By R.C. Ryan
Forever Copyright © 2012 R.C. Ryan
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455502431
Quinn.” Cole Conway, weary from a day of unrelenting ranch chores, paused in the mudroom to roll his plaid shirt to the elbows before scrubbing the grime from his hands. “Go fetch your brothers for supper.”
“Yes, sir.” As the oldest of Cole’s three sons, twelve-year-old Quinn was accustomed to running and fetching. He saw it as part of his responsibility to his younger brothers, especially since the mysterious disappearance of their mother, Seraphine.
He hurried to the barn, where he found seven-year-old Jake struggling to unsaddle his pony. While he helped, Quinn glanced around the cavernous building. “Where’s Josh?”
Jake shrugged. “Don’t know. Haven’t seen him.”
Quinn tossed the saddle over the side of the stall. “Better get inside. Pa’s ready to eat.”
When Jake hurried away, Quinn searched the barn, then made his way to the house, where he climbed the stairs to Josh’s bedroom.
Standing in the open doorway he called, “Josh. Better hurry downstairs. Pa’s hungry.”
His words were greeted by an ominous silence.
He started across the room toward the bathroom, when a scrap of notepaper in the middle of the bed caught his eye. He picked it up, scanned the words, then raced down the stairs and into the kitchen, where the rest of his family was gathered.
Old Ela, a member of the Arapaho nation, who had been with the family for nearly forty years, was cutting warm corn bread into squares. Phoebe Hogan, their newly hired housekeeper, was placing a platter of steaming roast beef, potatoes, and gravy in the center of the big trestle table. Cole and his father, Big Jim, stood on the far side of the room, before a roaring fire, sharing a beer and an animated conversation.
Cole looked up. “Quinn, I told you to fetch—”
“He’s gone.” Quinn paused to catch his breath.
Cole looked annoyed at this disruption of their routine. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Josh is gone, Pa.” Quinn held up the scrap of paper. “I found this note on his bed.”
Cole crossed the room in quick strides and snatched the paper from his son’s hand. After reading it, he passed it to Big Jim.
As he read the words, the older man’s eyes narrowed in concentration.
Cole turned away, muttering every rich, ripe oath he could think of. “When I get hold of that boy, he won’t be able to sit down for a—”
“Hold on.” Big Jim put a hand on his son’s arm. “You stay here. I’ll go after him.”
“That note says only that he’s gone to the mountain.” Cole glanced out the window at the Teton mountains towering in the distance. “He could be anywhere.”
“He can’t be too far ahead. He was mucking stalls less than an hour ago. You stay with your boys. I’ll find him.”
Before Cole could argue, Big Jim snagged a handful of corn bread and some slices of roast beef, which he stuffed into a plastic bag before striding out the door.
Along the way he grabbed his parka and one for Josh. Though the spring days were shirtsleeve weather, the nights, especially in the mountains, grew downright frigid after sundown.
Though he would have preferred the comfort of his truck, he saddled the big bay, knowing a vehicle would never make it where he was headed.
He pulled himself into the saddle and prayed that the light would last another couple of hours. Just until he could find one ten-year-old boy who’d taken himself off to the mountains to brood.
There weren’t many things left in this world that frightened Big Jim Conway. He’d been little more than a boy when he’d left Ireland to seek a life in this brave new land. He’d buried a wife and five sons, and had raised his only surviving son on his own. He’d faced the fierce whims of Wyoming weather, had turned extreme poverty into extreme wealth, taming this wilderness and making his ranch one of the finest in the country. And he’d done it all his way, by the sweat of his own brow. But the words scribbled on the scrap of paper by his middle grandson had him running scared.
I’ve gone off to the mountain.
It was so like Josh. The boy had always been the rebel of the family. The rule breaker. The independent thinker. The loner.
Big Jim had no idea why the Tetons, towering over their land, called to the boy. But they seemed to hold some sort of power over him. Whenever Josh could manage to slip away, his family knew they could find him somewhere in those hills, climbing. Always climbing. And each time he climbed, he went higher than the time before, without regard to the perils that lurked.
That was what had Big Jim so afraid. The boy had no fear. Not of the cougars that roamed the higher elevations, nor the storms that often blew in without warning, covering the mountains with wind and sleet and snow. A boy of ten wouldn’t give a thought to the fact that a single misstep could cause him to fall hundreds of feet into an abyss where he might never be found, or leave him with crippling injuries that could cause him to be paralyzed for life.
All these fears played through Big Jim’s mind as he tethered his horse and began making his way along the steep trail, picking up an occasional thread or torn scrap of fabric that told him Josh had passed this way.
He looked up at the spectacular sunset, unable to appreciate its beauty. To Big Jim it meant only that dusk would soon be upon the land, making his task even more perilous.
He rounded a bend and spotted a lone figure sitting on a shelf of rock overlooking the land to the west.
The sight of his grandson left him weak with relief, and he took a moment to study the boy, his knees drawn up, arms around them, a pensive look on his face.
Big Jim took a deep, calming breath before striding closer and sitting down beside him.
Josh barely spared him a sideways glance.
“Your pa was worried, boyo.”
“No need. I’m fine.”
“It’s late. A lot can happen on this mountain.”
“I know how to take care of myself.”
“Yes, you do.” Big Jim leaned his back against a rock and turned his head to study the boy beside him. “Feel like talking?”
Josh shrugged. “Why bother? Nobody ever listens.”
“I’m here. I’m listening.”
The silence stretched out for so long, the old man began to think he’d made a mistake intruding on his grandson’s solitude.
Then, haltingly at first, the words began to tumble out of Josh’s mouth.
“Nobody ever talks about Mom.”
“It’s painful to talk about her. Ever since she went missing, your pa’s heart’s been broken. To cover it up, he turns to work, hoping if he pushes himself far enough and hard enough, it won’t hurt so much.”
“What about my heart? And Quinn’s? And Jake’s? How’re we supposed to keep on going without ever seeing her again?”
And there it was. Out in the open. All the nerves exposed and raw.
Big Jim prayed for the right words.
“I know your hearts are all broken, boyo. I know a thing or two about a broken heart. I learned a long time ago that it’s the price we have to pay for loving someone. When the time comes to let them go, we’re never ready. But it isn’t our choice. It’s up to the Almighty.”
“Are you saying God took my mom? ’Cause if that’s so, why can’t we find her body? Or is God really some evil spirit, like Ela’s Arapaho spirits?”
Dangerous territory, Big Jim thought. But he had no choice now but to plow ahead.
“As far as I know, Ela’s native spirits don’t do harm. As for the Almighty, I’ve always thought of him like a father. Tough, but fair. Loving, but always expecting us to do the right thing.”
“And if we don’t? What if we do something bad? Is that why Mom is gone?”
