The river runs wild
Former Fish & Wildlife Officer Charlotte “Charlee” Tanner still carries the guilt of a tragic drowning accident that occurred on her watch. She hoped moving back home to the wilds of central Florida would provide a safe haven—until she learns the death was no accident, and she’s the intended target.
But no wilder than their passion
Tough and decisive, Lieutenant Hunter Boudreau loves his new job as a law enforcement officer with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Charlee is his best friend, so when she comes under fire, he’s not letting her out of his sight until the killer is caught. But Charlee won’t sit by and let anyone else die for her.
As danger closes in and Charlee and Hunter’s attraction threatens to consume them, Charlee has to decide if she can trust Hunter. And to save Charlee, Hunter will have to trust her, too.
Today is just another day.
Florida river guide Charlotte “Charlee” Tanner grimaced at the mess her all--night baking marathon had wreaked on her little kitchen. When she couldn’t sleep, she baked. Later, she’d take the cupcakes to her best friend, Liz, to sell at the Corner Café.
But first, Charlee had to survive her kayak tour on the river. She had taken dozens of groups out over the years. All she had to do was pretend today was like any other day.
Just in case, she grabbed her Taurus 738 .380 handgun and tucked it into her dry bag, then slung her backpack over one shoulder. Cupcake carrier in each hand, she marched down the porch steps of her little tin--roofed cottage with her chin up, shoulders back, no sign of the guilt and anxiety sloshing in her gut. She was a former Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission officer, for crying out loud. As former state law enforcement, she knew all about projecting confidence. Besides, what choice did she have? Any sign of weakness, and her family and former squad members would hover and cluck like sandhill cranes protecting their only chick.
She tried to enjoy the fifteen--minute stroll through the pines between her cottage and Tanner’s Outpost, the earthy smell, sunlight glinting off the Ocklawaha River, the chirp and rustle of birds waking and night creatures bedding down.
But when she reached the gravel parking lot, she narrowed her eyes. At 7:07 a.m., there were already over a dozen cars in the parking lot—-and she recognized too many of them.
“Morning, Travis,” Charlee called, and watched a blush race over his pale cheeks when she smiled at him. Travis attended the community college and worked at the Outpost part--time. Right now, he was loading kayaks and canoes on the rack for transport to the put--in at Ray Wayside Park.
“Don’t forget to check the straps on all the life jackets,” Charlee added as she headed inside.
His smile faded. “Like I don’t check them every single time,” he mumbled.
She wanted to shout every safety admonition she’d ever learned at him. “You can’t be too careful out on the water.” “Things can go from calm and serene to life--threatening terror in an instant.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Steady, girl. Just another day on the water.
She took a deep breath before she stepped through the screen door into the tin--roofed office.
Her oldest brother, Pete, in his green Marion County Sheriff’s Office uniform, strode over and swept the cupcake carriers out of her hands. “Hey, squirt, are these cupcakes?”
She should have known he’d show up. Big, bossy, and bull--headed, he was the family’s self--appointed protector—-whether they wanted protection or not. No one in the family had been surprised when he followed their father into the sheriff’s department. And since he’d always been annoyingly vigilant where Charlee was concerned, she’d bet every last cupcake he’d organized this morning’s family ambush.
He grinned as he opened the first plastic lid. “Man, these look great.”
Charlee planted her hands on her hips, but before she could light into him, her father stepped up behind her and wrapped her in a big hug. “How’s my girl today?” He loosened his grip and stepped in front of her so he could study her face.
He was as tall as Pete, but thinner and grayer these days. His eyes were anxious, which made her widen her smile. After her mother’s stroke last year, Frank Tanner had enough on his plate without adding worry about her to the list. She reached up and kissed his leathery cheek. “I’m doing fine, Dad. Doing fine. Thanks for coming in today.” Charlee had been running the family business since she resigned as a Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission officer last year, but her father ran the office when she took groups out on the river.
The bell above the door jangled, and Charlee shook her head as her other brother, Josh, sauntered in, a handful of pink roses in one hand. Even in his khaki FWC uniform, he looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of a magazine, hence the nickname Hollywood. He was ruggedly handsome, never a blond hair out of place, and women fell all over themselves for one of his dimpled grins.
He stepped over and gave her a one--armed hug, handed her the flowers. “Thought you’d enjoy these.”
She raised a brow, sent him a teasing grin. “Been raiding Mom’s rose garden again?”
