Beautiful Storm book cover

This month, we’re reading:

Beautiful Storm

Barbara Freethy

 

When her father’s plane mysteriously disappeared in the middle of an electrical storm, Alicia Monroe became obsessed with lightning. Now a news photographer in Miami, Alicia covers local stories by day and chases storms at night. In a flash of lightning, she sees what appears to be a murder, but when she gets to the scene, there is no body, only a military tag belonging to Liliana Valdez, a woman who has been missing for two months.

While the police use the tag to jump-start their stalled investigation, Alicia sets off on her own to find the missing woman. Her search takes her into the heart of Miami’s Cuban-American community, where she meets the attractive but brooding Michael Cordero, who has his own demons to vanquish.

Soon Alicia and Michael are not just trying to save Liliana’s life but also their own, as someone will do anything to protect a dark secret…

This title will run until October 31.

Chapter One

The clouds had been blowing in off the ocean for the last hour, an ominous foreboding of the late September storm moving up the Miami coast. It was just past five o’clock in the afternoon, but the sky was dark as night.

Alicia Monroe drove across Florida’s Rickenbacker Causeway toward Virginia Key Park, located on the island of Key Biscayne. Most of the traffic moved in the opposite direction as the island had a tendency to flood during fierce storms. According to the National Weather Service, the storm would bring at least six inches of rain plus high winds, thunder and lightning.

Alicia pressed her foot down harder on the gas. As her tires skidded on the already damp pavement, a voice inside her head told her to slow down, that a picture wasn’t worth her life, but the adrenaline charging through her body made slowing down impossible.

She’d been obsessed with electrical storms all her life. She’d grown up hearing her Mayan great-grandmother speak of lightning gods. Her father had also told her tales about the incredible blue balls of fire and red flaming sprites he’d witnessed while flying for the Navy and later as a civilian pilot.

Their stories had enthralled her, but they’d been an embarrassment to the rest of the family, especially when her father had begun to tell his stories outside the family. Neither her mother nor her siblings had appreciated the fact that a former Navy hero was now being referred to as Lightning Man.

A wave of pain ran through her at the memories of her father and the foolish nickname that had foreshadowed her dad’s tragic death years later in a fierce electrical storm.

She’d been sixteen years old when he’d taken his last flight. It was supposed to be a typical charter run to drop a hunting party in the mountains and then return home, but after dropping the men at their destination, her father’s plane had run into a massive storm. When the rain stopped and the sun came back out, there was no sign of her father or his plane. He’d quite simply disappeared somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico.

Everyone assumed he’d crashed. They’d sent out search parties to find him or at least pieces of the plane, but those searches had returned absolutely nothing. How a man and a small plane could completely vanish seemed impossible to accept, and she’d spent years trying to find an answer, but so far that hadn’t happened.

What had happened was her increasingly obsessive fascination with storm photography.

Her sister Danielle thought she was looking for her dad in every flash of lightning. Her brother Jake thought she was crazy, and her mother Joanna just wanted her to stop challenging Mother Nature by running headlong into dangerous storms. But like her dad, Alicia didn’t run away from storms; she ran toward them.

While she worked as a photojournalist for the Miami Chronicle to pay the rent, her true passion was taking photographs of lightning storms and displaying them on her website and in a local art gallery.

It was possible that she was looking for the truth about her dad’s disappearance in the lightning, or that she just had a screw loose. It was also possible that she was tempting fate by her constant pursuit of dangerous storms, but even if that was all true, she couldn’t stop, not yet, not until she knew…something. She just wasn’t sure what that something was.

Her cell phone rang through her car, yanking her mind back to reality. “Hello?”

“Where are you?” Jeff Barkley asked.

“Almost to the park.” Jeff was the weather reporter at the local television station and had become her best resource for storm chasing.

“Turn around, Alicia. The National Weather Service is predicting the possibility of a ten-to-fifteen-foot storm surge, which would make the causeway impassable, and you’ll be stranded on the island.”

“I’ll get the lightning shots before that happens. How’s the storm shaping up?”

“Severe thunderstorms predicted.”

“Great.”

“It’s not great, Alicia.”

“You know what I mean,” she grumbled. She didn’t wish ill on anyone. But the more magnificent the storm, the better her pictures would be.

“You keep pushing the limits. One of these days, you’ll go too far,” Jeff warned.

“That won’t be today. It’s barely drizzling yet. The island is the perfect place to capture the storm in two places—over the ocean and then as it passes over Miami. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

“You always say that.”

“And it’s always true.”

“So far. Text me when you get back.”

“I will.”

Ending the call, she drove into the parking lot. The attendant booth was closed, and a sign said the park was closed, but there was no barrier to prevent her from entering the lot.

