At twenty-four years of age, Kate Montgomery knew that a minimal hurricane packed winds of at least seventy-four miles per hour.
She knew that the clouds could put down five inches of rain an hour, generate dangerous lightning, and spin off violent tornadoes.
Most of all, she knew that a hurricane's greatest damage and loss of life came from the storm surge, a buildup of the seas that swept away homes, roads, and people who were stupid enough to think that a mere category one hurricane posed no threat and stayed in its path.
Which is why, as she waded into the surf at Galveston and turned to face the television camera, she felt like the biggest fool in Texas.
But someone had to be the sacrificial lamb, and as the cameraman had explained on the way down from Houston, it was always the youngest, prettiest newscaster who got the lousy assignments. Malik had made it clear that viewers liked to see girls with rain-wet hair buffeted by the wind. It was a lousy and indisputable broadcasting truth.
"What did you do to deserve this?" she had asked.
"It's the black man's fate to be oppressed," he had answered in mournful tones that didn't fool her at all.
"Plus you're the strongest cameraman at the station and the only one who can hold the camera in this weather." She had peered out the window of the news van at the strengthening storm.
"That, too." He drove them over the causeway and onto the fragile barrier island to join the other news crews as well as the hurricane thrill seekers who'd taken hotel rooms on the island to watch the storm.
Now she stood in the surf up to her ankles. The waves crashed behind her with far too much force and the camera lights showed a roil of foam that blew away with the wind. Her yellow slicker whipped around her legs. Her hood barely protected her from the slashing rain. And fervently she wished someone would tell her news director that if he lost a junior reporter, he would get in trouble.
Or maybe it didn't matter, because there were a hundred pretty young aspiring news reporters who would take her job and gladly wade into the storm-tossed surf for their chance at fame.
She'd worked hard for this chance, graduating from Vanderbilt in Nashville with a degree in political science and broadcasting. Her agent had sent out her résumé and her interview tape and finally he'd found her a job at this station in Houston. None of it had been easy, and she wasn't walking out of the water until they had the shot.
"Ready for the run-through?" she yelled at Malik.
He gave her the thumbs-up. From a safe distance, he lifted the camera onto his shoulder and pointed it at her.
"Three, two, one," she said into the microphone under her chin. Pitching her voice to be heard above the storm's roar, she said, "Here I am on Galveston Island, where once again nature's wrath has taken the beach hostage and transformed this usually placid vacation spot into -- " Without warning, a rambunctious wave struck her behind her knees.
She stumbled forward.
Her heart lurched.
The sand shifted beneath her feet.
She flailed her arms like a madwoman and gave a high, girlish screech.
The storm surge rose to engulf her. She almost...almost...went down into the crashing surf.
She caught herself. The water subsided, sliding back and gathering strength to fling itself at the shore once more.
Minimal hurricane, indeed.
She staggered up onto the beach to see Malik grinning and still filming.
"You big jerk!" Sweat trickled down her back, and her hands trembled. "I could have died."
"No. Worst thing that could have happened was that you drowned the mike." He nodded, once again solemn. "Butch would have been really mad at you about that."
Her sense of humor caught up with her, and she laughed. "That'll go on the blooper reel."
"Oh, yeah, I always win the best of the bloopers award at the Christmas party. Try it again," Malik said, "and this time if a wave comes, I'll warn you."
In Austin, Texas, state senator George Oberlin walked into his dark-paneled, deer-head-decorated game room to find his wife sitting, staring fixedly at the television, apparently fascinated by the news.
"Is the hurricane coming on shore?" he asked without much interest. It wasn't a big hurricane, which meant there wouldn't be intense coverage in the national media. No use going down afterward and surveying the damage unless the nation was watching.
"It's her." Evelyn pointed with her skinny, beringed finger, and the ice cubes rattled in her drink glass.
"Who?" He glanced at his fifty-two-inch screen to see some silly reporter in a yellow slicker standing in the crashing waves, shouting her report against the howl of the wind. Mist coated the camera lens, and he squinted to see the woman's face. "Do we know her?"
"It's...it's Lana Prescott." Evelyn might not be slurring her words, but obviously she was already drunk, and it wasn't yet five-thirty.
"Jesus Christ, Evelyn, are you delusional? Lana Prescott's dead." Evelyn was going to prove a liability in his race for the U.S. Senate.
George's campaign manager didn't want him to talk divorce, but better now than later.