He shrugged, his eyes steady on hers, his worry obvious. She buried her face in the flowers and refused to meet his gaze. He’d always been able to read her too easily, and somehow, in the six months since pancreatic cancer had taken his fiancée, Elaine, he’d gotten even better at it. But she wouldn’t let him. Not today.
When he finally gave up and headed for the cupcakes, Charlee let out a relieved breath.
At that moment, Charlee’s youngest sibling, Natalie, stumbled into the office, yawning. “I smell coffee.” Then her eyes popped all the way open. “And cupcakes.” She spun around and wrapped Charlee in a giddy hug. “I knew you’d have cupcakes today.”
Charlee’s temper spiked. Pete had shanghaied Natalie, too? “Why aren’t you at school?” Natalie’s dorm at the University of Florida was more than an hour away.
Natalie ducked her head as she poured coffee. “I had some time, so I stayed over last night.” She pulled out a newspaper. “Besides, I wanted to show you the article in the Gainesville Sun. The Corner Café made the ‘New Eateries to Check Out’ list, and your cupcakes were one of the main reasons why. It’s not every day one of my totally lame siblings gets media attention.”
The minute the words slipped out, Natalie froze, a horrified expression on her face. “I’m sorry. I mean—-”
Last year’s nightmarish headlines flashed through Charlee’s mind, but she pushed them firmly away. She sent Natalie a smile and then eyed the rest of her family. “Look, guys, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, I really do, but—-”
The old--fashioned bell over the door chimed. A prickle of awareness slid over Charlee’s skin, and she knew without turning that Hunter Boudreau had just sauntered in. Pete’s longtime Marine Corps buddy, Josh’s newly appointed FWC lieutenant, and the one man who had breached Charlee’s self--imposed isolation over the past six months. He had coaxed her back into going four--wheeling in the forest, showed up with pizza, beer, and an action movie on Saturday nights, and engaged her in witty banter and made her laugh. Best of all, he never asked about what had happened last year, so she could let her guard down and be herself.
Charlee watched Pete, Josh, and Hunter exchange measured looks, so different from their usual camaraderie. Josh’s chin came up, and he slipped on his mirrored sunglasses without saying a word.
Pete’s voice was cool. “Morning, Lieutenant.” He spat out the title like he’d swallowed a bug. “Surprised to see you here. Thought you’d be busy moving into your new office and digging up dirt on your fellow officers.”
That was a low blow. Hunter stiffened, and the tension that crackled in the air made Charlee want to snarl at her brother. The whole thing was such a mess. Two days before, Lieutenant Rick Abrams, their former boss and a longtime Tanner family friend, had been fired for taking a bribe to overlook a poaching incident. Apparently, Hunter had seen Rick take the money and had reported it. Which he’d had to do, no question. But the process was supposed to be anonymous, which could only mean that Rick was talking about it, trying to make Hunter look bad.
When Hunter got promoted to take Rick’s place, Pete and Josh started stomping around like angry elephants. Both Hunter and Josh had stellar records, but everyone had expected Josh to get the job, since he’d been with FWC longer, and Rick had been grooming him to move into the lieutenant’s slot.
She shook her head. She was still furious with herself for not seeing Rick’s true colors sooner. She’d always liked the handsome, forty--year--old divorced father, and had thought she might be falling in love with him. But somewhere along the way, everything changed. He’d made her doubt herself and her instincts, and even after she’d ended it six months ago, he was still trying to get her back. Now this. How could she not have known him at all? What did that say about her ability to read people?
Hunter’s tempting smile brought her sharply back to the present. She’d recently developed an unexpected and unsettling attraction to him, but he treated her like one of the guys. Or like a kid sister.
“I saw the article in the paper and went by the café to congratulate you and Liz, but she said you were working here today.” He gave an endearing shrug. “I was hoping you’d brought cupcakes.”
Between the sexy rumble of his voice and the smile, Charlee smiled back like an idiot, but wiped it from her face when she met Hunter’s piercing green eyes. She didn’t buy his reason for showing up, either, but if she let her guard down a fraction of an inch, her family would wrap her in one of Mom’s old quilts and lock her away from the world. Bad enough they all knew she’d been up all night baking. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “You guessed right. Help yourself.” She waved at her family, all with cupcakes in their hands. “Everyone else has.”
His steady gaze captured hers, and she read his unspoken question. Are you okay?
She ignored him. Like Josh, he saw through her too easily, and today, she needed all her armor firmly in place.
As the bell above the office door jangled again, Charlee squared her shoulders, wondering if the rest of her FWC Ocala squad would show up, too. She hid her relief and upped the wattage on her smile as her guests walked through the door.