Big Jim lay a hand over his grandson’s. “Don’t ever think that. Bad things don’t happen to us as punishment for something we did or didn’t do. They just happen. They’re part of life. They happen to good people and bad. As for your mom, we don’t know if she’s dead or just missing. The fact that she disappeared without a trace left more questions than answers. I wish I could make you a promise, but I can’t. We may never know what happened. But we’re trying, boyo. Your pa’s hired a team of private investigators, and the police chief has the state police working on it. Chief Fletcher said that if they believe your mom crossed out of Wyoming, we can count on the FBI to lend a hand. But for now, we have to carry on with our lives. You know that’s what your mom would want for all of us. To get up every morning, put one foot in front of the other, and do the best we can.”
“But it’s like she was never in our lives now. Pa never talks about her.”
“He can’t, son. He’s tried, but every time he does, he breaks down. He doesn’t want you boys to see him cry. That’s why he takes himself out to the barns, or up to the hills, to work off his grief.” Big Jim cleared the lump from his throat. “But she’ll always be in our lives. Your daddy only has to look at you and he sees her. In your eyes. In the shape of your face, the tilt of your head, the jut of your chin. And know this, boyo. I give you my solemn promise. From now on, whenever you or your brothers want to talk, I’ll be here to listen.” In the silence that followed he closed his hand over his grandson’s shoulder and squeezed. “You hear me?”
“Good. Good.” The old man let out a long, slow breath and realized that it was the most he’d ever said about the terrible loss that had them all reeling. And though he’d been forced into it, it had been good to finally get it out. Like cutting open a festering wound and letting the poison seep out.
He leaned his back against the stone and allowed himself to admire the sky streaked with deep red and pink and purple, and to relish the silence that had settled over the land as darkness descended.
“This is a good place, boyo. You come here a lot?”
The boy remained pensive, but some of the tension had slipped from his hunched shoulders.
He nodded. “It’s my thinking place. Sometimes, when I’m up here, I swear I can hear Mom telling me what to do.”
“You’ll make her proud, I’m thinking. You’ve got some very special talents, boyo.”
Josh’s head swiveled. “I do?”
“Yeah. There aren’t many lads who can climb this mountain the way you do. Not many, I’d wager, with your fearlessness. You have the sort of pioneer spirit that built this great land. You just keep on honing your skills, and your future is going to be bright.”
He could see that his words touched the boy’s heart and seemed to settle deep in his soul.
Seeing the boy relax, Big Jim pulled on his parka, and handed one to his grandson. Then he withdrew the plastic bag from his pocket and shared the corn bread and beef, wishing he had a tumbler of good Irish whiskey to wash it down.
At last, warm, replete, content, the smile came to Josh’s face. That same wide slice of mouth that was so like Seraphine’s, crinkling the eyes, putting a light in them. A smile that could brighten the darkest hour. “Thanks, Big Jim.”
The old man knew Josh wasn’t thanking him for the food, but for something much deeper. A chance to be heard. A chance to share a real conversation. A chance to know that he mattered. That he was valued.
“You’re welcome, boyo.”
The old man and the boy remained there for what seemed like hours before they began the slow descent.
When they reached the tethered horse, Big Jim pulled himself into the saddle and his grandson climbed up behind him, wrapping his arms around the old man’s waist and pressing his cheek against his broad back.
They never again spoke about the incident, but a very special bond was formed between the old man and his middle grandson during that time shared on the mountain.
Conway ranch—Present Day
Hoo boy.” Josh Conway, fresh from morning chores in the barn, shook the rain from his dark, shaggy hair before hanging a sodden rain slicker on a hook in the mudroom. He bent to wash his hands at the big sink, and stepped into the kitchen of the family ranch. “Rain’s coming down out there like the storm of the century.”
“That’s what it looks like to me, boyo.” Big Jim was standing by the window sipping coffee and watching dark clouds boiling around the peaks of the Tetons in the distance. Jagged slices of lightning illuminated the ever-darkening sky and turned the leaves of the cottonwoods to burnished gold.
Though it was early autumn in Wyoming, there was a bite to the air, hinting at what was to come.
“Do I smell corn bread? Now that ought to brighten my day.” Josh made a beeline for the counter beside the oven, where Ela was cutting a pan of her corn bread into squares.
“Wait for the others.” The old Arapaho woman rapped his knuckles with her wooden spoon, but she couldn’t help grinning as he stuffed a huge slice in his mouth before turning away to snag a glass of orange juice from a tray.
Cole, who had been going over financial papers in his office, paused in the doorway just as Quinn and his new bride, Cheyenne, came striding in, arm in arm.
“Good,” Quinn said in a loud stage whisper. “They haven’t finished breakfast yet.”
“Haven’t even started.” Phoebe, the family’s longtime housekeeper, hurried across the room to hug them both.
After the disappearance of their mother, she had been hired to help Ela with the household and to help raise the three boys. A young widow herself, she’d sold her hardscrabble ranch and moved in to become their trusted friend and confidante, and their biggest supporter as they’d made the difficult journey through childhood and adolescence. Now, looking at the grown men she’d helped raise, she was as proud as a mother hen.
“And you just happened to be in the neighborhood,” Josh deadpanned.
“That’s right.” Quinn helped himself to a cup of steaming coffee. “After morning chores at Cheyenne’s ranch, we figured we’d amble over here and see if you needed any help.”
“Amble? Bro, you had to drive a hundred miles an hour to get here in time for breakfast.” Jake, their youngest brother, and the family prankster, stepped in from the mudroom, his sleeves rolled to the elbows, his hair wet and slick from the downpour.
Cheyenne shared a smile with her husband. “I told you they wouldn’t buy the story that we just happened to be in the neighborhood.”
“The only thing that happens to be in this neighborhood is Conway cattle,” Big Jim said with a chuckle. “And maybe a few of Quinn’s wolves and Cheyenne’s mustangs.”
“I’m betting they’d start a stampede for some of Ela’s corn bread.”
At Quinn’s remark, they all laughed louder.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re here.” Quinn turned to Ela. “Cheyenne and I have used your recipe, but it never turns out like yours.”
Josh winked at his new sister-in-law. “I bet she left out a key ingredient, just so you’d always have to come back here to get the best.”
“You see, Ela?” Jake was grinning from ear to ear. “I told you it would work.”
They all joined in the laughter.
“Sit down, everybody.”
At Phoebe’s invitation they gathered around the big wooden trestle table and began passing platters of ham and eggs, potatoes fried with onions and peppers, and Ela’s corn bread, as well as an ample supply of wild strawberry preserves, a favorite of Big Jim’s.
Phoebe circled the table, topping off their cups of coffee.
