A funnel-shaped column, dark as the roiling clouds above, ripped through a bean field to within half a mile of Chance Hamlin. But his attention spun away from the approaching tornado when he glimpsed a girl standing right in the path of his speeding police cruiser.
The car's antilock brake system kicked in when he stood on the pedal, while at the same time he jerked the steering wheel hard to the left. The girl didn't even glance up from the camera she held to her eye, its lens focused on the spinning gray funnel half a mile away. The blue and white police car almost grazed her, then shuddered to a halt with the door's Indiana State Police emblem two feet from her legs.
For an instant Chance froze, his knuckles white from their death grip on the wheel. What the devil's a kid doing in the middle of Highway Nine? A little voice reminded him of the times he'd lectured other drivers for not keeping their eyes on the road, but he ignored it.
A violent wind gust jarred him into action and he lowered the passenger side window, making the shriek of the advancing twister even louder. A shower of paperwork whirled around the passenger compartment.
That's when he realized she wasn't in the middle of the road. In his eagerness to track the storm he'd swerved from the pavement and almost hit an innocent kid standing on the berm, close to a huge white recreational vehicle.
Taking a deep breath, Chance vowed he'd deliver her safely into the arms of her parents, before someone else came along and mowed her down. "Hey!"
The girl lowered her camera, exposing dark eyes and elfin features. Her lips turned down in a slight frown as she studied the storm. Strands of brown hair blew across her face. The howling wind whipped at her loose flannel shirt and baggy jeans, making her appear tiny against the blowing debris threatening to carry her away. She had to be a decade younger than Chance, maybe eighteen at most.
"Get in the car!" His shout seemed drowned out by the angry shriek of the twister, but the girl glanced around, then put her head in the window and spoke as if describing a gentle summer shower.
"It won't last long. You're safe here." The wind almost swept away her soft voice. For an instant Chance glimpsed something ageless in her eyes, and the depth he saw there would have been heart stopping--if the weather wasn't already doing that job. "It'll cross the road about a mile north."
Chance couldn't believe his ears. A raging tornado bearing down on us and she wants to play amateur meteorologist? "Look, we don't have time to argue, kid--get in. Now!"
Her tanned, oval face--or maybe it was the sky around them--darkened. She rolled her eyes, but pulled open the door and climbed in beside him. "Are you going to drive like everyone else does around tornadoes?"
"Yes!" Heart pounding, he swung the car onto the pavement and hit the gas. This was Chance's first close call with a tornado, but he had no trouble imagining how other people drove when near one.
"That's what I thought." She pulled on the safety belt, then untangled her camera strap from it to take more pictures.
Even after closing the window Chance could hear the banshee scream of the funnel as it passed into a woods to the left of the two-lane highway. He stomped harder on the gas, intent on using the Crown Victoria's police package engine to get them north and out of the storm's path, then reached for his radio microphone. "Fort Wayne, 14-47, it's still on the ground in Whitley County, east-bound and about to cross State Road 9."
"East northeast. You're not going to keep going north, are you?" For the first time, she sounded concerned.
"No, I thought we'd just sit here and get blown over to Oz for a nice vacation!"
"We're headed right into its path."
Glancing over, Chance saw the camera to her eye, focused ahead. Hair cascaded around her shoulders in dark, wild, wind-blown waves, and her lips thinned with concentration. "Look, I can judge distance and directions, Miss--"
"Allie." She pressed the shutter release. "There it is."
Chance jerked around and saw the funnel roar out of the woods directly ahead, in a cloud of stripped leaves and torn branches.
He jammed on his brakes, throwing them both against their safety belts. The car shuddered and bounced from the wind, while twigs and strips of bark rattled against it.
"Holy--" In the instant it took him to shift into reverse, the twister, now a thin gray tube, crossed the roadway two hundred feet away, lifted up a billboard, and tore into a field of young corn shoots. Chance grabbed for the microphone.