“Good morning, everyone. Y’all enjoying your stay at the Outpost?” After three days with his teenage son and daughter, Paul Harris’s smile looked strained around the edges. “Are you ready to go? It’s going to be a great day out on the river.” She turned to the teen girl, who was inappropriately dressed in a short sundress and flip--flops, and said, “You might want to pack that phone in a waterproof bag, though. We have some over there.” She pointed to a display case.
Brittany scowled at her father and mumbled under her breath, “I hate this place. It’s hot and it stinks and there are bugs everywhere.”
The door banged open, and two lanky, college--age guys barreled in, laughing, teasing, each carrying an open energy drink. They stopped short when they spotted Brittany.
As Charlee turned to welcome them, another voice asked, “Are we ready to go?”
Charlee jumped. Oliver Dunn had been at the Outpost for several days and had a bad habit of sneaking up behind her. He was dressed in his usual khaki shorts, fisherman’s shirt, and wrap--around sunglasses, and his bleached blond hair and tanned skin pegged him as a middle--aged outdoorsman.
“Let’s get the paperwork started so we can head out.” She glanced out the window and saw Travis checking the kayaks strapped to the racks on the trailer.
As Paul, Oliver, and the two guys filled out liability release forms, Pete kissed her cheek. “Be safe out there, squirt. Thanks for the goodies.”
Josh came up behind Pete, gave her a steady once--over. “You going to be okay today, Charlee? You look tired.”
The two middle children, they had always been close. Josh understood her sleepless nights better than anyone, especially lately. She made a shooing motion. “Go, already. Geez. I’m fine.”
Charlee grabbed her pack from under the counter as the group trooped out the door. She could do this. She looked up at the sky, clear despite the thick humidity. Her weather app said no storms predicted until later. Nothing like that stormy day on the Suwannee River a year ago. No rapids to navigate here on the Ocklawaha, either.
Stay focused on today.
“Charlee, wait up!”
She looked up, not really surprised when Rick Abrams hurried over from his truck. Dollars to doughnuts he hadn’t come to offer support, but to plead his case. She kept walking. “I have to get to work, Rick.”
He grabbed her arm to stop her. Hard. “Just hear me out, okay? I can explain.”
Charlee stopped, fixed him with an icy glare. “Take your hand off me.”
“What?” He glanced down in surprise and dropped his hand, but didn’t budge from where he stood, too far into her personal space. “Look, Charlee, you need to understand, I—-”
Charlee kept her voice calm, implacable. “You need to leave now.”
“Just five minutes, that’s all I need.” He smiled. “Come on, Charlee. Just—-”
“I believe the lady asked you to leave, Abrams.”
Charlee looked over Rick’s shoulder to where Hunter stood in the universal law--enforcement pose, face impassive, hands on his utility belt and in reach of either his gun or Taser.
Rick stiffened and turned to face him. “This doesn’t concern you, Boudreau,” he spat.
“Anytime a guy puts his hands on a lady against her wishes, I make it my business.”
“Really? You’re going to blow this out of proportion, too?”
In one smooth move, Hunter positioned himself between her and Rick. “Go home, Abrams. If she wants to talk to you, I’m sure she knows how to find you.”
Charlee expected Rick to take a swing at Hunter, but instead, he muttered a string of curses as he stormed off toward his blue pickup, then sped out of the parking lot, flinging gravel in his wake.
Hunter hitched his chin toward her arm. “Did he hurt you?”
She glanced down, surprised at the imprint of Rick’s fingers on her skin. “No. He just annoyed me.”
Hunter’s face was set. “Let me know if he bothers you again.”
She tipped her head back so she could see his face, make sure he understood. “I can handle him.”
“No doubt. But he’s lost everything he cares about. He’s angry, and he’s fighting back.”
Charlee shook her head. “I get why you and my whole family showed up this morning, but I’m fine, okay?”
He folded his arms over his chest and studied her intently, like an insect he’d never seen before. Charlee matched his stance and stared back, drawn, as always, to his quiet strength and the air of danger that surrounded him. Solidly built and sleekly muscled, he moved like a Florida panther. He’d slipped into her life and had become her best friend, almost without her realizing it. For the past six months, he’d also stood between her and the world, giving her a safe space to heal. But she couldn’t hide there forever.
He raised an eyebrow and stepped closer, right into her personal space. She didn’t back up an inch. He didn’t make her feel threatened. Instead, his sexy combination of sandalwood and man beckoned her closer. She held her ground.
“They hover because they care, Charlee.”
