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The dark silhouettes of pine trees swirled around Liane Mason, the evening sky behind them as red as fresh-spilled blood. Behind the wheel of her parked Jeep, she was shaking so hard she barely managed to slip her phone back inside her purse.
Closing her eyes, she gulped down several deep breaths, allowing the crisp mountain air to remind her that there were a hundred different reasons, benign reasons, why her father might not be answering either his cell phone or the radio, and just as many why the kids weren't, either.
More than likely eight-year-old Cody and his six-year-old sister Kenzie were outside, helping their grandfather put away the tack and camping supplies they had taken on their first overnight horseback excursion. His business might be a far cry from the carefully manicured and wildly successful Wolf River Lodge and Spa, where she spent her days managing the needs of wealthy and sometimesfamous clients, but Deke Mason had been known for decades for the personalized guided trail rides he'd offered generations of tourists of all stripes. Though his business had fallen off in recent years, he had safely and successfully taken thousands in and out of Elk Creek Canyon. Well trained in first aid, he was carrying the kit that contained Kenzie's medicationand Liane trusted him to deal with anything that came up.
So there was absolutely no reason to believe that he'd had any trouble this time. No logical reason to allow her smoldering panic to ignite. But that line of thought didn't ease her worry for a moment, regardless of anything her post-traumatic-stress counselor had told her.
You could always call Jake Whittaker, have him go outside and check. But the thought of asking a favor of her dad's new tenant, who had taken up residence in the rebuilt bunkhouse about six months before his accident last summer, stopped her. Though she knew Jake would insist on going out to check, she hated to think of him walking the uneven ground, maybe missing his footing in the deep drifts of rust-colored pine needles, thicker than ever thanks to what had been the driest summer in a decade.
She shook her head, realizing she was lying to herself. Prosthetic leg or not, Jake was getting around fine these days, just over a year after the accident and amputation. More than fine, considering the glimpses she'd caught of him toweling sweat from his body after a runa body even more buff and masculine than when the two of them had dated back in high school.
Awkward as it had been facing the boy she'd left behindfacing the whole town of Mill Fallssince her return last fall, the truth was that she had no intention of admitting exactly how close to melting down she was right now. Now that she'd finished her busy shift, she could be home in twenty minutes, anyway.
She visualized herself arriving at the big, comfortable log homestead and hugging her kids close. As they excitedly chattered about the trip they had been begging her to let them take all summer, her dad would grin and tell her how proud his family made him. And his eyes would meet hers in silent acknowledgment that he was proudest of all that she had made it through the night alone .
Or as alone as a woman could be, with her father's seventy-pound shepherd mix hogging most of the bed. But since Misty could be trusted to keep a secret, Liane wouldn't mention the sleepless hours she'd spent stroking the shaggy, blue-gray head and praying for the night to pass more quickly.
As she drove along the tree-lined highway that skirted Bear Mountain, she told herself she would catch up on her sleep tonight. Safe at home, they all would, nestled in their beds.
Focusing on that image, she relaxed her death grip on the wheel and consciously deepened her breathing. It was enough to get her through the drive home.
And enough to distract her from the teasing flicker of the gathering darkness illuminated by summer lightning in her rearview.
The night cried out for flame. As Jake Whittaker stood on the porch of his mountain valley cabin, he heard it in the hiss of hot wind through the drought-scorched tree-tops, the creak of trunks so parched and resinous that the slightest spark would send them up, and the restless nickers of the horses that milled about his friend and landlord Deke's corral a short distance downhill.
But most of all he felt it in the phantom ache in the lower left leg he'd lost: the warning that a storm was brewing. A dry electrical storm that would light up the backcountry near Yosemite in time to choke the dawn with thick smoke.
Last year's accident, the result of a tree whose fall had knocked Jake out of his fire boots as he'd been racing to the aid of his trapped men, had nearly killed him, but there was nothing wrong with his instincts, which had his blood quickening and his pulse thrumming with the first flicker of heat lightning along the ridge to the west. Though he now spent the better part of most of his days at a computer translating scientific articles and tech support documents into the Russian he'd learned at his grandmother's knee, it was still everything he could do not to jump into his truck and join the crew of hotshot firefighters he had once ledfirefighters, he reluctantly admitted, whose effectiveness and safety would be jeopardized if he were selfish and foolhardy enough to try.
