Read an Excerpt
Mei Clayton veered off the trail near the summit of Belle's Peak, found the edge of the cliff where she'd often picnicked as a teenager and surveyed the panorama of rugged ranching country below.
To the west, shadowed by the massive, snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, lay the distant, rustic cowboy town of Clayton, Colorado. Her hometown, named after a greatgrandfather she'd never met. The last place she wanted to be.
Especially for an entire, interminable year, though that's exactly what she had to do, thanks to a stipulation in her grandpa George's will.
A yearbut not one day more.
Mei and each of her five cousins all had to comply, or none would receive a single penny. And though Mei would have preferred to continue teaching in San Francisco, she just couldn't let the others lose out on the inheritance some of them badly needed.
Delaying her inevitable, awkward arrival, she'd parked along the highway to hike one of the easier trails in this part of the Rockies, just to savor one of the few good memories she'd kept close to her heart during her years away.
Maybe she'd never felt accepted by the Clayton family, but she'd loved every moment that she spent hiking and climbing these rugged peaks.
Yet even up here, she hadn't found a sense of solitude and peace. The snow-dusted trail offered an easy climb and breathtaking vistas, and she'd already run into several other local hikers taking advantage of the bright sunshine on this first weekend of November.
She'd hoped to do a little climbing and had brought her gear in a backpack. But the snow was deeper at this higher elevation, and she needed to turn back. Get in her car. And face her return to the town she'd so desperately wanted to leave as a teen.
Though it was her impending conversation with her widowed mother that truly had her stomach tying itself in a tight knot. How would Mom react when she heard the news about her son? Lucas had been in a few scrapes when he was a teenager, but nothing like the one he was in now.
At the sound of voices and the merry jingle of bear bells, she stopped at one side of the trail to let a pair of hikers pass.
One of them continued on, but the girl pulled to a stop. "Mei?"
Mei looked up in surprise at the pretty teenager standing in front of her in a puffy pink down jacket and jeans. "Jasmine?"
Her cousin Arabella's ward tucked a long strand of silky brown hair behind her ear, her eyes sparkling. "What are you doing back in Colorado so soon? We didn't expect you until Christmas."
Warmed by the girl's obvious happiness, Mei felt some of her tension ease. "I had a change of plans."
"Well, I think it's great you're here. Arabella has been looking forward to you living in town again, and now you'll be here in time for the wedding!"
"Whose?" Mei recalled her mother's last emaila rare event in any casethat had mentioned the latest romance involving Jasmine's foster mother, and smiled. "Arabella and Dr. Turner? Already?"
A flash of confusion crossed the girl's face. "Mine. You didn't hear about it?
"Yours?" Mei asked faintly.
Jasmine had lived with Arabella for a couple years and had graduated from high school this past spring. Maybe she was of legal age, but
"We're getting married on Christmas Eve." Jasmine's smile widened as her hiking partner turned back to join her. "You remember Cade, right?"
"Cade Clayton?''" A flood of memories rushed through Mei as she stared up at the handsome young man in a denim jacket and jeans looping an arm protectively around Jasmine's shoulders.
Oh, she remembered Cade, all right. Years ago, his mother had married Mei's infamous uncle Charley.
Memories flooded back from the day when Mei was getting her hair trimmed at the Hair Today beauty salon and Cade's mother happened to be sitting in the next chair.
Lorelei freely admitted she'd picked the wrong branch of the family tree and definitely the wrong man.
She'd claimed the only good thing that came out of her marriage was little Cade but she was sure glad that at least her older son Jack was no blood kin to the Claytons.
Mei had been all ears because, at the time, she'd been in the throes of a long and futile high school crush on Jackone of the more embarrassing points in her life.
Even after ten years she felt a blush warm her cheeks. He'd been way out of her league. She'd known it from the start, but the humiliating whispers among her classmates about her foolish crush had been even more painful. Her cousin Vincent had been the worstno surprise there. His relentless taunts had felt like jabs of a knife to her heart, and she was still sure that he'd been the one to start the cruel gossip in the first place.