“I know. And I appreciate it. But I’m former FWC, remember? I can take care of myself.”
“No question.” His vote of confidence and slow smile warmed her all the way to her toes.
A little shiver slid over her skin as he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Have a good time out there today, okay?” Then he turned and walked away.
Her cheeks flamed with heat when she saw Paul and Oliver watching the exchange with a little too much interest. Paul’s son, Wyatt, fiddled with his backpack, and Brittany had her face buried in her cell phone, oblivious. The two college guys were too busy eyeing Brittany to notice.
“We ready to go?” she asked as she reached them, professional smile in place.
As they pulled out of the gravel parking area, Charlee glanced in her side mirror. Hunter touched the brim of his FWC ball cap in a two--fingered salute that gave her an added boost of courage. She nodded and squared her shoulders. She could do this.
What was it about that stubborn woman that got under his skin? She had family who loved her, but she didn’t seem to get how important it was to listen to people who not only cared about her but knew what they were talking about. Hunter knew why the family had shown up in force this morning. The same reason he had.
Hunter had read the official incident report from last year. Charlee had taken a side job with an outfitter at Big Shoals on the Suwannee River to lead kayak/canoe trips on her days off from FWC. It was one of the few Class III rapids in Florida. A year ago today, a storm cell had blown in, and the group of four Charlee was leading got separated in the rapids. The teenagers capsized. Charlee was able to reach them in time to save the girl, but the boy was swept downstream and drowned.
Hunter understood regret and the guilt that gnawed at your soul better than most. His brother’s devil--may--care smile haunted him every single day—-and most nights. If he could go back in time, he’d find a way to keep Johnny alive. Or die trying.
Instead, he was trying to figure out how to live with his failure—-and keep those he cared about from making the same mistakes.
He did another quick scan of today’s weather reports. Except for the usual afternoon thunderstorms, everything should be fine. Charlee and her group should be back from their four--hour paddle by lunchtime, well before the predicted 3:00 p.m. storms.
Yet he couldn’t shake his unease. Maybe it had nothing to do with the weather. Or what had happened last year. Maybe it had to do with the way her smile drew him to her like he was a puppet on a string. Or the way she looked in her cargo shorts and snug T--shirt. Or the way she always smelled like cupcakes. Maybe it was her fierce love for her family that drew him ever closer.
His eyes narrowed at the cloud of dust Abrams had left behind. He didn’t like the way Rick had grabbed her. One more thing to add to the man’s list of sins. Hunter would keep an eye on him, make sure he didn’t do anything stupid where Charlee was concerned.
But right now, he had a job to do. He walked over to his FWC vehicle and climbed into the gray--and--green Ford F--150 pickup. He’d been working toward a promotion to lieutenant, had already passed the exam and had his board review, but Abrams getting fired wasn’t the way he’d hoped to get the job. It would take time for him to earn the respect of the officers now under his command—-especially Josh’s. Everyone had expected the longtime local boy to get the job. Which meant Hunter had to get his head in the game. Pronto.
Since this was his first day as a lieutenant, he touched base with the members of his unit by phone, rather than simply checking their GPS locations via the computer--aided dispatch, or CAD, system on the laptop in his truck. Officers set their own daily agendas, so he kept things casual, friendly, not wanting anyone to think he was looking over their shoulders. He ignored the grunts and cool responses he got in return.
Then he headed into the Ocala National Forest and touched base with a few of his contacts at a local bait shop. Since he was there, he wandered down to the marina, checked a few fishing licenses and the contents of several coolers, listened to the local gossip, and shot the breeze with a few old--timers who’d claimed the bench in front of the store. But Charlee’s tired brown eyes and the guilt she couldn’t hide haunted him.
Two hours later, he launched his FWC patrol boat at Ray Wayside Park. He’d take a quick run down the Ocklawaha River, say hello, make sure everything was fine.
Just in case.
Connie Mann is a licensed boat captain and loves writing romantic suspense stories set in Florida’s small towns and unspoiled wilderness. She is the author of Beyond Risk, the Safe Harbor series, as well as Angel Falls and Trapped! She has lived in seven different states but this weather wimp has happily called warm, sunny Florida home for more than twenty years. When she’s not dreaming up plotlines, you’ll find “Captain Connie” on Central Florida’s waterways, introducing boats full of schoolchildren to their first alligator. She is also passionate about helping women and children in developing countries break the poverty cycle and build a better future for themselves and their families. Besides boating, she and her husband enjoy hanging out with their grown children and extended family and planning their next adventure.