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THE HIGH SUN glinted off the river, its smooth surface broken only by the frothy whitecaps that churned against the rocks hidden beneath, and Natalie Simmons's step faltered as she surveyed its awesome power. Her gaze traveled along the limestone and shale canyon cliffs the river was nestled between and the breath was stolen from her chest.
Holy Mother, she'd never felt so small. "Amazing, isn't it?" a man with blond hair and a lazy smile asked as he approached, reading her expression. She recovered with a shy nod, accepting his outstretched hand for a quick shake. "It never fails to get me right here every time," he said, knocking on his chest for emphasis. He grinned broadly, showcasing nice, white even teeth that surely made his dentist proud and she found herself smiling back, though she'd never been what could be deemed a flirt by any stretch of the imagination. "Name's Evan. I'll be your guide. What's yours?"
"N-Natalie," she warbled around the dust in her throat. He chuckled as if she weren't the first one to suffer from too much nature all at once and she tried again. "Natalie Simmons."
"Well, Natalie, welcome to Moab. Just sit tight and someone will come to put your stuff with the others. We should be ready to shove off soon."
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if another bus was coming, as she still hadn't seen Dan anywhere, but Evan the River Guide Guy was gone before she could put the words together. She started toward the cluster of people Evan had pointed to, all the while keeping an eye out for the one person she'd made this trip for.
She couldn't wait to see the look on Dan's face when he saw her. The urge to giggle almostrelieved the tightness in her lungs but she contented herself with a secret smile, knowing everything was going to work out.
Another five minutes crawled by and Natalie slapped her thigh in mild annoyance—he was late. Dan was always late. They used to joke he'd be the type to skid in on one foot to the chapel. She'd, of course, threatened him with bodily harm if he did that on their wedding day and they'd laughed. She swallowed and flinched at the sharp pain that followed but managed to keep her eyes dry. She fingered the pendant around her neck for strength. A gift from her oldest sister before she left for the Peace Corps many years ago, the pendant served to remind her she wasn't here to cry. She'd done enough of that the first month after Dan had left. Now was the time to be proactive. If Dan was going river-rafting, by damn, so was she.
She'd show him there were more dimensions to Natalie Simmons than he ever dreamed. Boring, indeed. Predictable, watch this. She was practically a goddamn daredevil, she thought glancing at the river again as if it were a coconspirator, and not the subject of her nightmares a full week running prior to her flight date.
Squaring her shoulders, she jerked at the suitcase as it got stuck on a pebble and moved toward the group with a dogged smile on her face.
Her gaze skipped over the anonymous faces in an attempt to lock onto the one she knew best, but there was still no sign of him.
"Double-check the knots, Joe," she heard Evan say as he motioned to the slim man who had turned his attention to the rigging on the larger raft that would be used to haul the camp supplies from each location.
"I don't mind eating canned beans every night but I'm not sure how well that'll go over with the clients if all our food ends up in the mighty Colorado." Goodnatured ribbing and lighthearted laughter followed while Natalie waited for Dan.
She spied a large gnarled piece of wood and, although it didn't look like the most comfortable place to put her rear, at least it wasn't the ground. Out of habit, she glanced at her wrist but her watch was tucked away in her luggage and only a tan line met her eye. Perhaps if Dan didn't show soon, she could ask one of the crew people to radio headquarters or base camp or whatever it was called to find him.
Without meaning to, she found her gaze seeking out the river guide, Evan. He worked quickly and efficiently to get the expedition ready on time, jerking lines to test their strength and helping his colleagues stow luggage on another bargelike raft.
Total eye candy. A dead ringer for Matthew McConaughey if she ever saw one. A candidate for a pinup calendar entitled, "Beach Bum Bachelors." The corners of her lips lifted in amusement as more alliterative calendar names came to mind. Names such as "Randy River Rogues" and "Cute Catches of the Colorado."
When she realized she was staring a bit too intently she tried focusing on something a little less masculine. Besides, as good-looking as he was, he didn't hold a candle to Dan. Of course, she'd never been much for blondes, especially ones with hair that looked perpetually mussed, with the tips bleached white from the sun. It was too bohemian for her tastes. No, she preferred a man with hair as dark and rich as a walnut.
Joe said something just out of Natalie's auditory range and Evan sent a surreptitious glance her way before offering Joe a chuckle.
