Chapter 1 1
Walking barefoot in the silky white sand of Karon Beach on the island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea, Tommy Baxter felt a million miles away from reality. Beside him was the only girl he had ever loved, a girl he had met his freshman year at Northside High School. The one who had his whole heart.
“I’ll remember this as long as I live.” Tommy slid his fingers between hers, their pace slow and easy. “Every detail.”
Her pale blond hair danced over her bare shoulders in the Indian Ocean breeze. “When I write the story of my life”—she smiled up at him—“this page—being half a world away from home with you—will always be my favorite.”
And Tommy could barely breathe. Those green eyes had captured him the first time he saw her and they held his heart still. They always would.
The start of their senior year at Northside High was weeks away, but they still had a few days left on Phuket. Visiting the western beaches of Thailand with Annalee’s family was something they had looked forward to since May.
“The fishing boat leaves in two hours.” Annalee looked out at the water. “God gave us the perfect day.” She slowed a bit. “Let’s go back. I’m a little tired.”
Concern washed over Tommy the way it had yesterday when she mentioned needing more rest. “How did you sleep?”
“Good.” Annalee looked at him. “Don’t worry, Tommy. It’s the time change. That’s all.”
Yes, that made sense. After all they were eleven hours ahead of Indiana. But hadn’t they been here long enough to be used to the change? Everyone else in the group was rested by now.
Tommy held her hand a little tighter. “Maybe you should get to sleep earlier tonight.”
“Okay.” She didn’t look troubled. “Good idea.”
They took their time on the way back. Tommy surveyed the string of five-star hotels that marked the beach, the same beautiful stretch of shoreline that had been devastated by the tsunami of 2004. But there was no sign of that now. The beaches of Phuket had made a resounding comeback. Tourism was at an all-time high.
Vacation wasn’t the reason Annalee’s family was here this week, though. The Millers had come to the mountainous rain-forest island for work. Annalee’s parents ran Each One International, a ministry with offices across the world. The goal of Each One was to reach the least and lost in various cities, care for their physical needs and provide safety, and to tell them about the love of God.
Here at Karon Beach, Annalee’s parents had been taking meetings with local Each One leaders. Tommy was bunking with her younger brother, Austin, and Annalee shared a room with her parents. The rooms had been comped by the hotel manager, who was familiar with the work Annalee’s parents were doing. The stay wasn’t just a vacation. Annalee’s parents were being briefed on the work ahead.
According to Annalee, so far they had received very valuable information.
Tommy filled his lungs with the sweet salty air. The days here on the shore had seemed like they’d last forever. But the hard part of the visit would happen tomorrow. That’s when the group would head to Phuket City and Patong’s seedy Bangla Road. Annalee’s parents had warned them that the day would likely involve rescue work.
“Let’s sit for a while.” Tommy searched her face. Annalee’s freckled cheeks were tan from the days on the beach. But her beautiful eyes didn’t look right. “Or maybe you should take a nap. Before the fishing trip.”
Annalee shook her head. “I’m okay.” She nodded up the beach to their chairs. “This is good.”
They sat and stretched their legs. Annalee took a deep breath. “Senior year. How can it be?”
“The days flew.” The sun cast a thousand diamonds across the water. Tommy turned to her. “You’re sure about Indiana?”
“I think so.” She linked her pinkie finger with his. “I like NYU. But I’d rather be close to family.”
They had both applied early to Indiana University in Bloomington, an hour from home. All Tommy’s aunts and uncles lived there, along with his papa John Baxter. Tommy was deciding between Indiana, Harvard, Duke and North Carolina.
But there were days Tommy wasn’t sure about any of them. “I still think about the military. I could graduate in May and head to the recruiters’ office.” He raked his hand through his short blond hair. “Someone has to do it.”
“True.” They’d had this conversation before. Annalee wanted him to go wherever God was calling him. She understood the military would mean they’d be apart. Maybe for years. “If you become a soldier, you’ll be the best they ever had.”
Tommy ran his thumb over her fingers. This was one more reason why he loved her. She had no designs on his life, no ulterior motives. Not like his parents did. He glanced at her. “Of course, I could still be a doctor.” He winked at Annalee. “Which would make my mother happy.”
“We don’t have to have all the answers.” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “I feel God’s Spirit here. In the touch of the wind and the soft of the sand.”
“Mmm.” He couldn’t look away, couldn’t take his eyes off her. “I feel Him here, too.”
RAIN FELL EVERY other day in July in this part of Asia, but not that afternoon. Sunshine drenched the beach as Tommy helped Annalee onto the fishing boat. Her parents and brother and two fishing guides were already on board.
Tommy slipped as he stepped inside, and Annalee caught him. “Whoa!” He found his balance.
“Good thing I feel better.” She laughed. “You’re not easy to catch.”
“True.” At six-foot-three, Tommy was easily nine inches taller than Annalee. People often mistook him for a college athlete. He gave Annalee a side hug. “Just testing you.”
Dan and Donna Miller sat at the front of the boat with the guides. The goal was to catch a marlin for dinner. Austin stayed at the back with Tommy and Annalee.