She parked as close as she could to the trail leading into the park. She’d no sooner shut down the engine and turned off her headlights when lightning lit up the sky. She rolled down her window and took a few quick shots with her digital camera. She didn’t have a great angle, so she would definitely have to find a higher point in the park to get a better picture.

Putting her digital camera on the console, she grabbed her waterproof backpack that held her more expensive film camera and got out of the car.

The force of the wind whipped her long, brown ponytail around her face. She pulled the hood of her raincoat over her head. It was just misting at the moment, but the sky would be opening up very soon. With tall rain boots and a long coat to protect her jeans and knit shirt, she was protected from the elements, not that she worried much about getting wet. She was more concerned with keeping her equipment dry until she needed to use it.

This was her second trip to the island, so she knew exactly which path to take, and she headed quickly in that direction. While the trails were popular with walkers, hikers, and bikers on most days, there wasn’t another soul in sight. Anyone with any sense had left the park to seek shelter.

She was used to shooting storms in dark, shadowy places, but for some reason her nerves were tighter than usual today. The air was thick, almost crackling, and the atmosphere was dark and eerie. She felt a little spooked, as if someone were watching her.

A crash in the trees behind her brought her head around, and her heart skipped a beat at the dancing shadows behind her.

A second later, she saw two raccoons scurry into the woods, and she blew out a breath of relief. The animals were just looking for shelter. Everything was fine.

Ten minutes of a rapid jog had her heart pounding and her breath coming fast as she traversed the hilly section of the park, finally reaching the clearing at the top of the trail. Instead of thick brush and trees, she was now looking at the churning waves of the Atlantic Ocean. But it wasn’t the sea that sent a nervous shiver down her spine; it was the towering, tall clouds that the meteorologists called cumulonimbus clouds. These clouds were associated with thunder and lightning storms and atmospheric instability. Alicia felt both terrified and entranced by the potential fury of the stormy sky.

She pulled out her film camera. While she used digital more often these days, there was still nothing like capturing a storm on film.

She took several quick consecutive shots as lightning cracked over the ocean. She checked her watch, noting the lapse of fifteen seconds before the thunder boomed. That meant the lightning was about three miles away.

Eight seconds later, lightning split apart the clouds, jagged bolts heading toward the beach. The storm was moving in fast—the lightning less than a mile away now.

She had a feeling she knew where it would strike next.

Dashing down the adjacent trail, she headed toward the old carousel with the shiny gold decorative rods that would more than likely attract the lightning.

As she moved through the thick brush, the rain began to come down harder, but she didn’t slow her pace. She just wiped the water from her eyes and kept going.

When lightning lit up the park in front of her, she raised her camera and snapped two more photos before venturing farther down the trail. The carousel was just ahead.

The thunder was so loud it almost knocked her off of her feet.

She stopped abruptly as another jagged streak of lightning hit the carousel, illuminating the area around it. Captured in the glaringly bright light were a man and a woman engaged in a struggle.

The man raised his hand, something metal glinting between his fingers. A knife?

The woman screamed.

Alicia took a step forward, but the light disappeared and everything was dark again. She juggled her phone, trying to turn on the flashlight so she could see where to go.

Another boom of thunder.

Another flash of lightning.

She saw more dancing shadows. Then heard a long, penetrating scream. Closer now. The woman seemed to be running toward her.

She needed to help her. She moved down the path, stumbling over some rocks, and then the lightning came again. The tree next to her exploded from the strike. A heavy branch flew through the air, knocking her flat on the ground. She hit her head on a rock, feeling a flash of pain that threatened to take her under.

She battled against the feeling, knowing she had to get away from the fire that was crackling around her.

Where the hell was the rain now?

It was still coming down but not enough to smother the fire.

She got to her feet, ruthlessly fighting her way through the flaming branches.

Finally, the skies opened up, and the rain poured down, putting out the fire and allowing her to get free.

She grabbed her backpack from under a branch and moved down the trail.

Using her flashlight again, she walked toward the carousel, her tension increasing with each step, but there was no one around. No man, no woman, no knife, no struggle. What the hell had happened? Where had they gone?

She looked around in bewilderment. It had only been a few minutes since she’d seen them—hadn’t it? Or had she lost consciousness when the tree had knocked her down?

She didn’t think so, but her mind felt hazy and her head ached.

Despite the fuzzy feeling, she couldn’t forget the image of the tall man towering over the smaller woman. She could still hear the woman’s scream of terror in her head.

She turned slowly around, seeing nothing of significance in the shadowy surroundings. Then something in the dirt brought her gaze to the ground. She squatted down and picked up a shiny, rectangular military ID tag.

Her stomach turned over. She had a tag just like this in her jewelry box at home, the tag that had belonged to her father.