Jake filled his plate before handing the platter to Josh. “Big Jim and I are heading up to the hills after breakfast.”
“You’re heading right into the storm,” Josh remarked.
“Yeah. I’ve been watching those clouds.” Jake nodded toward the window, where the sky had been growing murkier by the hour. “Want to come along, bro?”
Josh helped himself to eggs. “Sure. A little rain doesn’t bother me. I can lend a hand. You doctoring some cattle, Doc Conway?”
Jake nodded. “Pretty routine stuff. But the work goes a lot faster with an extra pair of hands.”
When Josh’s cell phone rang, he idly glanced at the caller ID. His voice took on a businesslike tone as he answered. “Josh Conway.” He listened in silence before saying, “Okay. I’m on it.”
As he tucked his phone into his shirt pocket, he turned to Jake with a grin. “Guess I’ll have to take a pass on going along with you and Big Jim. I’m needed on the mountain.”
Cole shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to climb those peaks in this storm. How come they never call on you to climb on a sunny day?”
“I guess because no fool hiker ever gets himself lost in good weather, Pa.” Josh drained his cup and pushed away from the table. “I think it’s some kind of rule of the universe that every careless hiker in the world decides to climb the Tetons just before the biggest storm of the century blows through.”
He left the room to fetch his gear, which he always kept packed and ready for emergency calls. Through the years Josh Conway had built a reputation as a fearless, dependable climber who could be counted on to locate lost hikers who couldn’t be found by the rangers.
When he returned to the kitchen, Phoebe handed him a zippered, insulated bag.
At his arched brow she merely smiled. “Something to eat on the drive to your mountain.”
“Thanks, Phoebe.” He brushed a kiss over her cheek before giving a salute to the rest of his family. “See you soon.”
“Take care, boyo,” Big Jim said gruffly as Josh turned to leave the room.
Big Jim listened as his grandson’s footsteps echoed through the mudroom and out the back door and then glanced at his family gathered around the table. Though their conversation had resumed, it was muted. And though they never spoke of it, every one of them knew that there was no such thing as a routine climb. Not when the one doing the climbing was there because the professionals had already tried, without success, to find a missing hiker.
Josh was their last resort. The strong, capable loner who would never give up until the one who was lost was found.
See you soon.
Josh’s parting words played through Big Jim’s mind.
Funny, he thought, that ever since Seraphine disappeared all those years ago, none of them could ever bring themselves to say good-bye.
Maybe it was just as well.
Good-bye seemed so final.
“The missing hiker’s named Sierra Moore.” Mitch Carver, a ranger who had been working the Teton Range for over twenty years, tipped back his chair and idly tapped a pen against the desktop, the only sign of his agitation. “A professional photographer and veteran hiker. When she filled out the required backcountry use permit, she was warned of possible storms in the area, and she said she was hoping to capture them on film. I didn’t think much of it until she failed to check in with our station. I tried her contact number, and she never responded. It could mean that she simply forgot to power up her cell. Or the storm may have knocked out any chance of a signal. But her lack of response could mean she’s in trouble. And since she didn’t fill out the names of any friends or family to contact, I decided to send Lee to track her. But she wasn’t found in the area where she’d said she was heading.” He glanced at the papers she’d filled out. “Midlevel, possibly climbing as high as the western ridge.”
“Lee knows his stuff.” Josh had worked with rangers Mitch Carver and Lee Haddon for years, and was comfortable that neither of them would ask his help unless they were convinced that they’d chased every lead they could.
Mitch returned to his pen tapping. “Lee found no trace of her. None of the rangers spotted her. So far she hasn’t taken advantage of any of the rest areas or campsites, though they’re all on alert to watch for her. It’s like she just vanished.”
Josh felt the quick little shiver that passed through him and resented the fact that even now, all these years later, the word could have this effect on him.
“Okay.” He forced himself to relax. “We know she’s somewhere on the mountain. And with the storm, she’s probably hunkered down somewhere until it blows over. Mark all the places that Lee hiked, and I’ll chart a different route.”
Mitch handed over the map with a highlighted overlay.
Seeing Josh’s arched brow, he grinned. “After all these years, I’m pretty good at anticipating what you’ll ask for.”
Josh studied the trail taken by Lee Haddon. It was the logical path to the area the missing hiker had indicated. That meant that she’d been sidetracked along the way, or had chosen to climb higher than she’d first planned. The latter seemed unlikely, considering the fierce storms she must be dealing with. But he had to consider every possibility.
He began making a mental trail of his own. Though most hikers came to these mountains once or twice in their lives, this was Josh’s home turf. He didn’t need a physical map to tell him where every peak, every dangerous dip, curve, and valley lay.
The storm changed everything, though. Here at ground level, he had to contend with only thunder, lightning, and heavy rain. If forced to climb to the higher elevations, that would change to snow and sleet and tremendous winds.
Josh picked up his gear and strode to the door of the ranger’s office. “I’ll be in contact.”
“I know you will.” Mitch Carver lifted his hand in a salute as the door closed.
Josh had been climbing steadily for hours. And though he’d found no trail, not even a trace of another human being, he continued on.
As he’d suspected, the rain had turned to sleet in the higher elevations and now had turned to a bitter snow driven by an even more furious, blinding wind. It whistled up the side of the mountain, flinging a sudden spray of ice and snow in his eyes, like a slap in the face.
He needed to stop for the day and make camp. His muscles were beginning to protest the extra effort it took to climb over slick, ice-covered rock. His fingers had long ago lost all feeling. Despite the protective glasses, his eyes burned from the constant buffeting of wind and snow.
When he arrived at a flat stretch of space between two towering peaks, he lowered his pack and used it as a seat while he fumbled with his cell phone.
Hearing Mitch’s voice, he said, “Good. At least I have service here. I was afraid I was too high to get through.”
“You’re fading. I’ll probably lose you any second now. Any sign of our hiker?”
“Not yet. I’m at the North Ridge.”
“That high? You’ve been doing some serious climbing, my friend.”
Josh laughed. “I’m going to call it a day. Make camp here, then start a horizontal tomorrow before deciding if I want to go any higher.”
“Okay. Stay in touch.”
“You do the same.”
He tucked away his cell phone and began looking around for a spot to set up his small tent.
The wind had picked up to nearly gale force, kicking up snow in little funnels that were nearly blinding.
He blinked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. When he looked a second time, he knew that what he was seeing was real. A small white bubble tent was snugged up against a snow-covered peak, making it almost invisible. Had it not been for the extreme wind, causing it to shimmer with each sudden blast, it would have been impossible to see. Almost, he thought, as though it had been deliberately set up that way to deceive the eye.
At the same moment, a strange thought leapt unbidden into his mind.