"Don't worry, it's already tapering." Allie took a few more shots, then rested the camera on her lap and sat back.
"Where did you get your junior meteorology degree..." He trailed off as the funnel thinned to a twisted string, then lifted into the leaden sky and vanished. In the aftermath of its roar, the world seemed soundproofed.
"Cal State." Allie's smile, at once sweet and mocking, made her look even younger, and he revised his judgment of her age downward a year or two.
"Right." Lifting the mike to his mouth, Chance pressed the transmit button. "Fort Wayne, 14-47--the funnel dissipated. You might keep the Churubusco area under a warning in case it re-forms." After the dispatcher answered he pulled to the side of the road, sat back, and took a deep breath to release his tension.
"It won't re-form. With this drought, there's not enough moisture in the atmosphere to sustain a cell." Allie snapped the lens cap onto her camera and began hand combing twigs from her hair.
So much for releasing tension. "Are you all right?"
"Of course. I was never in the damage path--until you tried to take me there."
"I--do your parents know where you are?"
She made a face. "I certainly hope not."
Uh huh. Runaway. It saddened him to see such a beautiful girl taking this course in life, but that didn't change what he'd have to do. "Well, I think we should get in touch with them."
"Like you thought we should go north to escape the twister? Haven't you ever heard of running for the ditch?"
Chance gritted his teeth. He did know better. But it was one thing to learn what to do in a classroom, and another to face his first tornado, keep it in sight, and warn of its progress. His hands still shook, he felt like he'd run a marathon, and he had to admit--at least to himself--that getting caught in front of that storm had given him his first real scare as a cop.
"You're right," he admitted, and when he thought about it a little more he had to smile. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. Seeing that thing touch down when a warning hadn't even been issued got my adrenaline flowing."
She smiled back, a smile that made his adrenaline flow again, and he had to remind himself that she was a juvenile. If he was a patient man--and not on the job--he might want to know when she turned eighteen, despite their age difference. "It's all right," she said. "I get that reaction a lot."
Chance faltered a moment, wondering if his face had telegraphed his thoughts, then realized she was talking about his reaction to the storm. "This isn't your first tornado? I'd think someone who's seen one before would be diving for cover. Taking a few snapshots isn't worth risking your life."
"I wasn't at risk, not there. Besides, this is my job."
"Your--" He froze, staring at her, then his gaze went to the camera. "You're a reporter?"
"A photographer." She gestured toward the RV, still parked along the berm. "I've traveled a long way, but not for that. I wouldn't have issued a tornado warning, either--this one was a fluke."
But Chance barely heard her. He'd turned to the RV, and glimpsed the license plate on its bumper. A California license plate.
"You're...a reporter from California."
"Photographer. Are you all right? You look like you just saw another tornado."
"You--" Cold traveled up his spine as a flood of memories flashed through his head. Phone calls. Crying relatives. The coffin. Reporters. So many cameras, flashing bulbs--
"Officer?" Suddenly she no longer looked like an innocent kid. She was a runaway, a teen who'd taken her family's RV--or someone else's--and was trying to make her name as a hotshot reporter. Well, he'd send her right back to California, back into the arms of her parents, and it would be on them if the RV turned out to be a stolen vehicle full of cocaine and dead bodies.
Chance struggled to keep his voice neutral. "You can't just run around without supervision."
Suddenly looking uncomfortable under his glare, she again turned her gaze toward the sky. "Clearly, I was doing just that."
He counted to ten before speaking again. "Let me rephrase--you shouldn't just run around without supervision."
She turned to give him a critical examination. "I don't know what just changed with you, but you know what? With that blond hair, black holster and dashing blue uniform, in this light--you look just like a Nazi."
With a growl, Chance jumped out of the car. He didn't need this--his nerves being about shot as it was--and he sure wouldn't let some wild West Coast kid get the best of him. Dry grass crackled beneath his boots as he stomped around to the passenger side and jerked the door open. "Get out."