But it wasn’t her father’s name on this tag; it was a woman’s name: Liliana Valdez, United States Navy, blood type O positive, religion Catholic. Her birth date indicated that she was twenty-eight.

The name didn’t mean anything to Alicia, but she still felt an odd connection to the woman who’d lost it. Had it been the woman she’d seen fighting for her life? Had that woman been wearing a uniform?

She couldn’t remember. She had the sense that the woman had worn a long, dark coat, but the details escaped her. Maybe she’d caught them on film. That thought took her to her feet.

She needed to get home and develop the photographs. She walked quickly back to the parking lot, pausing for just a moment to get a few more shots of the lightning now streaking across the Miami skyline.

Then she got into her car and sped toward the causeway, hoping she hadn’t waited too long to cross before the storm surge made the bridge impassable.

When she reached the bridge, water was splashing over the rail, but she made it back to Miami without incident. She felt relieved to be in the city, but the pain in her temple reminded her of what she’d seen by the carousel. Who were those people? Had something terrible happened? Had she been a witness to…what?

Alicia’s gaze dropped to the ID tag sitting on her console—to the name Liliana Valdez. She needed to find Liliana; not just to return her tag but also to make sure she was all right, that she was still alive.

* * *

Alicia lived in the Wynwood Art District, a neighborhood just north of downtown Miami and known for its art galleries, boutiques and charming cafés. She lived on the second floor of a two-story building, and the bottom floor housed the art gallery where she displayed her storm photographs.

The owner of Peterman Art Gallery, Eileen Peterman, had leased her the apartment a year earlier, and Alicia was happy to be close to the gallery and in a neighborhood filled with artists and designers. She’d always been more comfortable among creative people who thought outside of the box, colored beyond the lines, and who put their emotions on display, whether it be in a sculpture or a painting or a photograph. She’d never been able to trust anyone who hid their emotions. It always made her wonder what else they were hiding.

After entering her apartment, Alicia dropped her backpack on the floor, set her keys and the ID tag on the side table, and then took off her wet raincoat and hung it on a hook by the door. She kicked off her boots and walked into the bathroom to grab a towel.

After drying her face, she pulled out the band from her hair and ran the blow-dryer through the damp dark tangles of her unruly mass of dark brown waves. Her hair was thick and long, drifting past her shoulder blades, and it was a constant battle to straighten the rebellious curls, which had gotten more out of hand in the wind and the rain.

As she stared at her face in the mirror, she was a little surprised at the size of the bump on her throbbing forehead. It was turning a lovely shade of purple and black and definitely stood out against her unusually pale skin. A dark-eyed brunette with olive skin, she usually had a vibrant, exotic look about her, but today was not one of those days. What little makeup she’d put on earlier that day had washed away in the rain, and the pain of her aching head injury had put strained lines around her eyes.

She set down the dryer, grabbed some ibuprofen from the medicine cabinet, took two capsules, and told herself she’d feel a lot better in about thirty minutes. Then she walked back to the living room.

She picked up Liliana’s ID tag and took it over to the kitchen table. Opening her laptop computer, she typed in Liliana’s name, age, and birth date. The Valdez surname would be common in Miami, a city made up of thousands of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants, so she was expecting her search to be complicated and long.

Surprisingly, it was neither.

The headline of the first article jumped off the page: JAG attorney missing in Miami.

As she read through the news story, she discovered that Liliana Valdez, a Navy lieutenant and attorney with the Judge Advocate General, had gone missing while visiting Miami in late July for the wedding of her sister. She’d last been seen in the parking lot outside of Paladar, a popular Cuban restaurant in Little Havana. The vehicle she’d been driving had been recovered from the parking lot, but there was no sign of a struggle or any other clues to her whereabouts.

Alicia let out a breath and sat back on the couch, staring out the window where rain now streamed against the panes.

Liliana Valdez had disappeared two months ago, and no one had seen her since.

Alicia picked up the ID tag, still a little damp and gritty with dirt, and ran her fingers over Liliana’s name, feeling the same sense of connection she’d felt earlier.

She had a clue to a missing woman. She needed to take it to the police.

Jumping to her feet, she paused, struck by the thought that she might have more than one clue. Retrieving her camera, she took it into the walk-in closet off her bedroom that she’d turned into her personal darkroom.

Unfortunately, as the pictures developed, Alicia’s enthusiasm began to fade.

The couple she’d seen by the carousel did not appear in any of the shots. The lightning was spectacular, but it was so close, so bright, it was impossible to see anything but shadows beyond the light, certainly nothing that clearly defined a person, which meant she had no other clue besides the military tag. Still, it was something. Hopefully, it would be enough to help find the missing woman.

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