For now, at least, he told himself. But maybe by next summer's fire season, if he worked hard enough to convince the district supervisors.
Another flicker pulsed behind Bear Mountain, and thunder rumbled a dark warning. From the corral, he heard a terrified equine squeal, followed by deep barking and a frantic female cry.
"Copper, stand still! Please!"
Jake reached inside the front door for a flashlight and was on the move an instant later, driven by the desperation in Liane Mason's voice. Something had to be wrong for the woman he'd once known so well to be out messing with the horses after dark. He hadn't been raised around the animals as Liane had, but even he knew that both the weather and the panic in her voice would do nothing but upset them. What could have happened to make the Ice Princess forget that?
As he threaded his way through the trees, Jake's prosthesis caught a branch buried in leaf litter. Cursing the hurry that had made him lose his focus on his footing, he recovered from his stumble, then gritted his teeth and hurried toward the security light just outside the stable.
Beneath it, he spotted the woman it still hurt to look at, even a dozen years after she had dashed his naive schoolboy fantasies and kicked him to the curb. As slender and agile as she'd been at eighteen, she was struggling to saddle a horse, her long brown braid whipping along the back of the chambray shirt she wore hanging over her jeans. As the dog paced nervously, the muscular bay danced sideways, tossing his head to throw his weight against the lead rope that bound him to the hitching post. Even from this distance, Jake could make out the whites of the horse's rolling eyes.
"Put that saddle down and back off." Though it wasn't his place, he made it an order, too concerned for her safety to do any less. "He's about to break loose, and you're going to end up hurt."
Liane whirled toward him, her face milk-pale and her beautiful blue eyes huge with terror. "I have to," she said, all traces of her usual coolness toward him absent. "I have to go and find them."
"Find who, Liane?" he asked, but already he was putting the pieces together. How Cody, the outgoing and talkative second grader, had been jabbering nonstop for the past week about the planned adventure to anyone who would listen, including the tenant his mother so consistently avoided. How her father had taken her kids out on two of the gentler horses for a camping trip yesterday. How Deke's favorite mount, a huge black mule named Waco, remained as absent from the corral as the children's horses.
"Did your dad radio you?" Jake asked, knowing that cell phone coverage didn't extend into Elk Creek Canyon. "Has there been an accident?"
Liane shook her head. "I haven't been able to raise him since this morning. He did have some issues with his satellite radio a few weeks back, but something has to be wrong. He knew how nervous I was about this trip, how I wasn't sure the kids were ready for" A shaft of lightning interrupted, stabbing the darkness behind the mountain's granite dome. Moments later thunder reverberated through the valley, more ominous than ever.
The noise was the last straw for the bay, who squealed and launched himself backward, snapping not the lead rope but one of the bands of his own halter. As the horse wheeled around to join the herd in the corral, Liane leaped backward, holding the saddle before her like a shield.
"Help me catch another one," she demanded. "I have to find my family. Dry as it's been, there'll be fires, maybe even worse than last year's."
He nodded grimly, trying not to remember the blaze whose uncharacteristic behavior had engulfed thousands of acres, fifteen homes and the lives of three Wolf River Hotshotsthree good men, family menhe'd ordered into what should have been a safe location. They were gone, but the flashbacks were always waiting, resurfacing to accuse him every time he closed his eyes.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Have you called the sheriff's office yet? Or how 'bout search and rescue?" he asked.
But he was talking to her back, because she had already turned to grab a rope and a bucket of oats to sweeten the deal.
"I just got off the phone with them." With Misty sticking close by her side, Liane jogged toward the dozen or so horses trotting a nervous circle around the corral's outer edge. Their varied hides, brown and black and white and golden, streamed past the security light in a dust-choked, multicolored river. "They're refusing to send anyone 'til first light. By that time, anything could happen. Anything might have already."
He shook his head. "Elk Creek Canyon's a treacherous ride at the best of times, and you think you're going to do it on a panicked horse at this hour? You can't go out there tonight, or at least you can't go alone."