Cade had just been a little guy when Mei and Jack were in high school, and she hadn't seen him since. Now built like a football player, only his tawny hair and warm brown eyes were familiar.
He gave a low, self-conscious laugh. "I guess the last time you saw me I was starting grade school."
Mei laughed. "If that."
"Weren't you in high school with my brother?" "Um yes."
When a few drops of sleet hit Jasmine's cheek, she batted them away with her fluffy white mittens. "Maybe we'd all better get moving. Cade and I want to make it up to the first waterfall, and then we're heading back to town."
Mei eyed the slate-gray clouds crawling over the mountain peaks. "Are you sure? Maybe you'd better start down with me."
"Nahjust a few minutes more." Jasmine patted the pocket of her light jacket. "I want to take some pictures up there. I hear it's like a wintry fairyland, with those shimmering icicles covering the trees from the spray of the falls. It might be good as a background for the cover of our wedding programs."
"W-wedding programs?" Mei felt her jaw drop. So the girl was really serious about this.
Jasmine's smile turned radiant. "Won't it be pretty?"
Mei belatedly remembered to snap her mouth shut. "It it certainly will."
What were these two thinking? And why hadn't the adults in their lives tried to steer them away from such a huge commitment right out of high school?
Cade grinned, obviously reading her expression. "We got the same reaction from everyone else at first, too. But we're certain, and we're ready. And we're already planning to go on to college, believe me."
"We have to hurry off right now," Jasmine added apologetically. "But maybe you can come over to Arabella's sometime to hear all the details."
"I'll do that, I promise." Mei managed a weak wave as the two of them started back on the path.
What they decided to do was hardly her business, after all. Neither of them were a relative of hers. And it's not like my own choices brought me happiness, either, she thought as she took a deep breath and surveyed her surroundings.
Even with the darkening clouds, it was a perfect day. And how could it not be when she was surrounded by God's perfect glory in every towering mountain peak, in every call of a Pine Grosbeak and its mate from the top of the Engelmann spruce towering overhead?
Quiet joy started to bubble up inside her as she made her way down the path. Adopted from China as a baby, she'd always felt like an outsider in both her extended family and this small ranching community where no one else looked like her. With a stern father and a cool, distant mother, there hadn't been much warmth and connection with her immediate family, either, except with her younger brother, Lucas.
But she'd been gone a long time. She was grown up now; stronger and more mature. And she now realized that she was as much at fault as anyone if she hadn't been well accepted as a child. Painfully shy and withdrawn, maybe she'd seemed standoffish.
Perhaps this move back home wouldn't be so bad, after all. Maybe it would even bring an opportunity for her to truly connect with her mother and extended family, and finally feel accepted as one of the Claytonssomething she'd longed for all her life.
Mei was startled out of her daydream by a bloodcurdling scream that tore through the air, followed by the deafening sound of boulders crashing down a slope. The crack of trees splintering. And then a deathly silence fell.
Mei spun on her heel, terror grabbing her by the throat as she raced in the direction of the scream and pulled to a stunned halt.
A few dozen yards up the trail, a raw, gaping crater at least ten feet across had been gouged out of the edge of a cliff where there'd been a trail just minutes before. Cade and Jasmine were nowhere to be seen. Had they dashed past the crumbling ground in time?
She grabbed a sturdy pine branch and looked over the edge. Please, Lord, let them both be safe. "Jasmine! Cade!"
No one answered.
There was barely a haze of snow on the floor of the ravine below, and a cloud of dust still boiled upward, obliterating the view of the bottom.
Wherever it was.
"Wow," a woman exclaimed. "If we'd come down the trail a few seconds earlier we would've been caught in that landslide."
Her heart hammering against her ribs, Mei tore her gaze from the bottom of the ravine and stared at the two women who had materialized on the other side of the trail.
