Die! Just let it happen.
The desperate plea screamed inside Alika’s mind. Her world had become froth and fury as the waves attacked her, reminding her of the man she’d fled. Her lungs burned and threatened to burst, forcing what strength remained in her small body to her arms and legs. Driven by a will beyond comprehension, the young woman fought the sea.
Die! It’s better than what you’ve been through for the past month.
Pressure built in her brain. Panic bit deep and sent more strength to her limbs. She knew nothing except this all-consuming need for air. Air!
Weight heavier than any chains dragged at her muscles. She was drowning! The hurricane-owned sea would become her grave. She’d never see sunlight again, never hear the Everglades’ birds, or smile at her younger siblings’ laughter. Never again be homesick for the small piece of land where her family struggled to support themselves.
Let go. Don’t fight.
What remained of her brain pleaded for death’s release, but instinct caused her to stretch her arms upward. Her eyes felt as if they would burst from their sockets. She couldn’t think how to make her legs work with any kind of rhythm. It was happening. Drowning. Death. What she’d run into the surf to find because the alternative was a nightmare.
By bits and pieces, she realized she was no longer under the surface, but riding high and nearly free on the back of a monster wave. Her lungs sucked in rain-drenched but life-giving air. Drawing on the strength that had taken her from the colonel, she settled into the wave bed and blinked saltwater out of her eyes.
Land! Beyond reach, maybe beyond hope, but land!
Hot fear accompanied the thought that she might have lost her bearings while in the hurricane and was swimming back toward the prisonlike Fort Palm. But instead of the smelly and crowded fort where she’d been forced to live, this barely visible place was covered by trees and other vegetation.
Pain shot up her leg. Gasping, she tried to draw it upward. As she did, the sea stopped supporting her. She felt herself going down, back into that place of dark energy and incomprehensible creatures. Panic again closed around her. She swore she heard something laugh, the sound nearly as loud as the wind.
Die! That’s the only way you’ll get away from him.
“No!” she screamed. Feeding on the determination that had forced her to take this measure, she now fought the great body of water. This time its hold was weaker, as if it had grown weary of proving its mastery over her. Although she shook with exhaustion, she managed to reach the surface again.
Like a bird floating on an untrustworthy wind, she sagged in the sea’s embrace. This morning—had it been such a short time ago?—the fort’s elderly cook had rubbed his swollen knees and announced that the approaching storm would release enough water to flood the fort. The accompanying wind would uproot trees and maybe rip the roof off Colonel Russell’s quarters. At the cook’s pronouncement, everyone except her had rushed about trying to prepare for nature’s force.
When the soldiers had hurried out to retrieve the horses from the land around the fort or chased down chickens and pigs, she’d known her time had come. Occupied with protecting the fort he was responsible for, the colonel hadn’t ordered her into his quarters.
She wanted to see fear in his eyes, to watch the wind fling him into the sky before dashing him against a massive gumbo-limbo tree. But that wasn’t going to happen. Eventually the storm would be over and he’d turn his attention back to her.
An island. Small enough so she could see its contours, it shuddered and moaned in the storm’s grip. She shivered at the thought of the predators she had no doubt lived in the wild place, but if she didn’t swim toward it, she would drown and be eaten by sharks. Maybe they wouldn’t wait for her to die before starting to feed on her. Reaching the island—if she had enough strength—was her only hope for life. Could she survive there alone, her body hers?
She’d make the effort.
Her eyes burned, but she gave scant thought to whether she was crying. Besides, the downpour that blurred the line between surface and sea immediately erased what might be tears. The tumbling water pushed and punished her naked skin so she felt as if she’d been rubbed raw. Fighting off thoughts of sharks and whatever had stung her a few moments ago, she half swam and was half thrown toward the island. It looked so far away.
Between fighting to keep water from filling her lungs and summoning the strength to keep going, she thought of nothing, became an animal ruled by the instinct for survival. The devil wasn’t the sharp-tailed man-figure that preachers ranted about, or even this storm, but the man who’d forced her family to turn her over to him.
She’d swam away from her captor, swam and fought to live.
By the time she made out a massive moss-hung cypress near the shoreline, she was more dead than alive. She was disgusted by the thought of crawling out of the water and onto the crushed shells, clay, and muddy ooze that fed the vegetation, but she had no choice—if she could survive until she reached land. She comforted herself with the thought of finally having her feet under her.
The storm had stirred the seabed and sand thickened the water. Were it not for the downpour, her hair, face, and shoulders would be covered with grit. As it was, her legs and arms felt weighted. She struggled to go on swimming, but her muscles had died. They had no strength, none.
Alika. Alika. The name the elderly Spanish woman who lived at another farm had given her echoed in what remained of her mind. She’d die as Alika the beautiful one, no longer Maddie who the colonel had declared was his ward.
Her own laughter penetrated her fogged brain. Wave after wave threw her about, sometimes flinging her closer to shore, sometimes back out into the water-beast. Despite her utter exhaustion, she laughed with the hurricane. It had won. Killed her.
She started to go under. As water entered her nostrils, something grabbed her nearly numb wrists. She felt herself being pulled forward. Not really caring, she stared at what had captured her.
She made out huge dark eyes and long black hair that streamed around a man’s solid neck and shoulders. When the stranger effortlessly drew her close, her legs tangled with his, touched and caressed, explored. Her breasts brushed his chest and then his arm. The sea had been warm but nothing like him. In her mind, he became everything. Her world.
A part of her was certain she was hallucinating, not that it mattered. Either she’d already drowned or she’d escaped Colonel Russell only to fall under the control of another man who wanted only one thing from her. Whichever it was, she was too done in to care.
Her captor—if that’s what he was—spoke, but she couldn’t make sense of what he was saying.
She didn’t care. She was dead. Dead in an embrace that made her feel alive.