Was this how his mother had been able to leave without a trace? Had she yearned for a new life, far from the demands of a husband and sons and the loneliness of ranching, using camouflage to make her escape across the mountains?
Almost as soon as the thought formed, he banished it from his mind. His memories of his mother, though distant and scattered, were happy ones. Seraphine had been a loving, though unconventional, mother. She neither cooked nor cleaned, but she had happily read to her sons, and played classical music, and directed them in plays and musicals for hours on end. When her boys grew weary and insisted on doing the things boys loved, playing outside or riding their ponies, she would simply take her books and music outdoors and watch them from a nearby hill.
Though she was athletic, with a lithe, sinewy dancer’s body, she never took part in any of their outdoor activities that Josh could recall. That told him that she would have never resorted to climbing these mountains.
Josh had never seen her unhappy or moody or less than exuberant about life. She would often tell her boys that while she missed the thrill of dancing onstage and the adulation of the audience, she didn’t miss the gypsy lifestyle, living in dingy hotel rooms, traveling from town to town. She seemed to genuinely love being a rancher’s wife and their mother, and she had treasured being anchored by their big, comfortable home and the sprawling land around it.
But there had never been an explanation for the fact that she vanished without a trace. There had been only theories.
The code of silence that had descended upon the family prevented any of them from knowing just what Cole Conway believed to be true. Did he suspect desertion by an unfaithful wife? Foul play? An alien abduction?
Josh pulled himself back from the thoughts that had plagued him for a lifetime. He forced himself back to the present and the job at hand.
If, as he suspected, this was the tent of Sierra Moore, his task had just become a lot simpler than he’d imagined.
Hopefully the saga of the missing climber would have a happy conclusion, and by this time tomorrow he would be enjoying another helping of Ela’s corn bread.
Josh got to his feet and hefted his pack before facing into the storm. At this elevation, it was much worse than it had been below. Wind whipped about, causing him to bend almost double as he crossed to the snow-covered wall of rock.
Outside the small tent he dropped his gear and cupped his hands to his mouth.
“Hello in the tent.”
He paused a beat, hoping to hear a voice above the sound of the roaring wind. Hearing nothing, he unzipped the flap and stepped inside, bracing for the sight of a frightened and possibly injured female, cowering from the wrath of such a fierce storm howling around her.
With his first step he felt something shoved roughly between his shoulder blades, and a sultry voice that was barely a whisper above the roar of the wind.
“State your business. If you make any sudden moves, I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
“Hold on now.” He lifted his hands, while his gaze swept the tiny space. There was a bedroll and a portable cookstove casting an eerie, flickering light. “I’m searching for Sierra Moore.”
“Why? Who sent you?”
“Mitch Carver, chief ranger.”
“Why would the ranger—”
He moved so quickly, the words she’d been about to speak were cut off as his fingers closed like a vise around her hand and he took her down in the same instant, sending her weapon flying through the air.
“Damn you…” Her muffled comments were lost in the sound of their fierce scuffle.
Josh gave a hiss of pain when she sank her teeth into his hand and another as her knee landed in his groin. Despite her furious attempts to fight him, she was no match for his size and physical strength.
He quickly subdued her, straddling her and locking her arms above her head in an iron grip.
“Now, as I see it, you have two choices.” He was breathing hard. “You can keep fighting me, in which case you’ll wear yourself out and I’ll eventually subdue you anyway, or you can promise to hear me out without any more attempts at violence. After which, if you’re not satisfied with my explanation, I’ll be more than happy to leave.” He stared down into her eyes, which were narrowed on him with utter contempt. “Your call.”
From between clenched teeth she said, “I’ll listen. But only after you let me go.”
He eased his grip on her hands, and got carefully to his feet. When he offered her a hand up, she ignored it, and got to her knees, before standing and facing him.
She was dressed all in black, from her skintight leggings to the black turtleneck, revealing a reed-slender body and long, long legs. Straight, waist-length blond hair fell in disarray around a face that would have looked right at home in a toothpaste commercial, with high cheekbones, porcelain skin, and dark lashes outlining golden-flecked blue eyes that were, at the moment, staring daggers at him.
He saw the way she darted a glance downward, as though searching for her weapon. “Don’t even think about going for it. I’m not here to hurt you.”
She crossed her arms over her heaving chest and fixed him with a hateful look. Her voice was soft and breathy from their skirmish.
“If that’s true, say your piece and leave me alone.”
“Happy to.” He indicated the tiny cooker. “That throws a lot of heat.” He was sweating, and he wasn’t sure whether it was because of the exertion from the fight, the heat of the tent, or the heat generated by this female.
She wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting. She was the exact opposite of a timid, frightened female. Because of the rugged location, he’d assumed she would be athletic, and she was. Everything else was just a bonus, especially those eyes. Right now they were narrowed on him with such fury, he could imagine them shooting bullets through his heart.
“Whenever a storm hits, it’s the job of the rangers to make certain that all the hikers in their district are safe.”
He waited for her to say something.
Instead, she held her silence until he added sarcastically, “In case you haven’t noticed, the mountains have been hit with a hell of a storm. Mitch Carver tried unsuccessfully to reach you by phone before asking his rangers to fan out to search for you. But as you know, you weren’t where you said you’d be, and that caused alarm bells to ring in the mind of every ranger on this mountain.”
She said nothing in her own defense, though her eyes had turned to pale icy chips.
“Mitch and his rangers take great pride in their work, even when careless climbers don’t do their share. So he called on me to find you.”
“You’re a ranger?”
“I’m a rancher. I live in the area, and know these mountains.”
“You must know them pretty well to be out hiking in this storm.”
He arched a brow. “I see you noticed that it’s storming. That’s the reason I’m here.”
She flushed slightly. “I told the ranger that I intended to get some good shots of the mountains covered in snow. When the storm started raging, I figured it was heaven-sent. The perfect opportunity to capture something that is rarely seen.” She pointed to her camera. “I was just going over the shots I took, and some of them are really amazing. I could have never found these images anywhere else but here, right in the middle of it.”
Josh could hear the thread of excitement and pride in her voice, a far cry from the tone she’d used with him moments earlier.
“I’m glad you got what you came here for. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that you neglected to contact the ranger station to let them know you were safe. They’ve been trying to phone you since the storm first broke.”
She glanced toward the phone lying on her bedroll. “I never thought to check in. Sorry. If they tried calling me, I have to guess my phone isn’t working.”
“Mine’s working just fine.” Josh’s patience was wearing thin as he turned slightly and retrieved his phone from his pocket. “If you didn’t want to be disturbed, all you had to do was file a report with the park rangers letting them know that you wanted to be left alone, no matter what the circumstances.”
Feeling something under his boot, he bent down to retrieve the weapon he’d forgotten about until this moment.
