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" And in the name of Almighty God, we dedicate the final resting place of Dorothy Twitchell Rossiter. We pray it will be protected from the elements until the day she will rise and come forth in the resurrection of the just. Amen."
Vance Rossiter tipped back his dark head to take in the June sky. Brilliant white pillow clouds kept changing shape as they moved through a sea of blue peculiar to Yosemite. Maybe it was the trees in the park knifing into the rarified atmosphere that produced that intense color. This was his grandmother's favorite kind of day. Warm, with a refreshing breeze.
Content that she'd gone on to join his grandfather in a happier place, Vance chatted quietly with friends of his parents and grandparents. The fourth Rossiter had now been buried in the cemetery. They were a family well loved in this little community of Oakhurst, California, his birthplace.
Little by little the assembled group grew smaller. The hearse drove away. He shook hands with an official from the Sierra Phone Company, his grandfather's longtime employer. After saying goodbye to the pastor and the hospice people who'd cared for his grandmother over the last three months, Vance turned to his best friend, Chase Jarvis.
"Thanks for being with me today. It means a lot."
Chase clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Where else would I be?"
Vance gazed at his second-in-command. In a crisis or otherwise, Chase was the man to look to. "Running the park?" With both of them absent for the day, the chief of security was in charge.
A lopsided smile broke out on his face. "The guys at headquarters have everything in hand. They've planned dinner for you at Shane and Lisa's."
Vance glanced at his watch. It was ten after three. With the crowds of summer tourists descending on the park, it would take close to two hours to get back to Yosemite Village from here. "We'd better leave now."
By tacit agreement the two men left the flower-filled grave site and maneuvered their tall bodies between the tombstones to Vance's black Mazda, parked along the side of the road. Once they'd taken off, he said, "It was strange sitting in a church pew and knowing I'm the last Rossiter alive."
Chase's gray eyes shone with compassion. "I can only imagine how that must feel."
"Empty is the word that comes to mind." Even though his grandmother hadn't known him toward the end, she'd still been alive. The connection had been there. Her skin had felt warm; her fingers had squeezed his when he'd talked to her, working to a response.
He purposely drove past the home where he'd lived with his grandparents after his parents had been killed. There was a red Honda Civic in the driveway.
"The new renters?"
Vance nodded. "I'm glad someone answered the ad so fast. We agreed on a six-month lease. I'd have liked it to be a year's contract, but that was wishful thinking."
"Maybe they'll enjoy the area so much they'll stay on."
"Maybe. I should be glad it's not going to sit empty. My grandmother would be happy, too."
As they approached the Arch Rock entrance to the park, only thirteen miles from Oakhurst, Chase murmured, "Are you okay?"
"Yes. She and my grandfather both lived a full life and were ready to go when their time came. I can deal with that." He nodded to Ranger Thompson, who was manning the station, as they passed on through. The younger man smiled and waved.
After college Vance had joined the marines. He'd seen death up close and had dealt with it as it came, even his wife's. His red-haired Katy had signed up for the military as a nurse. They'd met and married in Germany. Their brief, eighteen-month marriage had ended when she'd been deployed to the Middle East and her convoy had been taken out by a roadside bomb. Casualties of war were inevitable, but devastating when they struck down one's own spouse.
All that had happened five years ago. Since then he'd gotten out of the military and had worked at two national parks before he'd been made chief ranger here. His marriage had been more like a series of short honeymoons interrupted by war. He and Katy had been incredibly happy, but fate hadn't allowed them to put down roots and start a family. At times the sadness came back, but Vance had managed to put the worst of it behind him.
He was doing all right now. The trick was to stay away from emotional entanglements. In the end it avoided the kind of heartache he never wanted to feel again.
"There've only been two deaths that still haunt me," he muttered. The image from the helicopter, of a man's and woman's frozen bodies partially buried in the snow on top of El Capitan, never left his mind.
Chase breathed in sharply. "It wasn't your fault. You need to get over that."
"You mean the way you've gotten over it?"
