville, I could ditch the car and buy a bus ticket to—
Everything went to hell.
The car lurched forward with a groan that sent chills up my spine as the guardrail gave in to the weight of the front end. My world tipped and then froze again. I could see the murky lake below rippling in the moonlight. I recoiled in my seat, willing the car to not move another inch.
It didn’t work.
The Mustang slipped down the rocky side, nose-dived off the edge, and slammed into the water below. I screamed the entire way down, my hands like a vise around the steering wheel.
This wasn’t happening.
I clawed at the seatbelt and unlatched it, but when I went to open the door, it refused. Water pressure blocked my way out.
Dosomethingdosomethingdosomethingdosomething . . .
The smell of algae surrounded me as water seeped in from the floorboard. It crept up my legs, my chest, my chin. I scrambled away from the cold but there was no escape. I took one last gulp of air as the vehicle sank below the surface, water gushing in through the soft top. Light as a feather, the car drifted down several feet and settled on the bottom of the lake.
I watched my blond hair float around my face.
I looked around at the watery darkness.
The car should be pressurized.
I could get out now, right?
God, I didn’t know.
I was only seventeen.
I didn’t know anything about anything!
I tugged at the door handle again. Nothing.
I tried to roll down the window, but the electric wasn’t working.
Break the windows!
I positioned my legs on the glass and shoved.
I was never getting out.
My chest burned.
My nails scrabbled at the vinyl top of the vehicle. Searching for a tear. Anything.
I closed my eyes and wished myself out of the car. I even wished myself back home in that shabby house on the side of the mountain.
Bubbles came out of my mouth.
IwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodie . . .
Then I heard it—a tap, then a scratching sound. My eyes flew open.
The top of the Mustang moved. A small hole appeared and then grew bigger.
My heart surged.
Someone was there.
Someone was tearing into the car with a knife.
Everything went black.
Consciousness came slowly, dragging me along in bits and pieces.
Something warm touched my lips, and I coughed as pain rippled through my throat and chest. Hands turned me on my side and water gushed out.
I struggled to suck in precious air as my eyes cracked open.
Where was I?
Who had saved me?
I was lying on a shore with sand, cattails, and wild grasses. Mountain evergreens lined the perimeter.
But that wasn’t what got my attention.
A young man—or angel—huddled over me. I blinked, zeroing in on him. Even wet he was handsome with a jaw that was wonderfully chiseled, lips that were lush, and broad shoulders that looked as if they could hold the weight of the world. Water lingered on his way-too-long-to-be-real black lashes. Even in my state of shock, I recognized he was flawless.
Heavy breathing escaped his lips, and I gingerly touched my own. He’d kissed me.
It’s called mouth-to-mouth, you hillbilly.
“I thought you were dead,” he said as if he could barely believe I wasn’t. He rubbed his face briskly, pushing wet hair out of his face. “Was anyone else in the car?”
“What?” I croaked. My brain hadn’t caught up yet.
He stumbled as he stood and weaved on his feet. “Wait here. I’ll try to get them—”
“N-no,” I whispered, reaching a hand out to stop him. My voice was ragged. “Just me.”