She stiffened and pretended she didn't notice, then looked out toward the water, entranced by its swift, running surface, until a smiling crew member came to stow her luggage for her.
Feeling oddly vulnerable without something familiar around, she tried shifting to a more comfortable position, but there was no changing the fact her tush was sitting precariously on petrified wood. She didn't have long to move around before Evan started addressing the group and she hurried over to listen.
"Welcome to Wild River Expeditions," he began, rubbing his hands together, his obvious excitement rivaling those of his rafters as they crowded around, eager smiles wreathing their faces. "My name is Evan Murphy and I'll be your guide on this trip." He pointed toward the crew members who were putting the rest of the rafters" luggage on the other rig. "We are here to make your river-rafting experience fun, exciting, something to remember but, more importantly, safe.
"The most valuable skill you can possess to make this trip enjoyable is the ability to listen. The river is a beautiful place but it can be dangerous. You must listen and do as I tell you without hesitation in order to stay safe when we're out there. Together, we'll work as a team to make this the best damn adventure you're ever going to have."
Murmurs of excited agreement rippled through the small group, but Natalie was too busy watching for another bus and hoping her former fiancé was on it. She frowned when nothing but some indeterminate bird hopped across the path and then flew away. Where was he? Dan was missing all the important stuff. A sliver of irritation followed as her gaze automatically swept the area, again looking for his familiar face.
Perhaps he missed his flight or his layover was longer than expected. She sent a worried glance in the direction the bus had gone but there was nothing but scenic nature, pretty as a postcard, staring back.
The hairs rose on the back of her neck and she turned, somehow knowing Evan was staring right at her.
"Any questions?" he asked, his forehead wrinkling in displeasure as if to send home the point that she wasn't listening to the very important things Dan was missing.
"Sorry," she murmured, flushing with embarrassment when the other rafters turned to see who Evan was addressing, knowing she deserved their censure for not paying attention. Panic was beginning to set in and all she could think about was that they were missing the most crucial member of the group.
"All right then, let's get this show on the road!" Evan said, his enthusiasm returning. "You're going to want to change into your swimsuits if you haven't already and grab your hats so we can hop into the boat for some basic instruction before we shove off."
She couldn't let Evan start the trip without Dan. Winding her way through the group as they dispersed to change, Natalie went to tug on Evan's shirt sleeve to catch his attention, but her fingers grazed sunkissed bare skin instead.
"Oh!" She jerked her hand away as completely inappropriate images of him posing in her fictitious calendar forced their way into her brain. Appalled at herself, she managed to stammer some kind of apology before continuing nervously. "Uh, we can't leave yet. We're missing someone," she said, gesturing desperately at the clipboard in his hand. "Dan Gorlan. He was supposed to be here. Please check your list."
"Gorlan…that name rings a bell." Evan scanned the paperwork, flipping the pages as he searched, and she breathed against the knot in her chest.
Everything was going to be fine. He'd see Dan was missing and he'd send someone to go find him. She'd almost calmed to an acceptable level until he nodded his head, pointing at two names. "Ah, that's right," he said. "I knew I recognized the name. Here it is. Dan Gorlan and Jessica Chambers—canceled. Are they friends of yours?"
Canceled? She wanted to wail at the cosmic cruelty, but she was too stunned by the second bit of information to do more than stare dumbly, her jaw falling slack and her knees wobbling dangerously. "Who's Jessica?" she asked in a guttural whisper.
"I don't know. Maybe one of them got sick. Happens all the time," Evan answered, shifting uncomfortably.
The tears she'd sworn were finished rushed to prove her wrong. He wasn't coming. And even if he had…he'd planned to bring someone else.
"They canceled a few weeks ago," Evan continued awkwardly when she failed to stop staring at him as if he was somehow in on her complete humiliation.
"In fact, you and Mrs. Stemming—" he pointed discreetly toward the middle-aged woman wearing an electric blue hat and fussing with her river shoes "—took their places. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to accommodate your reservations."
Mortified, Natalie backed away, stumbling on her words as the need to escape swamped her ability to form a coherent sentence.
If she hadn't been choking on a golf-ball-sized clot of misery she would have laughed at the irony. She came all this way for nothing. She blew half her savings on a trip to prove herself to a group of strangers.
And Dan couldn't care less.
The next thing she knew she was moving away, intent on one thing—getting the hell out of there.