"What a gentleman." Smiling, she climbed out. "So, am I expected to walk back?"
"You're expected to get in back." He reached for his handcuffs. "I assume you're familiar with these."
To his surprise, she laughed. "Friendship bracelets? Never on the first date."
Well, Allie Craine thought, it's not like I've never been arrested before.
The trooper weaved his car easily through heavy weekday traffic on Interstate 69, near the city of Fort Wayne. Having never seen Indiana in June, she watched with interest as a landscape of fields and trees flew past, sun-washed now that the brief storm had passed.
At least her knight in shining armor, after rescuing her from that nasty tornado, agreed to cuff her wrists in front instead of behind her back. She knew that wasn't procedure, but no one ever viewed her as dangerous. The last time this happened--in Louisiana after a hurricane--the deputy didn't cuff her at all.
As if reading her mind, the trooper spoke. "Sorry about the handcuffs. It's standard procedure."
"In case I'm a dangerous felon?"
She meant it as a joke, but he nodded. "Exactly."
"And exactly what am I being charged with?"
"Nothing yet, pending an investigation into where you got that RV and whether your family knows where you are."
Allie almost laughed out loud. The trooper was being presumptuous, to say the least--he hadn't actually asked her age, and he'd be pretty embarrassed when he found out. Well, as long as I'm in this situation I might as well have some fun with it. "Are we there yet?"
He looked at her in the rear view mirror, his blue eyes like gunsights, and she faltered for a moment. But Allie hadn't come this far in the five years since college without learning to quickly recover. "I gotta go to the bathroom," she explained.
For a moment he regarded her, as if trying to decide whether she was pulling his leg. Then, without cracking a smile, he said, "You should've gone before we left."
Okay... They lapsed into silence again, while the trooper concentrated on driving and Allie concentrated on him. He must be over six feet tall, she decided, a foot taller than her, with close-cut blond hair and the kind of straight, square-jawed profile that made him look like an actor playing a straight-laced cop. Attractive, if he'd learn how to smile.
Well, she'd take the real thing--she'd had enough of actors. "Do you have any food, trooper..."
"Nobody eats in my car." He glanced back at her again. "Trooper Hamlin."
A snide comment came to mind, but she felt shaky, and knew her blood sugar must be low. Now would be a bad time to make him angry. "Well, what about drinking? Juice, soda? Something with sugar."
"If you stayed away from sugar and ate a more balanced meal you wouldn't be so skinny."
Skinny! Why, that muscle-bound oaf--that's probably all Indiana requires of its state troopers. Muscle. She took a cleansing breath--it wouldn't be good to lose her temper now. "I get a lot of exercise."
"Do you?" He looked thoughtful for a moment, and Allie could imagine him searching for an opening to question her. "Um, call me Chance. What do you do for exercise?"
She didn't know what seemed funnier, his attempt to pry her for information or his first name. "I walk a lot, climb--and sometimes run." In her business, the ability to run could be life saving.
"So, why are you walking, climbing, and running in Indiana?"
She saw no harm in telling the truth, except he wouldn't believe it. "I'm here to photograph storms." And find a place to settle down.
"Uh huh. Wouldn't Kansas be better for that?"
Humoring me, is he? Okay, so be it. "Everybody does Kansas. Anyway, I believe your drought will be ended by a storm. The storm chasers I worked with thought they'd have better luck in the upper plains this late in the season, so I left them and drove up here."
"I see. And does that RV belong to the storm chasers?"
"It belongs to me." She saw his mouth quirk. "You shouldn't have had it towed. It wasn't a traffic hazard, so you could've just left it and dropped me off there later."
"It was close enough to the white line to be a traffic hazard, and besides--Allie--" Chance shook his head. "If you're old enough to own that rig, I'm John Wayne."
"Well, Duke, just stay out of it!" The words came out sharper than she intended, but in her mind the only thing worse than actors would have to be people who worshipped actors. Chance's eyes narrowed, and she realized how suspicious she must have sounded. "I mean, be careful--everything I own is in there."
