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Only the dearest of friends could have persuaded Sierra Winston to risk life and limb—and some very expensive shoe leather—on this wild-goose chase. She looked down at her nearly new pair of Christian Louboutins sinking slowly into the muddy streets of Ouray, Colorado. "Mark, you sooo owe me," she muttered, as she pulled one foot, then the other, out of the mud and took stock of her new surroundings.
The Victorian-era storefronts along Ouray's main street looked straight out of a postcard, but the backdrop for this slice of small-town Colorado drew the eye and made Sierra's breath catch in her throat. Snowcapped mountains soared above the former mining town, their icy granite spires and sun-washed slopes making the village and the people in it seem tiny in comparison.
Sierra felt a little sick to her stomach, staring up at those mountains. They reminded her of too many things she'd avoided thinking about for too many years.
That was part of the reason she was here today, she reminded herself. She would have to face her past if she ever wanted to let go of it, and this was the place to do it.
She started across the street, slowing to allow an open-topped Jeep to pass. The two male occupants of the vehicle whooped and waved at her. She managed a thin smile, conscious of how out of place her designer miniskirt and red stilettos were in a town where most of the women wore jeans and hiking boots. You're definitely not in Manhattan anymore, she reminded herself as she reached the opposite side of the street. Here, a life-size bronze sculpture of a bugling elk confronted her.
"Can I help you, miss?" An older man with a thick head of graying hair approached her.
"I'm looking for Sixth Avenue." None of these dirt roads was what she'd term an avenue, but that was the address she'd been given.
"Who's the lucky person you're going to see?" The question was delivered in a jovial tone, but the old man's eyes sharpened. In Manhattan she'd have blown off the question, but this was a small town, where everyone knew everyone else. There was little chance she'd keep her destination secret for long.
"I'm going to see Paul Teasdale," she said.
The man's friendly manner quickly became guarded. "Are you some kind of reporter?" he asked.
Apparently she wasn't the first journalist to have found her way to this remote outpost. Then again, it wasn't every day that the body of one of the most celebrated mountaineers of the twentieth century was recovered from the side of an Alaskan peak by one of the mountaineering stars of the twenty-first century—a man who just happened to live in Ouray, Colorado. Sierra offered her most disarming smile. "It's all right," she said. "Mr. Teasdale is expecting me."
"You want to head two blocks up that way," the man said, pointing. "Though I can't say if he's home right now."
He'd better be home, she thought, after I flew two thousand miles and drove another forty to see him. And all because an old boyfriend had asked her to do him this one big favor.
She thanked the old man and set off once more. After hours on a plane and in the small rental car, she'd decided to stretch her legs by walking to Paul Teasdale's house. She walked everywhere in Manhattan, and two blocks didn't seem that far. Sierra had looked forward to a pleasant stroll around town—not an endurance march. The sidewalk ended after only a few yards and she found herself picking her way along another dirt street, this one ascending sharply uphill. Her progress was slow, since she had to stop every few feet to catch her breath in the thin air. This gave her plenty of time to think about what she would say to Paul Teasdale when they met—and how she'd ended up here in the first place.
"I need a reporter for an assignment," Mark had said the morning he'd called Sierra in her office at Cherché magazine, one of the top women's magazines in the country. Mark worked two floors up at the male-oriented Great Outdoors.
"Why are you calling me?" As she talked, she searched in her desk drawer for a nail file. "I already have a job. And I don't have time to freelance."
"I already okayed this with your boss. You can work on this assignment and still draw your salary from Cherché."
"What kind of assignment?" Her beat was gossip, glamour and women's issues. Great Outdoors specialized in testosterone, grit and gear.
"It's a human interest story. Right up your alley. Top pay and all expenses."
"There has to be a catch."
"Yeah, that's where the favor comes in. This is the kind of story that could make my career—and you're the only one who can write it for me."
She gave up her search for the file and resisted the urge to gnaw the ragged nail instead. The uneasy quaking in her stomach increased with each word from Mark. "What's the story?"
"I've landed an interview with Paul Teasdale. But he'll only talk to you."
Paul Teasdale—a name she'd heard far too often these past few days. "No."
"I know it's a lot to ask," Mark continued, as if he hadn't heard her refusal. "But Teasdale isn't talking to anyone. Rumor is he's angling for a big book contract. My editor already struck out trying to get a story from him, so I took a big chance and offered him you."
"What am I, the sacrificial virgin?"
"You're Victor Winston's daughter."
As if that wasn't a sacrifice of a different kind. Sierra had refused to think of her father for years, and then Paul Teasdale had carried his body down from a mountain and for the past week she hadn't been able to turn on the television or pass a newsstand without seeing or hearing his name. The headlines screamed at her in stark black letters: Famed Mountain Climber's Body Discovered Twelve Years After His Death! Or Twelve Years On Mount McKinley—Body Of America's Most Famous Climber Recovered.
Dead more than a decade, Victor Winston was still a celebrity. No doubt, he would have loved all the attention. Other mountaineers may have been more technically proficient, but no one was better than Victor at playing to the press. Even freezing to death in a blizzard at nineteen thousand feet, he'd radioed details to all the major wire services.
Never mind Sierra and her mother, sitting at home glued to the television and waiting for news. By then, it had been years since fourteen-year-old Sierra had felt close to her father, but the memories of those times were still fresh—days when public acclaim and the allure of summiting the next peak hadn't meant more to him than spending time with his family. In those last few anxious days of his life, she'd listened to the increasingly desperate dispatches from Mount McKinley, hoping for some sign that he was thinking of her, but it never came.