He looked up at her with a quizzical grin. “A plastic spoon?”
A sly smile teased her lips. “It was all I had time to grab before you stepped in.”
He managed to swallow his laughter as he touched the speed dial for the ranger station. “Mitch? Josh Conway here. I’ve located Sierra Moore. Yeah. She’s safe. She’s also a very resourceful woman. I’ll let you speak with her.”
He handed over his phone.
She kept her gaze fixed on him while she spoke into his phone in that same breathy voice. “Ranger Carver? This is Sierra Moore. Yes, thank you. I’m fine. I’m sorry you felt obligated to send someone to find me. I’ve been so involved in my photography, I guess I neglected to check in.” She listened in silence, then added, “Of course. That works for me. I can be ready to leave here in the morning. I’ll tell him. And again, I’m sorry for causing you any concern.”
She handed Josh his phone. “I owe you an apology, too. I’m sorry you had to be dragged out in this weather. It never occurred to me that the rangers would be searching for me. I can’t say I’m sorry for my”—she couldn’t stop the grin from touching the corners of her lips—“unorthodox greeting. Since I’m alone and unarmed, I needed to take precautions with a stranger invading my space. But I had no right to treat you so badly.” She took in a deep breath. “Ranger Carver suggested that if I have all the photos I need, and I’m ready to leave in the morning, he would feel better if I would make the descent with you. That works for me. That is,” she added, “if you have no objections to having me along.”
Josh gave a grudging nod of his head. He had to admit that she’d been resourceful when faced with an intruder. The fact that she’d been so quick to apologize to both him and Mitch Carver scored points as well. Without her apology, he’d have written her off as an ungrateful diva.
“That’s fine. I’d like to leave at first light.”
As he opened the flap, Sierra felt the sting of the frigid night air. “It’ll be a tight squeeze, but if you’d like, you can share my tent.”
He gave her a long look. “I have my own gear.”
“Even so…” She gave a dry laugh. “Mine’s already assembled and warm as toast. I don’t think I’d sleep very well knowing that I was the reason for you assembling a tent in this weather, in the dark of night. Please feel free to share mine.”
Josh shrugged. “Thanks. I’ll take you up on it. I’ll get my gear.”
Minutes later he returned and zipped the tent against the bitter cold.
He removed his parka before opening his backpack and retrieving a bedroll and an instant cooker. When he pulled out a packet of freeze-dried food, Sierra smiled.
“Like minds, I see.” She held up her own packet.
“Chicken or beef?” Josh asked.
“Beef stew. Why don’t I use mine? There’s enough for two.”
“Okay. I’ll try it.”
He used his bedroll for a seat and watched as she dropped the packet into the instant cooker. Within minutes the tent was filled with the wonderful aroma of beef stew, which she divided between her bowl and his.
He opened a pouch containing squares of Ela’s corn bread and offered some to her.
While coffee bubbled in his instant cooker, he sat back and enjoyed his first hot meal since taking to the trail.
Sierra relaxed, displaying a radiant smile. “I really needed some hot food. And that corn bread was an added bonus. Did your wife bake it?”
“Our cook, Ela.” He returned her smile. “Ela is probably as old as these mountains. She’s been baking corn bread since my grandfather first came to Wyoming. She’s been with us since before I was born.”
“My father, grandfather, and two brothers.”
She looked startled. “You all live together?”
“Yeah. Except for my older brother, Quinn. He recently married, and he and his bride are spending time at both her ranch and ours. I guess sooner or later they’ll figure out where they intend to plant roots.”
“How about you?” She glanced at his ring finger. “Are you married?”
He arched a brow. “No. You?”
She shook her head. “No, thank you. I’m married to my career.”
He nodded toward her camera. “Do you photograph weddings and fancy occasions?”
“That’s not at all what I’m interested in capturing. I want to use my photography as art. I hope someday to see my photographs hanging in galleries and on people’s walls.” She chuckled. “I think that’s a look of skepticism on your face.”
“Sorry if that’s what you think. I guess I’m just surprised that anyone would pay good money to view a photograph of a storm in the Tetons.”
“That’s because you live here and can see the real thing whenever you want. You’d be surprised what people would pay good money for.” She grinned. “But to answer the question you’re too polite to ask… I’m not a starving artist. I make enough to get by, and that’s all I need.”
He laughed. “Now that’s what I call fancy mind reading.”
“Oh, how I wish I had such a gift. I’m not a mind reader, but I’ve seen that look of skepticism before. There are a lot of people who don’t consider photography art.”
“Sierra Moore.” He spoke her name aloud and searched his memory. “I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not familiar with your work.”
“Not many people are… yet. Actually, my photographs sell better in Europe than they do here in the States. But my agent hopes to change that, starting with the pictures I’m taking on this trip.”
“Then I’m glad the weather cooperated and gave you such a photogenic storm.”
They shared an easy laugh.
Sierra topped off his cup and then her own before sitting back on her bedroll. With so little space between them, they were barely able to stretch out their legs without touching.
“How often are you called on to find lost climbers?”
He shrugged. “Whenever there’s a real emergency. Most of the time, the rangers can handle it. But whenever they need a hand, they know I’m available.”
She studied him more closely. “What do you bring to the climb that they don’t have?”
Again that negligent shrug of shoulders. “I’ve been climbing here since I was a kid. It’s my playground. I was homeschooled until high school, and whenever I had any free time, I was climbing. How about you? Where did you go to school?”
“Boarding schools in England.”
“That explains the accent. How do you go from boarding school in England to climbing the Tetons? And why now?”
“School was quite some time ago. As for the timing, it seemed right. I don’t have any commitments. I wanted to catch the flavor of autumn in the Tetons and, hopefully, some fierce storms. My agent is hoping to get some American galleries to take a look at my work. If the images I captured today are as good as I suspect, his job just got a lot easier.”
Josh lifted his cup in a toast. “Then here’s to some great pictures and a big, fat contract.”
She touched the rim of her cup to his. “Thanks. I’ll drink to that.”
He stretched out on his bedroll, enjoying the warmth, the coffee, and the company. “How does your family feel about you climbing mountains alone?”
Her smile dissolved. “I’m a big girl now. I live my life as I please.” She stared into her cup and forced a yawn. “Sorry. I think I’m ready for lights-out. How about you?”
Josh stretched out his long legs. “Yeah. More than ready.”
She reached over and turned off the battery-operated torch.
In the darkness, the only sound was the slight shuffling as they each sought a comfortable position in their sleeping bag.
And then, with the wind howling outside their tent, they were soon fast asleep.
Josh awoke in the predawn darkness.
The howling winds had stilled, replaced by a silence that was as soothing as the soft breathing coming from the bedroll beside his.