"We'll take care of it. And we'll run that license plate on the computer, so if you want to tell me anything now..."
Allie sat back and smiled. "You should have run the plate before you towed it. Standard procedure. Maybe the twister shook you up a bit?"
"I called the plate in."
"But you didn't ask for a return."
His frown deepened.
Minutes later they pulled off the highway and parked near a one-story masonry building, which Allie identified by the signs and parked police cars as Chance's headquarters: District 22 of the Indiana State Police. What startled her was the news van and camera crew standing expectantly right out front.
"Damn scanners." Chance pulled the back door open, then gestured to her. "Let's go."
Over his shoulder, Allie could already see the camera crew approaching, led by a young man who looked as if he'd just had his hair styled and his make-up retouched. This was not good. Sinking lower into the seat, she held up her cuffed wrists. "You don't parade juveniles past news cameras like this, do you?"
Touching a finger to the tip of his campaign hat, Chance leaned forward. "Are you admitting you're a juvenile?"
"No..." This close she could smell Old Spice after-shave, and for some reason it unnerved her. "But I'm also innocent until proven guilty." She jiggled the metal cuffs. "And I guarantee you haven't proven me guilty."
He glared at her, but they both knew the media hovered right behind him. With reluctance clear in his expression, he reached for his keys and removed the cuffs. "You're my responsibility now, and I'm seeing to your safety. Don't even think about running."
She bristled at being called a responsibility, but chose not to rise to the challenge. "I'll be right on the other side of the camera from you."
Which didn't turn out to be easy, because Chance straightened only to be met by a microphone held inches from his nose by the man with the blown-dry hair and the polka dot tie. "Trooper Hamlin?"
Allie turned her head away from the camera and scampered out of the car, stopping behind Chance's broad back.
His voice, cool enough before, seemed like an ice block at the North Pole when he turned to the reporter. "Yes, Vince."
"I understand you had a close call with the tornado." The man sent a curious glance at Allie, but she couldn't hide from him without exposing herself to the camera.
"In attempting to report the tornado's progress," Chance said in a flat, unemotional voice, "my car approached to within one hundred yards of the funnel at one point."
"Then without you risking your life to give warning there might have been injuries?" The reporter's eyes gleamed at the possibility.
Although Chance's voice remained calm, Allie saw his back straighten. "Vince, you know fire departments have spotters out during a tornado warning. Plus there's the doppler radar in North Webster--without me it still would've been tracked."
Allie stood on her toes and whispered in his ear, "Judging from the damage, it was just an F-1, on the ground about ten minutes."
Chance hesitated only a moment. "Besides...it was only on the ground for about ten minutes, and no buildings were damaged to my knowledge."
"Who's your passenger?" Vince craned his neck. The cameraman tried to focus on her, but Allie shuffled around to keep the trooper between them.
"Official business." Reaching around, Chance took her by the arm and hustled her toward the building's front door.
Vince rushed after them, with the weighed-down cameraman hustling to keep up. "The public has a right to know all official business."
"Not when it involves juveniles." Chance jerked the door open.
"Why are you hauling kids around in your car while chasing tornadoes?"
Instead of answering, Chance slammed the door.
A startled receptionist looked up, but Chance swept by without stopping. Allie knew why--in her experience an unlocked lobby door wouldn't stop an ambitious TV reporter--so they left the camera behind by hurrying down two corridors. Chance finally led her into a small break room.
Food! Allie stepped over to a line of vending machines and dug into her pockets, but came up short on change. "Got a quarter?"
Chance frowned at her from the doorway. "You don't seem to like TV cameras."
"Neither do you." She held her hand out, but started to withdraw it when she felt it shake. Nuts! She knew better than to skip meals, even for a good storm, and that tiny cell barely held the energy to spawn one anemic twister.