"Touché," he said in a quiet voice. "But after I issued the warning, you weren't responsible for the couple. They refused to come down off the mountain."
"That's not true. Providing for the safety of park visitors ultimately rests with me. When you put out the storm alert, I should have had the Darrows ordered off."
"You mean the way the government orders people to evacuate during a hurricane? Some individuals just won't do it. They think they're immortal. We can't use force."
A self-deprecating sound escaped Vance's lips. "Another time I will."
Chase stirred restlessly. "So will I. It'll mean a lawsuit slapped against us so fast, Superintendent Noyes will demand our heads."
"True, but being fired isn't the worst thing that could happen, with two lives at stake. The Darrows left a child homeless." Therein lay the sin.
"Agreed. Let's hope a situation like that never happens again. I was here before you were transferred from Bryce. Believe me, Vance, you were sorely needed. In fact, you're the best thing that's ever happened to this park. Let's keep it that way."
"You're full of it, but I appreciate your willingness to go down with me if it comes to that."
Chase put on his sunglasses. "I agree the Darrow accident was a tragedy, but those two were the ones at fault for doing something so selfish. I know parents who fly separately when they have to travel. If anything happened to one of them, the other would still be there to take care of the children. But not every couple thinks that way. You can't be everyone's conscience, Vance."
That's what the psychiatrist provided by the department had told him in therapy. It still didn't remove the sting of guilt or his anger over the senseless death that had robbed a youngster of his parents. They had no idea how lucky they were to have had a child at all. Vance would have given anything for the privilege .
"You're right." Still, his hands tightened on the steering wheel, causing his wedding ring to bite into his skin. He hadn't taken it off, because a wedding band on a man of thirty-five in his kind of work was a subtle indicator of stability.
Not liking the direction of his thoughts, he phoned dispatch for an update. Cindy was on duty. So far, no emergencies.
"Sorry about your grandmother, Chief. I would have been at the funeral if I hadn't had to cover for Ranger Baird at the last minute."
"I know that. What happened to him?"
"The flu hit him hard. He's home doing you know what, sir."
"Afraid I do. Thanks for not giving me chapter and verse." She laughed before he hung up. It resounded in the cab. Vance flicked his gaze to Chase. "Our newest transfer ranger from the Smokies is cute and single."
"I was going to tell you the same thing. However, even with that drawl I'm afraid cute doesn't cut it for me. But then neither does naughty and available."
Vance groaned. He couldrelate. "We're both getting too crusty in our old age." His divorced friend's thirty-fourth birthday would be coming up in August. Unlike Vance, he didn't seem to have any gray hairs among the brown yet.
"If you mean the park has become bachelor haven, you must have been cornered by Lisa."
"Lisa and Phyllis," Vance muttered.
"Add Nancy over at the restaurant to the list."
"Yup. All the happily married ones."
"Careful, Chase. Your cynicism is showing."
"We're both a case for the books."
"You've got that in one."
Dr. Joel Karsh didn't have a receptionist. He made his own appointments. Rachel Darrow entered the empty reception room outside his private office. After half a dozen visits, she knew to knock on the inner door to let him know she'd arrived. "Come in, Rachel."
Over the past few months she'd been seeing the highly recommended Miami child psychiatrist often enough to feel they had a rapport. That was good because she was in desperate need of help from an expert.
"Thanks for fitting me in on such short notice." "You said Nicky's nightmares are getting worse." "Much worse since he found out I've got to leave on another cruise next week. I thought that was behind us. He's at the point where he doesn't want to go to bed for fear he'll dream. With kindergarten over, he won't leave the house or play with friends. He clings to me. My parents and I have tried everything to reassure him, but it's no use."
The psychiatrist sat forward. "I'm going to tell you the same thing I've told you all along. Since your father's poor health won't permit him to travel, and your mother has to nurse him, my advice would be for you to take Nicky to Yosemite and let him see the place where the accident happened.
"Ask one of the park authorities to talk to him and explain why his parents died. If Nicky can get his questions answered by someone who was there, it will settle his mind enough so he can let go of his fear."