What a surprise she’d been. Gritty enough to catch him without warning when he’d first entered her tent. He’d broken his first rule, to always expect the unexpected. But who would suspect a missing hiker of threatening her rescuer with a weapon? Even if the weapon had turned out to be a useless piece of plastic.
She was a mystery. A fascinating mystery.
First of all, there was this tent, and its location, huddled against a white mountain peak, making it practically invisible. Though she claimed to be here only to photograph the mountains during a storm, he couldn’t shake the suspicion that she’d been hiding out here.
Then there was her secrecy. The moment he’d mentioned her family, she’d shut down completely, leaving him to wonder just who she was and what sort of childhood she’d experienced.
Could her family be searching for her?
He quickly discarded that notion. He hadn’t seen anger so much as pain in her eyes when he’d asked about her family. Still, she’d gone to great lengths to find the perfect spot to be invisible.
From the little she’d revealed, she seemed to be the complete opposite of him in every way. Where he still lived as an adult with his large and loving family, she was completely on her own.
That would explain her survival skills. She’d used whatever was handy to attack when she’d felt threatened by his unorthodox arrival at her tent.
Where he’d been homeschooled until he was old enough to drive himself to high school, Sierra had grown up in structured, demanding boarding schools, no doubt forced to abide by strict rules not of her making, living with people who weren’t her family.
What would it be like, he wondered, to have no one to count on when the world came crashing down, as it often did during childhood and adolescence?
He thought about Phoebe, who had been surrogate mother to him and his brothers after their mother had disappeared. Though they thought of themselves as rugged, independent men, in truth they’d spent a lot of years turning to Phoebe when their father and Big Jim were too busy with ranch chores to listen to their problems.
It had been Phoebe who had gone with him to buy his first suit, for the prom. Phoebe who had painstakingly taught him the rudiments of leading a girl through the dance.
Who did a girl turn to at boarding school? Her friends, most probably. Friends who were probably just as young and inexperienced in the ways of the world.
Maybe that was why she seemed to be such an enigma. One minute she was the tough little warrior, the next she became the very civilized, proper lady, apologizing for causing any concern.
Despite her flippant comments, Josh had the sense that there was a lot she was concealing.
When he’d first found her snug and warm in her tent, he’d wanted to throttle her for being the cause of this wild-goose chase. He had every right to resent the fact that her carelessness had cost him a day on the trail. A day that he could have spent with Jake up in the hills, tending the herd. But his anger and resentment had faded when she’d expressed genuine sorrow that she’d been the cause of concern to the rangers, and regret that he’d had to leave his ranch to chase after her.
Once again he found himself thinking how mysterious and fascinating Sierra Moore really was. She had not only survived the storm but also had used it to her advantage.
Not all his climbs had such happy endings.
He was curious to see the photographs she’d taken, but decided that he had no right to ask to view them. Like any artist, she probably chose to guard her work until she’d had time to edit it and make it perfect.
He rolled to one side, determined to remain as quiet as possible, to allow her to sleep until first light.
Sierra lay in the quiet darkness and listened to the soft rustling of the man in the bedroll beside hers.
She’d been absolutely furious when Josh Conway had stepped into her tent. The thought of having her precious space invaded had her reacting like a cartoon character. What had possessed her to grab that plastic spoon? And when he’d managed to overpower her and take away her only means of defense, she’d had a moment of real panic until he’d explained his reason for being here.
The panic had been because of Sebastian. For that one brief moment she’d thought that he’d managed to track her down here. Impossible. She’d gone to great lengths to see that nobody but her best friend even knew where she was. That part of her life was behind her now. She was starting fresh.
Still, she couldn’t deny that the white tent against a snow-covered wall of rock had added to her feeling of safety and invisibility.
Until Josh Conway, intrepid hero, had discovered her refuge.
Thank heavens he’d proven to be an honorable man. So honorable that she’d actually been able to sleep for a few hours, even though he was mere inches away.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eyes, she thought with a quick grin.
Easy on the eyes didn’t come close to describing her intruder. The man was gorgeous. With all those muscles and that sexy smile, along with piercing dark eyes that had a way of making her want to blush, he could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood hunk.
But what mattered more to Sierra was the fact that he’d been easy to talk to. She’d sensed no pretense in him. Apparently he was exactly what he appeared to be: a busy rancher who was an experienced climber called in to find a lost hiker.
She’d had her fill of good-looking guys with egos. She’d take an unassuming rancher any time, thank you very much. Not that she had any romantic ideas. The last thing she needed was a romance. Even if the guy was a Greek god.
His all-too-brief mention of his life had been fascinating. She tried to imagine three generations living and working together. A grandfather, father, and sons, all sharing one house and working a ranch together.
It was so far from the life she lived, it was impossible to imagine. But this much she knew: Josh Conway was the epitome of every wild Western fantasy she’d ever enjoyed. The strong, silent, and thoroughly capable cowboy who rides up to save a damsel in distress.
Even if said damsel didn’t want to be saved.
She actually chuckled at the thought.
Josh’s voice in the darkness had her head turning. “What?”
He sat up. “I thought I heard crying.”
“Sorry. I was laughing.”
“Ah. I misunderstood. Nobody should ever apologize for laughing. Care to share?”
Her mind raced. How could she possibly explain? “No. Just a silly thought. Did I wake you?”
“I was already awake, and trying to be quiet so you could sleep.”
She was touched by his thoughtfulness and suitably impressed. She slipped out of her sleeping bag and sat up in the darkness. “Well then, we may as well enjoy some coffee and trail mix before heading out.”
“Trail mix?” Josh flicked on the battery-operated torch and reached into his pack to retrieve a pouch of egg mixture and another of beef, made especially for an instant cooker. “Step aside, woman. We’re going to have steak and eggs before tackling the trail.”
To Sierra’s delight, he was as good as his word, producing a breakfast that would fortify the hungriest mountain climber.
“Careful. Let me go first and test that ice shelf.” Josh stepped around Sierra and probed the snow-frosted ice in front of them. Because of the icy trail, they’d attached cleats to their boots for traction.
Satisfied that it would take their weight, he nodded. “Okay. It’s good.”
With Josh leading, she carefully followed in his tracks.
The descent had been slow and treacherous, since the temperature had begun to climb, making the snow wet and the ice soft. Already they could see depressions in the snow where the runoff had begun, forming little streams and rivulets that would, when they reached the lower elevations, turn into gushing rivers.
Hearing her breathing, Josh paused and turned. “Do you need to rest?”
“Thanks. Just for a minute.” Sierra dropped onto a rock and released her backpack, which weighed nearly half her body weight.
Josh eyed it warily. “That’s a lot of supplies for a simple photo shoot.”