Stepping closer, Chance held a quarter out, forcing her to extend the hand again. Still shaking. Concern crossed his face as he studied her. "Are you all right?"
She snatched the quarter from him and turned to the machines, so he couldn't see how pale she knew her face must be. "I'm fine." She had to try three times before the change went in. "That storm cell was so small I had to work fast to get my pictures. Too bad it didn't drop any moisture. Don't you ever miss meals?" Tearing open a package of small powdered doughnuts, she stuffed one into her mouth.
Crossing his arms, Chance leaned against the door jamb and studied her, his expression a mix of concern and suspicion. She swallowed a second doughnut, then held her hand out again. It had almost stopped shaking. "Soda?"
"How about water? They do have some clean water in California, don't they?"
She shook her head. "Soda. I'll pay you back."
"How about a trade?" He dug into his pocket and pulled out two quarters. "The pop's on the house, in return for some ID."
"Oh, that!" She produced a driver's license from her jeans pocket and handed it over, then fed the coins into a soda machine while he studied the card.
By the time she sank into a plastic chair and started sipping the cool liquid, his expression had changed back to undisguised suspicion. "This says you're twenty-six years old."
"Uh huh." She popped another doughnut into her mouth and tried not to look smug.
"There is no way--"
"I have a friend who grew up with some kind of chemical imbalance--made her look about ten when she was in her twenties. She makes a living playing precocious TV kids."
For the first time a flash of uncertainty crossed his face.
Allie propped her elbows on the table, rested her chin in her hands and gazed up at him. "So, what I'm saying is, why don't you use your computer to confirm my age?"
Chance, who'd removed his hat as soon as they entered the building, ran a hand through his hair and glanced down at the card, then turned back to call down the hallway. "Fran? Would you come in here, please?"
The clicking of heels preceded the appearance of a young Hispanic woman, who glanced into the snack room. "Well, Chance, I heard you were storm chasing. What've you gotten into this time?"
"A situation. Watch her for a second, would you?" He hurried away without a backward glance.
"So..." Fran, whose jet black hair fell in waves down her back and who wore a bright yellow dress instead of a uniform, pulled a chair out and sat opposite Allie. "What's your name, honey, and how'd you get on my big blond Viking buddy's bad side?"
Allie decided she liked this woman. "Allison Craine--call me Allie."
"That name sounds familiar..." Fran sucked on her lower lip for a moment, then brightened. "There's a famous photographer from California named Allison Craine!"
"That's a coincidence--I'm from California." Allie didn't know whether to worry or giggle.
But Fran went on, not making the connection. "She takes nature pictures, but not the kind of nature I'd want to get close to--earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes..."
"Floods... She has books of photographs, and calendars, and her work's been in all the big magazines. Have you heard of her?"
Allie nodded brightly.
A moment later Chance appeared in the doorway, his hat in one hand and her driver's license, along with a computer print out, in the other. Allie knew well the somewhat red-faced expression. To his credit, this officer, unlike most others, looked her in the eye.
Despite herself, Allie couldn't keep her grin down any longer. He looked so cute, with the color rising in his cheeks like that. "Yes, Chance?"
Now he did look down, as his fingers traced the brim of his hat, before catching her gaze again. "The computer confirms you're Allison Y. Craine of Carmel, California, age twenty-six."
"You're twenty-six?" Fran gasped.
Allie nodded. "In ten years I'll feel much better about this. At least, hopefully I won't get carded anymore--or arrested." She felt her smile slip and decided to change the subject. "So, do I get my camera back?"
"Of course." Chance sounded defensive. "What are you doing in Indiana taking pictures of tornadoes, anyway?"
Fran started. Pretending to rub her temple with one hand so Chance wouldn't see, Allie put a finger to her lips. Wide-eyed, Fran settled back in her chair, then slapped her own forehead. "How did I ever make detective?" When Chance gave her a puzzled glance she added, "And who turned off your brain today?"
"Taking pictures is what I do," Allie explained. "I'm a photographer. In fact, I haven't lied to you about a single thing so far."