"I don't recall asking your opinion." She turned abruptly, her gaze snapping to meet his. Her stunning blue eyes went ice-cold, the way they always did around him, regardless of his every attempt to act as if he'd forgotten all about their history, as if the memory of how it ended hadn't been eating away at him since the day he'd learned that she was coming back the day he'd first begun to realize that he'd never completely gotten past heror his foolish orphan's dream of someday, finally, creating a family of his own.
"Listen, Liane. I get that I'm not your favorite person."
Though Deke had made it clear the subject was off-limits, Jake had heard the rumors that the life Liane had chosen hadn't gone the way she'd planned, that the man she'd married had abused her. Still, that was no reason for her to treat his every word and gesture like poison. Or to confuse him further by leaving foil-wrapped home-baked treats on his cabin porch and then slinking away before he had the chance to thank her. "Put the past aside for a minute and listen to me on this, or you're going to end up injured. And what good would that do your family?"
She stilled, her stare heating in an instant. "The past? This isn't about you, Jake. It's about my family. I'm not leaving them out there, especially on a night like this one. I can't."
He nodded, understanding her worry. He knew Deke as well as he knew anyone, had looked up to Liane's father from the first time the older man had promised to kick his backside over the nearest mountaintop if he did anything to hurt his girl. But Jake had never known him to be so long out of contact or this overdue returning from a trip.
"Then let me come with you," he offered. "It'll be a whole lot safer. I know the area well enough, and I'm used to navigating these woods night and day. I could help you pick up the trail."
A lariat looped above her head before she launched it in a smooth arc. Instead of roping the still-spooked Copper, she pulled a solidly built pinto from the herda herd he thought looked smaller than it should have.
Had Deke taken extra mounts for pack animals? He tried to remember how many horses he'd seen in the corral this morning on his way out for a follow-up visit with his orthopedic surgeon.
Liane held the bucket for the brown-and-white mare and led her toward the post, distracting him by saying, "But you can't possibly, with your leg"
"The hell I can't," he ground out through clenched teeth. Before his accident he'd been in peak form, and ever since, he'd worked out daily, never allowing himself to give way to self-pity for a moment. He might have lost the career that had defined him, but three other deserving men, family men, had lost their lives last summer. "It doesn't take two legs to ride a damned horse."
Abruptly stopping in her tracks, she turned to look at him, her eyes gleaming. "I'm sorry, Jake. I know how rude that must've sounded, and I really do appreciate your offer. But we're talking about my kids and my father, and I've already wasted so much time with people on the phone.
Besides, I've been wandering these canyons since I was a kid. I can find my way blindfolded."
"You say that now, but I can tell you, no matter how well you think you know the territory, the darkness is disorienting. So saddle up a mount for me, too," he said. "I'm heading back to my place to grab a few supplies. Then I'll be right back, and we'll both go find them. Okay?"
Liane stared up at him, her lips pressed together while she thought. When the tension in her shoulders eased, he took it as a sign of surrender.
"Go get what you need," she said.
He hurried home, then filled hiking canteens and grabbed the small survival kit he always kept stocked for his forays into the forest. With fire a possibility, his thoughts automatically turned to wildlife on the move, so he slipped a bear spray holster onto his belt just in case.
Stashing a few energy bars in the pouch, he quickly called Micah Fortney, a longtime hotshot firefighter. Getting no answer, Jake settled for leaving a detailed voice mail explaining where he was heading and why. It was probably for the best that Micah hadn't picked up, because he knew his old friend would give him holy hell for going out at night with a half-hysterical woman in tow. But nothing would convince Liane to stay at home while he rode out to find her family. She would only follow in his wake, giving him one more missing person to worry about.
A missing person he couldn't help but care for, no matter how clear she'd made it that she didn't want his company.
He grabbed a jacket against the chill that stole over the mountain nights even in late August, then shoved both his phone and a rechargeable two-way radio left over from his firefighting days into the pockets. After locking up the cabin, he made his way back to the corral.
only to find that Liane had already gone, taking both the pinto mare and Misty.
Left behind just as he'd been, the river of horses continued milling restlessly, causing him to wonder whether the animals were still worked up over Liane's panic, or did they sense, as he did, that the worst was yet to come?