She managed a smile. “There’s nothing simple about hiking a mountain. I wanted to be prepared for anything. Of course, if you hadn’t come along when you did, I may have stayed up here for a week or more.”
“I hope you’re not leaving on my account.”
“Oh, but I am.” She grinned. “Ranger Carver ‘strongly suggested’ that I accompany you down the mountain.”
Josh threw back his head and laughed. “Yeah. Mitch has a way of giving suggestions that most folks wouldn’t dream of ignoring.”
He turned and studied the trail ahead of them, but his mind was on Sierra. She was such a contradiction. Strong enough to hike the mountain with a pack that would stagger most hikers, male or female. Yet there was an air of fragility about her, as though she would blow away in a strong wind. It wasn’t a physical thing, but rather an emotional fragility. And layered over both her strength and her fragile nature was a sadness that appeared occasionally in her eyes, and a sweet, easygoing attitude that made her a joy to be around.
So far on their difficult descent, he hadn’t heard her utter a single complaint.
“Oh, look.” She pointed to a pool where the swiftly running water formed frothy caps on the boulders that rimmed the shore. The water reflected a mirror image of the fiery foliage above.
Moving quickly she pulled her camera from her pack and began snapping pictures.
Josh paused to enjoy the beauty of the scene, and realized that though he’d seen such a thing hundreds of times before, he’d rarely taken the time to appreciate it the way he was now, thanks to Sierra’s unbridled joy at the beauty of nature all around them. She was, he thought, the perfect hiking companion. Independent enough to carry her own weight, and so fresh and exuberant her attitude was contagious. Though he’d always preferred to travel alone, he found himself enjoying her company far more than he’d expected to.
Keeping the camera dangling around her neck, Sierra adjusted her backpack. “Okay. I’m ready to move on.”
He led the way, pausing often to make certain that every step of the trail was safe and secure before allowing her to follow. The last thing she needed, with all that extra weight, was to take a nasty fall that resulted in an injury.
Each time Josh paused, Sierra used the moment to snap off yet more pictures of the fiery autumn foliage that lined the trail.
Sierra trailed slowly behind Josh, grateful that he was being so thorough. The weighty pack was affecting her balance, though only minimally. If forced to move faster, she knew she could do it. She was an accomplished hiker and in excellent physical shape. Still, she was more than willing to make a slow, methodical descent. Though she told herself it was all about safety, the truth was she was in no hurry to reach the ranger station and get back to reality.
Reality. The thought was jarring. Especially after the past week.
She’d loved her time on the mountain. Appreciated the pristine beauty, the silence, the aloneness of the place. There, in her little cocoon of ice and snow, she’d felt completely insulated from the real world.
She had intended to remain for at least another week. Possibly more, if her supplies held out. The only thing she hadn’t counted on was being discovered. And so, here she was, descending the mountain a week or more ahead of her timetable.
Not that it mattered. As she trailed Josh, she was convinced that the time she’d spent on the mountain had been enough to get the pictures she’d wanted, and to let the dizzying pace of her life prior to arriving here slip away.
Dizzying pace. It was too mild a term. Her life the past few months had been chaos. But there was no looking back now. She refused to think about the fact that she had left everything familiar behind. This was her clean slate. A whole new world that she was about to explore, to see whether or not it suited her.
At Josh’s words she put aside the disquieting thoughts and forced her mind back to the task at hand.
She adjusted her heavy pack and stepped up her pace. “I’m keeping up. Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“Yes, you are.” He surprised her by waiting until she was beside him. “I have to admit, when I first saw the size and weight of your backpack, I was pretty sure I’d be recruited to carry it before we were halfway down.”
She shot him an offended look. “Oh, please. You’re not going to pull that me-Tarzan-you-Jane nonsense, are you?”
He pretended to take an arrow to his heart. “Ouch. Great aim. You just shot me down.”
She grinned at his humor. “I’ll have you know I’ve carried packs heavier than this, and I’ve never resorted to asking a guy for help.”
“Uh-huh. I get it. I am woman, hear me roar?”
That had her laughing out loud. “Now you’re getting the message.”
“Loud and clear.”
As they rounded a bend in the trail, he pointed. “The ranger station is down that path. We should be there in half an hour.” He shot her a sideways glance. “If you think you can hold out for that long.”
“Careful, Conway. I might dare you to a race.”
He threw back his head and roared. “I’m thinking with your attitude you just might beat me.”
“Count on it.”
She moved past him and, to prove her point, led the way for the rest of the trek.
Mitch Carver looked Sierra up and down as she and Josh stepped inside his office. “Well, Miss Moore. You don’t look any the worse for your time in the storm.”
“I’m sorry I caused so much concern. I never felt that I was in any trouble.”
“That’s good. We like our guests to feel safe, and stay safe on the mountain. But when you didn’t check in, we got nervous. Especially since you were climbing alone, you weren’t where you said you’d be, and my rangers couldn’t locate you anywhere in that area. When those things happen, Josh Conway is our go-to guy. He’s even been known to find needles in haystacks.” The ranger glanced at Josh. “You made good time.”
“Sierra’s a good hiker.”
She flushed. “Thanks. I was determined not to take up any more of your time than I already have.” She unhooked her backpack and realized what a relief it was to be free of it. Then she flexed her neck and shoulders. “After all this, I think a good soak in a hot tub will be just what the doctor ordered.”
“Sounds like a good prescription, Miss Moore.” Mitch Carver steepled his fingers on the desktop. “Are you staying at a nearby dude ranch?”
“I wish I’d thought about making reservations. But I plan on driving to Casper before catching a flight.”
“Casper? That’s a killer drive from here. Why not just drive to Jackson Hole?”
She evaded his look. “I’m not in any hurry. I thought I’d see some more of the state before I have to leave. The autumn color is fabulous, and I want to capture as many photos as possible.”
“I see.” Mitch Carver glanced at his watch. “The day’s half over. You might want to think about staying some place nearby, and heading out tomorrow.”
Josh nodded. “I agree with Mitch. You’d be wise to take the rest of the day to bunk somewhere and start out in the morning when you’re fresh. If you’d like, you could follow me to my ranch. We’ve got plenty of room.”
Mitch turned to her. “I can vouch for the Conways. They’re good people, and they’ll make you feel like one of the family.”
“Thanks.” Sierra shrugged. “I don’t mind long drives. I’m feeling really energized. I’ll just drive until I’m tired, and find a place to crash for the night. Besides, a good, long drive will make that soak in the hot tub even more wonderful when I finally get to enjoy it.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll warn you, though. You’re going to drive through a lot of desolate land, with very few places to stay. The scenery may be breathtaking, but the solitude could be a problem.” Mitch glanced at a notation on his desk. “I almost forgot. Somebody phoned here asking about you.”
Her head came up sharply, her eyes narrowed. “When?”