"Why didn't you show me your ID earlier?" Chance asked.
"You didn't ask--standard procedure. Besides, you would've assumed it was faked. I've been there."
"Do you get arrested often?"
"Yep." Fran and Chance exchanged a glance. "Look, I don't blame you for doubting my age, but I'm just doing my job. It's not my fault if I look a little young."
Chance raised an incredulous eyebrow. "A little?"
Allie took a deep breath, but it didn't help. She was tired of being judged by her looks like a super model, having to flash her ID at new people every day. Also, as long as she was in the mood to complain, she was tired of waking up in a different campground every morning. Crumpling the doughnut wrapper, she heaved it at a wastebasket and climbed to her feet, still clutching the soda can. "Where's my RV?"
"Don't be angry--" Fran began, but Allie cut her off.
"I'm not angry at you. I'm just...angry." She drained the soda, tossed the can away and headed for the door, but Chance rushed to block her way.
"I'm sorry--really." He glanced around, as if almost in a panic, until his gaze rested on Fran. "Say--I'll bet Fran would like to know more about your photography."
"Oh, yes--" Fran frowned. "What do you know about her photography?"
Allie shook her head. "I just want to settle in and have a real meal." When she tried to move around him, Chance blocked her way again, and she bumped into his chest. The room seemed to close in for a moment. Despite the way he'd treated her, Allie had to admire the trooper's muscled torso. But he didn't seem to admire her much in return, so she distracted her sudden rush of hormones by tapping a finger on the bulletproof vest beneath his blue uniform shirt.
"You'd better move it, buster, or you'll need more than a flak jacket to protect you."
His next words were the last she expected to hear from him: "I'll buy you dinner."
Allie's heart jumped. Taking a step back, she regarded him, while Fran stood by her with a look of undisguised astonishment. Allie had to force down the impulse to say "Yes," even as her intuition told her he had ulterior motives.
"I mean--" Desperation tinged Chance's voice. "It's the least I could do to make up for this misunderstanding."
Something was going on, all right--and it wasn't a dinner invitation. Allie shouldered her way through the door. As she hurried down the corridor Chance followed, with Fran close on their heels.
Fortunately, no sign remained of the camera crew when she shoved open the front door and stepped into the afternoon sun. Her RV waited, shimmering in waves of heat at the end of the parking lot, and as soon as she saw it she knew why Chance wanted to delay her. Another trooper stood by the vehicle, holding a leash hooked to a German Shepherd that sniffed at the RV's tires.
Clenching her fists, Allie whirled and again slammed into Chance's body. This time she shoved herself away and glared at him. "You think I'm hauling drugs?"
Chance held up his hands. "I'm sure the dog's just..."
"Watering your tires?" he finished weakly.
As Allie marched toward the RV the dog began howling, scratching at the side door of the vehicle as if desperate to get in. The puzzled handler muttered, "I've never seen him act like this."
When Allie stopped by the dog, Chance caught up with her again, clutching her arm. "Allie, I want you to be straight with me--"
"You want to search my home?"
"Well...yes." He exchanged suspicious glances with the dog's handler.
"You'll regret it."
For a moment the small group stood in uncomfortable silence. Then Chance said quietly, "Will you give us permission to search it?"
In response she took a step back and waved an inviting hand. "You have my permission. Search it. Be my guest. But I'm warning you--you won't like the result."
The dog handler glanced back at Fran, as if making sure of a witness, then opened the door.
The Shepherd lunged in.
A fiery ball of fur landed on the dog's nose, shrieking as no tornado ever could. Before anyone could think or move, a cascade of yelps and screeches filled the air and the dog broke free from its handler. It dashed at top speed across the parking lot, its tail tucked between its legs.
"Cujo! Come back!" The handler lumbered after it.
A gray tomcat settled itself on the bottom step. It licked its ruffled fur and gazed around with a look of superior triumph.