"You really think that will help?" Rachel asked doubtfully.
"Medication can sedate him enough to make him sleep, but the real problem lies in his subconscious, where nothing in his world has been resolved. There's a reason for his terror. He was staying with his grandparents when he learned his parents died hiking in Yosemite Park, a place he can't picture. All he knows is that they never came home.
"Nicky didn't get to see their bodies. The memorial service in lieu of a funeral, to spare him, didn't do him any favors. The service didn't mean anything to a five-year-old boy. Simply speaking, he's bewildered and confused."
"He never talks about Michelle," Rachel murmured.
"He will in time. You've told me she was a superb mother. That's why he won't allow himself to think about her yet. You're his aunt, and close in age to the parents he lost. Having seen pictures, I know you bear a strong resemblance to your brother, as well as to Nicky. The boy relates to you more than he does his grandparents, who are years older and much more sedentary. He's terrified he's going to lose you at sea.
"It's little wonder his dreams have become more violent. He's a year older now. No matter how hard you try to shield him, he's bound to see violence on TV and in films. Nicky's been exposed to more of life, so his demons are worse, and his imagination is running rampant. His mind is wondering about what terrible thing is going to happen to you when you're out of his sight.
"I promise you the truth won't be nearly as hard for him to deal with as his frightening nightmares. He needs closure for something he still can't comprehend. Frankly, you need it, too."
Rachel averted her eyes. Dr. Karsh was right. She'd fought the idea of going to California, for fear she wouldn't be able to handle it. From the beginning he'd urged her to see one of his colleagues who could help her deal with her pain.
Two weeks after she'd learned of her fiancé's infidelity and had called off the wedding, word came that her brother and sister-in-law had died in a freak blizzard on El Capitan in Yosemite. Plunged into the deepest agony of her life, Rachel hadn't listened to a frantic Steven, who'd been unfaithful to her but wanted her back. He'd been trying to reason with her ever since, and vowed he'd wait for her to talk to him no matter how long it took. However, all her energies had gone to Nicky.
When she'd heard the tragic news, she'd been away on a cruise ship, working in her job as an administrator. By the time she'd made it home, their remains had already been flown to Florida. Her whole family had been inconsolable.
Nicky, the poor darling, was still suffering. It was a miracle he was able to attend kindergarten at all. Rachel had had to go with him every morning and sit in for part of the class in order to reassure him. She didn't dare be late picking him up at the end of his afternoon sessions.
Though she'd purchased a small waterfront condo since graduating college, she'd been forced to sublet it, and move back home with her parents to help take care of her precious nephew. In the past ten months she'd only done six cruises.
They'd coincided with Nicky's vacations from his year-round school. During those times he'd clung to her parents while he waited anxiously for Rachel's return. Not only was it too hard on her mother to nurse her father and care for a five-year-old, but it was asking too much of the cruise line to allow her more time off.
If taking Nicky to Yosemite would help him heal, then Rachel needed to do it, even if it meant opening the wounds all over again. Her nephew simply couldn't go on like this! Neither could she.
Secretly, she harbored a deep anger against the park authorities. The staff in charge were supposed to guarantee tourists' safety. If the right precautions had been exercised, surely such a terrible tragedy couldn't have taken place.
It had been Ben and Michelle's first trip to California. They'd never hiked in mountains like those and shouldn't have done so without supervision. The rangers were there for the tourists' protection. Rachel wondered how lax they would be while she and Nicky visited the area.
Had the ranger in charge at the time been removed? When she was in California, she intended to find out. If she learned he was still working there, she would demand to know why. Depending on the answer, she might start an inquiry to get him dismissed. It wouldn't bring Nicky's parents back, but might prevent another ghastly death from occurring.
"I'm going to take your advice," Rachel said at last. "Nicky's out of school right now, so this would be the best time to go."
The doctor looked pleased. "I can't guarantee the trip will be a total cure, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. Call me when you get back and we'll talk again."