They were a few hundred yards offshore when they spotted the first dolphin. Five more surfaced nearby. About the same time their captain and guide, Hans, cut the engines. “Dolphins know what’s about to happen.” Hans was a veteran fisherman. Backward baseball cap, soggy unlit cigar between his sun-scarred lips. He pointed to the choppy water near the boat. “Lots going on here.”
“Can I jump in?” Austin ripped off his shirt and jumped onto one of the bench seats. “I’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins.”
“Not on my watch!” Hans motioned to Austin. “We’re chumming the water, boy. Dolphins aren’t the only animals we’ll attract.”
Austin looked over the edge of the boat. “I hadn’t thought about that.” He took a step back. “Reef sharks, right? But I read that they don’t bite.”
“A man lost a foot to one a few years ago.” Hans raised his weathered brow. “Stay in the boat.”
The guide outfitted everyone with a rod and reel. Even Annalee. Which was a good sign. She had said she wouldn’t fish if she wasn’t feeling strong. Finally, Tommy thought to himself. She’s past the jet lag.
An hour later, Austin caught a yellowfin but it broke free from his line. Then minutes before they returned to shore, Tommy felt a sudden strong tug on his reel. “Hey! I got one!” The fish doubled his fight, and Tommy dug his heels against the inside of the boat and bent his knees. “Someone help!”
Mr. Miller rushed over. He grabbed Tommy by the waist and the two of them fought the fish with all their strength.
“It’s a marlin!” Annalee’s father was first to see the spikes along the upper part of the fish. “This is the one!”
“Reel it in slowly, gentlemen.” Hans was at their side. “There you go… that’s it!”
Ocean spray whipped their faces, but Tommy and Annalee’s father held on until the monster fish was up and over the boat railing. The two high-fived, both of them out of breath.
“I can’t believe it!” Annalee put her hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “It’s the size of a shark!”
She wasn’t far off. Tommy had seen pictures of marlin, but nothing had prepared him for the behemoth catch. Hans helped Tommy and Mr. Miller hoist the fish up for a picture. Then they dropped it into an oversized tub of ice.
Tommy was still breathing hard as he turned to Mr. Miller. “Thanks for the help!” Tommy wiped the seawater from his face. “That was crazy!”
“Teamwork.” Mr. Miller put his arms around his wife and Austin. “That is one massive catch.”
“Congratulations!” Hans measured the fish and faced them. “Biggest marlin of the year!” He grinned. “Most tourists come back with nothing. You’re a sporty group!”
Back on the beach Hans prepared the fish and cooked it over an open flame. What they didn’t eat, he would take to a nearby restaurant, where people from the village would line up for free fish.
When Hans was gone, Tommy sat with Annalee and her family at a table near the water and Mr. Miller prayed over the meal. “This day in the sun was a dividing line, Lord. I can feel it. Today we see what life is like with Your grace and goodness.” He paused. “Tomorrow we will see what it is like for the lost children of Phuket.”
The man’s words were sobering. Tommy was aware they would be working tomorrow, but until now he hadn’t thought of exactly what that meant. He looked at Annalee’s father. “You remember last summer my family and I took that trip to Africa. We painted orphanages and made bracelets with the kids.” He hesitated. “Will it be like that?”
Mr. Miller shook his head. “We do oversee an orphanage in Phuket.” His tone grew heavier. “I’m afraid another issue has taken precedence for this trip.”
“The rise in tourism has brought an increase in sex trafficking.” Mrs. Miller took her husband’s hand. “Twenty minutes from here, there’s an open-air beach market where children are sold.” She explained how Each One was working with local law enforcement officials to close down trafficking rings. “In the meantime kids from all over Asia are still brought here as slaves. We rescue them, but sometimes the young ones don’t even know where they’re from.”
Tommy thought about his younger sister. Malin was twelve now. If someone kidnapped her and forced her into… He couldn’t finish the thought. He’d do anything to protect her. “So… you rescue these kids, and then… where do they go?”
Annalee’s dad explained that Each One had recently opened a safe house. It had forty rooms and as many trained volunteers. The goal was to get the victimized children safe and fed and then to reunite them with their families. If their families could be found.
“What if the kids don’t have anyone?” Annalee’s shoulder brushed against Tommy’s. “I guess… I didn’t know how bad things had gotten here.”
Austin anchored his elbows on the wooden table. “I talked to Dad about this before we left. I asked the same thing.” He looked at his father. “What if the kids don’t have anyone?”
“That happens sometimes.” Mr. Miller was quiet for a moment. “An orphaned child is most vulnerable for this wicked business.”
“So sad.” Tommy couldn’t get his mind around it. “What happens next? At the safe house?”
Mr. Miller crossed his arms. “Some kids stay until we can find them a home. A safe place where they can have something they are desperate for.” He hesitated. “A family.”
When dinner was over, Annalee and Tommy moved to the same pair of chairs they’d sat in earlier. The sun was setting, casting streaks of pink and yellow across the vast blue sky.