Mei closed her eyes for a brief moment and said another silent prayer. "There were two hikers here a minute agoa teenage girl and her boyfriend. Did they pass you?"
The women exchanged glances, then shook their heads, their eyes widening with horror as they moved closer to the edge.
Mei waved them back. "The rest of this area could be unstable. Stay over by those trees."
The taller woman paled. "It sounded like thunder when the cliff gave way."
A wave of dread curled through Mei as she scanned the bottom of the ravine.
Falling boulders had carved deep, raw gouges in the steep walls of the ravine. Even now, smaller rocks were shifting and falling. From somewhere far below came the sound of pebbles skittering down the cliff.
A massive boulder big as a car broke free, vibrating the ground beneath her feet as it bounced down the rocky wall and catapulted in slow motion out into the dust-filled emptiness. The distant explosion of shattering rock at the bottom shook the earth.
"Cade! Jasmine!" Mei shouted their names over and over, straining to hear a response. Please, God, let them be safe. They're just so young.
They could well have been in the path of that last boulder, though if they'd survived their fall, it would be amazing.
Jerking off her backpack, Mei checked the reception bars on her cell phone. No Service flashed on the screen, dashing her hopes. There was no time to run for help. She needed to get to the bottom of that ravine without delay.
She looked up at the ghost-white faces of the other two women. "There's an emergency phone in the shelter at the base of the trail. Tell the ranger to call for help. We need a rescue team with climbing gearbe sure to tell them that. And we'll need an ambulance, too."
The two hikers stood frozen for a split second, staring at the place where there'd once been a trail.
Jarred into action, they gave the rockslide wide berth and raced away down the trail.
Mei dumped the contents of her backpack on the ground. First aid kit. Highenergy bars. Several water bottles. Leather gloves. The bright orange coils of her favorite old Mammut climbing rope and a handful of carabiners in a Ziploc bag.
She'd done a lot of climbing up here as a teenager, and she'd continued the sport in the mountain ranges in the Southwest. Her climbing gear had been the first thing she'd packed for her move back to Colorado.
Now, she looked heavenward and murmured a quiet "thanks" for the impulse to stop and hike this particular trail on her way home.
But was her rope even long enough?
She didn't have enough length to rappel down with a belay device to control her descent, so it would have to be a far more dangerous drophand over hand down a single length of rope anchored near the top of the cliff.
Swirls of dust still eddied at the bottom of the ravine. Where were Cade and Jasmine beneath that boulder, or under the landslide that had sucked them off the trail?
She tied one end of her rope to a stout pine trunk and threw the coils over the edge, then shouldered her backpack. From somewhere far below came a faint cry for help.
Mei's heart leaped with joy. At least one of them was alive and consciousand that meant there was hope for both. Thank you, God!
She donned her leather gloves, then lowered herself over the edge and started down. Another faint cry for help echoed through the ravine.
"I'm coming," Mei shouted. Her heart pounding against her ribs, she slowly lowered herself hand over hand. "Hang on."
"Meiover here," Jasmine yelled. "Hurry. C-Cade's hurt."
And there she was, on a long, narrow ledge hidden from view from the cliff above by a clump of vegetation.
At the last five feet of her rope, Mei clung to the rough, rocky wall and sparse vegetation to descend the final fifteen or twenty feet.
"I'm so glad you're here with me," Jasmine cried.
"And I'm glad to be here." The teenager was scraped and battered from her fall, with deep red bruises that would turn black by tomorrow. But she was alert and coherent, praise the Lord. Her face white as chalk, she held Cade's head cradled in her lap, holding a blood-soaked athletic sock against his temple. He wasn't moving. "Has Cade been awake at all?"
"N-no." Tears spilled down Jasmine's grimy cheeks as she watched Mei shrug off her backpack and pull out an emergency first aid kit. "I was afraid nobody would c-come. A-and it would g-get dark, and c-cold, and Cade w-wouldn't have a chance."