“Did you”—she paused to take in a quick breath—“get a name or a message?”
“Neither. I told him you were up on the mountain somewhere shooting pictures, and planned on hiking down today.”
Sierra’s smile was forced. “Thanks, Ranger Carver.”
She turned away and heaved into the straps of her backpack, sagging under the extreme weight of it.
Josh and Mitch exchanged handshakes.
“Thanks again, Josh.”
“Anytime, Mitch. I’ll see you around.”
Josh followed Sierra out to the public parking area, where a few employees’ cars were scattered here and there.
She paused at the shiny silver SUV. “This rental is mine.”
When Sierra stopped, Josh halted beside her. “Why don’t I give you a hand with this gear?”
He opened the back hatch and, with a great deal of effort, managed to shove the enormous backpack inside the storage section.
When he’d finished, she offered her hand. “Thanks again, Josh, for everything. I’m really sorry to have caused you so much time away from your work.” Without warning, she stood on tiptoe to brush a quick kiss on his cheek.
It had been meant merely as a friendly gesture, the sort of thing she’d often done with friends in Paris. But the moment she was touching him, she felt a rush of heat that left her sweating, and a quick, sexual jolt that raced all the way to her toes.
She pulled back as quickly as she had stepped forward.
She saw his eyes narrow fractionally on her, and she wondered if he’d felt it, too. Or was he merely annoyed at such intimacy?
“No apology needed, ma’am. The pleasure was all mine. If you change your mind, feel free to take me up on my offer of a room for the night.”
His lips curved into that sexy smile that had her heart doing somersaults, before he turned away.
He was heading toward his truck when he heard a cry of alarm.
He turned. The driver’s door of Sierra’s vehicle was open. She was standing outside the car, holding a slip of paper, her eyes wide with emotion, all the color drained from her face.
He hurried to her side. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
She fisted her hand at her side, crushing the paper into a ball and stowing it in her pocket.
Her action wasn’t lost on Josh, who watched in silence.
It took her several seconds before she found her voice. “If you don’t mind, I… I believe I’ll take you up on your generous offer of a room for the night.”
He studied her face, so pale, her eyes looking too big and much too bright. “Sure thing. Would you like to follow me?”
She gave a quick shake of her head. “I believe I’ll just leave my rental car here and have the agency pick it up. Maybe they could deliver something a bit smaller to your ranch.”
He arched a brow. “I’m sure they’ll do it, as long as they have your credit card on file. But it’ll cost you an arm and a leg for the extra service.”
“I don’t mind. I’d prefer something smaller and less… showy, anyhow.”
“Well then…” He nodded toward her vehicle. “Let’s unload your gear. I have plenty of room in the back of my truck.”
She walked to the rear of the SUV and removed everything. With Josh’s help, she loaded it into his truck before climbing into the passenger side.
As they drove away, she watched in silence as her rental car receded in the side-view mirror.
Leaving it behind was definitely safer.
She dropped her head back and pressed a hand over her eyes. And prayed that the rest of her troubles were as easy to dispose of as the rental vehicle.
From his vantage point on a snow-covered hill, the man lowered his high-powered binoculars and gave a chilling smile. So, she thought to throw him off her trail by begging a ride with one of the hikers. He noted the license plate, committing the numbers to memory. In a place as sparsely populated as this, it would be no trouble to find out who the driver was and where he’d taken her.
He’d seen her reaction to his note. Had watched through narrowed eyes as she’d crumpled that paper and stuffed it into her pocket. A clear sign that she’d been caught by surprise.
Good. Let her stew awhile and think about what she’d done to him. Hadn’t he offered to use his family connections to nurture her career? Hadn’t he taken her under his wing, introducing her to all the right people in Paris? He’d had every right to expect some gratitude on her part. She couldn’t possibly be naive enough to think he had done all of this out of the goodness of his heart, without expecting payback.
She had not only refused him but had also run off like a thief in the night, without a word, thinking she could hide away on some mountaintop.
He was a generous man. He would forgive her. But only after she apologized and recognized him for what he truly was. Without him, she was nothing. And one day soon, she would come to her senses.
Until then he would watch and wait. For he was not only generous but also patient. Especially when the object of his obsession was so tantalizingly near.
Josh drove in silence as they followed the long highway leading away from the mountains. Though he craved answers to all the questions playing through his mind, he knew this wasn’t the time.
From the little he knew of her, Sierra Moore appeared to be a series of contradictions. Open as a book about her career, but more than a little secretive about her private life. Completely independent but willing to take him up on the offer of a place to sleep. Or to hide.
She’d had a scare. Of that he was certain. And though she’d been quick to pocket something, he’d have bet good money that whatever she’d found in her car had her running like a rabbit.
An old debt? An old enemy?
The fact that she’d agreed to let him drive her and leave her rental car behind meant that she was feeling more than a little overwhelmed.
She would talk when she was ready. Until then, he’d give her what she needed. Time to sort through whatever was going on in her life and figure out how to deal with it.
They drove for hours in silence through some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. Despite whatever was weighing on her mind, the beauty of the countryside in all its autumn glory didn’t seem to be lost on Josh’s passenger, who was watching with avid interest.
When they reached the town, Josh slowed his pace and turned to Sierra. “Welcome to Paintbrush, Wyoming.”
She lifted her head and glanced around the sleepy little place. “Do you live here?”
“My ranch is about a hundred miles from here. But this is the closest town, and the closest thing to civilization in these parts.”
He watched her reaction as they drove down the main street, past the row of old buildings that housed the courthouse and jail, with the police chief’s office in front, and beyond that Thibalt Baxter’s Paint and Hardware. A newer cluster of buildings announced Dr. April Walton’s Family Practice and the medical clinic next door, which shared office space with a dental clinic, and next door to that a barber and beauty shop. The last building in the row was the rainbow-colored Odds N Ends Shop.
He saw Sierra’s spirits lift considerably as she read aloud the sign above it:
“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
Seeing her smile, he winked. “If you like that, you’re going to love Flora’s Diner.” He pointed to the gaudy wooden building painted pink and bright lavender, with shocking pink letters spelling out the name.
“Flora’s been a fixture in this town since my grandfather came here. And her daughter, Dora, is older than my dad. The two of them know everybody for miles around and can tell you anything you want to know about anyone’s business. Believe me, there are no secrets in a town this small.”
“That must be a comfort.”
He chuckled. “Unless you’re the one with the secrets they’re all sharing with your neighbors.”
She lifted a brow. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“We like to say that the good thing about living in a small town is knowing everything about your neighbors. And the bad thing about living in a small town is having all your neighbors know everything about you.” Continues...
Excerpted from Josh by R.C. Ryan Copyright © 2012 by R.C. Ryan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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