For a while they didn’t talk. The sounds of the gentle waves on the beach and the wind in the palm trees nearby was enough. In the distance, the cry of a macaw echoed through the hills.
Tommy took Annalee’s fingers and brought them to his lips. The two of them had made a deal when they started dating. They could hold hands and hug, they could kiss. But nothing more. Not till they were older. Not till the time was right.
But there were times when keeping their promise was all but impossible. Last year at prom when Tommy took Annalee home, and her parents had been gone. They had stood on her front porch and he had taken her face in his hands. Their kiss had stirred feelings in him that stayed with him still. God alone had kept him from crossing lines with her that night.
Here on this beach, Tommy felt the same familiar draw.
She turned to him. “You’re going to be mad.”
“At what?” He slid his chair a little closer, so his bare knee was touching hers. “Never at you, Annalee.”
“Not me.” She stared out at the ocean. “Tomorrow. The monsters trafficking children.” Concern tinged her voice. “You can’t fight them, Tommy. They’ll arrest you.”
His heart warmed as he studied her. “You know me.”
“Yes.” She looked at him again. “Promise me.”
Now it was his turn to look at the water. If he had his way they would round up every trafficker in Phuket, put them on a boat and set them adrift in the Indian Ocean. But God’s ways were higher. He wouldn’t do any good by taking the law into his own hands. Especially here in Thailand. “I’ll follow your dad’s lead.” He kissed her hand again. “I have this strange sense I’ll know about my future after tomorrow…. You ever feel that way?”
“At times.” She stood and stretched. “Maybe we’ll both live here and work for Each One someday.” A smile lifted her pretty lips. “Then I could walk this beach with you whenever I wanted.”
The sunset was hitting its peak, the sky a canvas of colors that took Tommy’s breath. He stood and put his arm around her shoulders. “How do you feel?”
“Perfect.” She faced him, careful to keep a few inches between them. Thailand didn’t approve of public displays of affection. Tourists weren’t held to the same standard, but even hugging could be considered rude. She touched his cheek and the sensation lingered. She smiled. “Walk with me?”
“Yes.” He clenched the muscles in his jaw and hesitated. “I don’t want the sun to set.”
She smiled. “Me, either.”
They walked at the water’s edge, slower than before. “I wish we were older.” Tommy kept his gaze straight ahead. “Finished with college and sure of what we want to do.” They were out of view of the public now, alone on the most secluded stretch of sand. There wasn’t another person in sight.
“Mmm.” She waited. “Sounds wonderful.”
“And I wish this wasn’t a mission trip.” Tommy slowed to a stop and faced her. “But our honeymoon.”
Annalee looked at him, straight through him. “I wish that, too.”
They had talked of growing up and getting married before. Just not on an empty stretch of sand half a world away from home. Tommy moved closer. One inch at a time. The electricity between them was so strong, he couldn’t stop himself. Even when he knew he shouldn’t kiss her here.
“This day, being with you here… it was perfect.” His words were a desperate whisper against the sound of the surf. “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, Annalee.” He took hold of her other hand and his body moved closer still. “Your eyes… your heart.”
“Hold me?” Annalee looked over her shoulder. “No one can see us.”
She didn’t have to ask twice. He eased her into his arms. This is heaven, he thought. And he could only imagine what it would be like… if this were their honeymoon. His cheek brushed against hers, his lips a breath away from hers. “Annalee… I want you.”
“I wanna kiss you.” She searched his eyes. “We’re alone out here.”
Tommy ran his fingers through her hair and framed her face with his hands. “Me, too… I want that more than my next breath.” His lips were so close to hers he could smell her sweet breath.
Son… be careful.
The words blew across Tommy’s soul and made him catch his breath. He took a half step back and exhaled hard. He didn’t have to ask if the voice was God’s. The Lord spoke to Tommy often. He was familiar with His tone and timing. Yes, Lord… I hear You. I will obey.
Tommy put his hands on Annalee’s shoulders. “Can you imagine? Getting picked up by the police for kissing in public.” He laughed, trying to keep the moment light. “I don’t think your parents would like that.” He ached for a way around the local rule, but there was none.
She took a step closer and rested her head on his chest. The warmth of her through his thin white T-shirt almost made him kiss her anyway. Her arms came around his waist. “You’re right.” She breathed deep in his arms, and the sensation was more than Tommy could take. She lifted her face to his. “Maybe tonight. When it’s dark.”
With a strength not his own, Tommy separated himself from her. “Really?”
“Yes.” Annalee’s eyes sparkled. “When everyone’s asleep.”
Tommy wanted nothing more. But no matter how great the idea seemed, he wouldn’t allow it to happen. He couldn’t disrespect her parents like that.
They turned around and walked back toward the hotel, slower than before. Soon enough the sun would slip below the water and darkness would cover Phuket. Tommy would meet up with Austin in their room and they would talk pro basketball and players the Pacers were looking to trade or the starting lineup in the coming season.
But for now there remained the warm feel of sand on their toes and the touch of salty beach air on their faces. And Annalee Miller’s hand in his.
That most of all.