When the transmissions ceased and it was assumed Victor Winston had died, what little love she'd had left for him had died, too. She'd followed her mother's example, presenting a stoic face at the public memorial service after he was declared legally dead, boxing away the pain like old clothes that didn't fit anymore.
Now Mark was asking her to take out those old garments and try them on again.
"I know it's a lot to ask," he said again quietly. "But it's the big break I've been waiting for."
Promotions at Davis Partners Publishing were tough to come by, especially on the testosterone side of the company. The editors of the hot rod, hunting, fishing and other male-targeted publications tended to stay on the job until they suffered heart attacks at their desks. The only way for an assistant like Mark to score a better position was to do something earth-shaking.
An exclusive from Paul Teasdale probably qualified. Mark was one of Sierra's dearest friends, but could she do this, even for him? "What would I have to do?" she asked. Maybe a phone call or two wouldn't be so bad…
"He lives in some little town in Colorado—Ouray.
We'd fly you out there and you'd hang out for a few days, get an idea of what he's like. And I want your personal touch on the story—emotions, opinions, whatever comes to mind."
In other words, he was asking her to bare her soul.
"I'd have to go there and meet him?" She'd avoided looking at any pictures of Teasdale, but she knew what he'd be like—wiry and ruggedly handsome.
It was enough to make her gag.
"Come on, Sierra. Aren't you a little bit curious?" Mark asked. "Don't you think this would help you, too?"
She stiffened. "Help me how?"
"I don't know—answer some questions about your dad. Bring you some closure."
"I don't need any closure, Mark."
"Right. Of course you don't. So interviewing this guy should be no big deal. Think of it as a free vacation to the mountains."
She knew Mark; he wasn't going to let this go. She took a deep breath. "All right. I'll go out there and talk to him. But not only do you owe me that big fat paycheck, when I get home I want dinner at Jean-Georges." The exclusive Central Park restaurant was a favorite of well-heeled foodies.
"Dinner, with champagne and all the chocolate you can eat. And thank you! I'll send down the travel documents as soon as they're ready."
So here she was in Ouray, Colorado, hiking uphill in high heels and fighting a queasiness in her stomach that had nothing to do with the altitude. She'd lied to Mark when she told him she wasn't curious about her father. She didn't have any questions about how he died—the details had been played over and over in the news the past few days. But since he and her mother had separated when Sierra was ten, she did want to fill in the blanks of his life between then and when he'd died four years later.
What had driven him to risk his life in such hazardous conditions, to spend months away from home and family and suffer all manner of hardships?
What had he found in the mountains that he couldn't find with his wife and child?
Why had he played the part of the devoted father for the first ten years of her life then left her, taking with him a piece of her heart she'd never been able to get back?
Those questions had been enough to override her better judgment and persuade her to leave Manhattan for the wilds of middle-of-nowhere Colorado. She hoped that in talking to Paul Teasdale she could somehow solve the mystery of her father and discover what had driven him to the mountains—and away from her.
Paul Teasdale saw the woman long before she spotted him. He'd climbed onto the roof of his duplex to replace some damaged shingles and had scarcely driven the first nail when he glanced down the hill and saw a vision in short skirt and crazy high heels doggedly hiking toward him. She stopped every half block to catch her breath, giving him the opportunity to study her. Her brown, shoulder-length hair, her narrow black skirt and crisp white blouse, though simple, screamed designer pedigree.
He let his gaze linger on her long, shapely legs. That's what high heels did for a woman.
What was a woman like her doing in Ouray, Colorado, a long way from fancy gyms and designer boutiques? She didn't look like the typical tourist, so that left the other category of visitors the town had seen too much of lately: reporters.
Frowning, Paul turned his gaze from the woman and fished another nail from the pouch at his waist. He'd really hoped the news media had tired of him and his refusals to talk to them. Yes, finding the body of Victor Winston had been an historical moment, but also an intensely personal one.
Like much of the rest of the country, Paul had been glued to his television twelve years before, when the mountaineer had been trapped on Mount McKinley, the weather keeping his rescuers at bay, infrequent radio transmissions relaying his plight. Only sixteen at the time, Paul had vowed to replicate Winston's historic climb one day.
He'd never dreamed he'd come face-to-face with his idol upon doing so. He was still processing everything the discovery meant, and didn't care to share his feelings with reporters.
Excited barking from his dog, Indy, announced a visitor. "Hello! Excuse me! Hello!" called a feminine voice.
Paul swiveled ninety degrees and looked down on the woman. She tilted her head toward him, cheeks flushed pink, hazel eyes sparkling. He clamped one hand on the ridgeline to steady himself. "Uh, hi," he stammered. So much for impressing her with his charm and savoir faire.
His golden retriever, Indy, scampered around her, tail wagging. She absently patted the dog. "Excuse me, I'm looking for Paul Teasdale. I was told he lived on this street."
"Are you a reporter?" he asked. Who else would be looking for him these days?
"I am." The woman's expression sharpened and she studied him with a new intensity. "He's supposed to be expecting me. In fact, my visit here was his idea."
Paul blinked, the vague memory of a telephone conversation he'd had last week—one of many telephone conversations last week—sharpening. "What's your name?" he asked.
This sophisticated beauty was the daughter of the great outdoorsman, Victor Winston—a man who had bragged about never wearing a suit, and who was known in his youth as "potato face"?