"Don't you see it? I tell you, it's Lana Prescott!" Evelyn's whole skinny body was shaking now, shaking as if she were old and palsied -- and God knows the booze had been piling the years on her.
"Lana Prescott's been dead for twenty-three years." He knew that better than anyone.
"Yes, I know." Evelyn leaned back against the couch.
She didn't look at him. She didn't take her eyes off the television, and that alone kept him standing there. Normally she gazed at him whenever they were together, her big brown eyes pleading for attention like some kick-dog cocker spaniel's. It was her unusual behavior, and the sighting of a ghost, that made him wonder what was going on in her pickled little brain.
Then the cameraman pulled in for a close-up of the reporter.
A gust of wind swiped the yellow rain hood off the reporter's head.
A cloth came in front of the lens to wipe it clean.
And George saw what Evelyn saw.
Shoulder-length curly hair, black and wet, plastered around sweet features. Wide blue eyes surrounded by long dark lashes that blinked away the rain. A pale, fine-grained complexion and natural pink color on the soft, dimpled cheeks. A petite nose, and that smile...a man would bask in the warmth of that smile. He could kill for that smile.
Lana Prescott's smile.
He stepped closer to the television. He didn't remember to use his suave, strong speaking voice; and he heard the Texas country accent when he asked, "What's her name?"
"Kate Montgomery," Evelyn whispered.
"Kate Montgomery," he repeated, and he smiled. "Fancy that. Little Kate Montgomery."
Kate gave another report at ten, only this time the eye of the hurricane was passing overhead, and the relative calm gave her a chance to look professional, or at least less wind whipped. Then she and Malik made their way back to the hotel where all the reporters were staying, and with a cheery wave that indicated her continued good sportsmanship -- she hoped -- she made her way to her room.
She had sand between her teeth. She had sand on her scalp. She was cold and wet. She wanted a shower. A long, hot shower with lots of shampoo and soap.
But her cell phone on the end table was blinking. She glanced at the phone number recorded there, thinking it would be her mother; instead, it was her agent.
The message on her voice mail said, "No matter when you come in, call me."
Vik sounded calm as always, but he had never done business except during business hours, and she couldn't imagine what emergency required that she call right away.
Her mom...but no, that was silly. If something was wrong, Kate would be hearing from a totally different source. She was just nervous after what had happened to her dad.
But she carried the phone into the bathroom, and while she toed off her boots, she hit the talk button.
Vik picked up right away. Brief as always, he said, "I've had an offer for a job for you."
"What?" She wasn't looking for a job. She was looking for a shower. "At this hour?"
"Someone in Austin saw your hurricane report, and now Brad Hasselbeck at KTTV is offering you a position covering the capitol. He said they wanted to make an offer before another station grabbed you."
She blinked. "I could barely find a job in the first place. Now someone's worried about a bidding war?"
"Let's not tell him there is no bidding war. Let's take the job."
Everything about this was unlike Vik. The hour, the rush to accept..."Why? I just started the Houston job. You said it was a great starter position."
"It was. This is better."
"Better?" Leaning over the tub, she ran the water until it was warm. A shower. She desperately needed a shower. "How better?"
"Brad saw your coverage of the hurricane and said you looked great. He knows you've got political science and broadcasting degrees. He seems to think that makes you the perfect candidate to cover the capitol."
"How did he know all that?"
"I suppose he still had your résumé." She could hear the frown in Vik's voice. "The offer is good. Twice the money you're making now. You'll be in Austin, which you wanted in the first place."
"Yes, I wanted to be close to Mom, but -- " The significance of what he said sank in. "Twice the money?"
"That's what I said. Twice the money."
"That seems too good to be true, and my dad always said if something seems too good to be true, it usually is." But she wanted to do more serious reporting than weather and parades, and the state capitol sounded challenging. Interesting.
Her dream job.
"I know. That's what I thought, but I've placed a client with him before, so I called her. She's gone on to a San Francisco station, so she hasn't worked with him for about a year, but she said Brad was good to work for, no perversions, totally dedicated to the business. If anything, he's a workaholic who doesn't have time for anything but the job. Apparently, he's almost manic about the job."
So Vik had done his best to ameliorate his doubts, and hers. "It's so tempting."
"It's more than tempting, it's perfect. In the city you want, in the position you want, for twice the money. Kate, if you turn this down, you'll be the biggest fool in Texas."
Copyright © 2005 by Christina Dodd