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"Slow down, Sarah. The drop on this side of the trail is killer."
"It's only sixteen feet." Sarah Bentley paused to aim her flashlight beam over the edge where the light was swallowed by the dark of a cloudy, moonless night. With a shrug, she resumed walking, her boots crunching on the frozen snow. "I wouldn't even call this a cliff. It's a gradual drop-off. You've been on ski slopes that were steeper."
"Not in the middle of the night," her friend Emily Lay-ton protested. "Not when I wasn't wearing skis."
This forest trail led from Bentley's Bed-and-Breakfast past the drilling site for Hackman Oil, and it followed a relatively straight line, which meant it was the shortest distance between the two points. But shorter didn't always mean faster. Sarah questioned the logic of taking this route. She halted on the path and turned to face her friend. "Why didn't we drive?"
"The text message from BOOM said to use the trail." Emily's breath formed a frosty little cloud around her wide, usually smiling mouth. "Specifically. The trail."
"I don't take orders from those jerks." She didn't like BOOM, a radical environmentalist group prone to one stupid thing after another. "What kind of mess am I walking into?"
"I already told you." Emily rolled her eyes and stamped her foot, acting more like a teenager than a twenty-eight-year-old woman who was about to be a bride. "I got a midnight text that said BOOM was going to send a message to Hackman Oil. They want me to join them and warned me to be quiet and take the forest trail. I needed you to show me the way."
Sarah pulled on the earflaps of her knit wool cap. She remembered being wakened and putting on her snow pants and parka over her flannel pajamas, but the reason for this middle-of-the-night hike through the frigid February night was still hazy. As a professional innkeeper who had been running the B and B for five years on her own, she should have developed a knack for snapping wide-awake at a moment's notice, but that talent had always eluded her.
Again, she wondered what she'd gotten herself into. Surely she hadn't agreed to join forces with BOOM. "What kind of message?"
"A protest. I'm guessing that it's something like spray painting graffiti on the sides of the trucks."
"I don't support the destruction of private property." Vandalism was never a good solution. Jerks like the leaders of BOOM, which stood for Back Off Our Mountains, caused more problems than they solved.
"I don't like it, either." Emily tucked a blond tendril under her cap. "In fact, I've decided to quit BOOM."
"That would make a lovely wedding present for your fiance."
"Ha, ha, ha," she said. "You're so funny."
"I think I've heard him refer to BOOM. What did he call them?" Sarah couldn't resist teasing. "Eco-idiots?"
"That was after they dressed up like wolverines to bring attention to that endangered species. Not their finest hour."
"But very entertaining, especially the guy who got confused and dressed like Hugh Jackman in X-Men. Let me tell you, if Mr. Jackman was endangered, I'd get behind the protest."
"Most of the time, Jeremy and I have a strict agree-to-disagree policy. We don't discuss our causes."
In light of their vast differences of opinion, that was a wise policy. In four days, free-spirited Emily would be getting married at Bentley's B and B to her army ranger sweetheart, Jeremy Hamilton. Though their ideas might be volumes apart, Emily and Jeremy were on the same page when it came to their love. When they were together, they positively glowed. Sarah didn't understand their relationship. It could be one of those opposites-attract things. Or it could be kismet. Or Jeremy could be terrific in bed.
Whatever the case, she hoped their passion would be enough to see them through the larger problem: their families. Emily's father was a liberal senator from California, and Jeremy's dad was a four-star general. At the wedding, they would come face-to-face for the first time.
When Mr. Dove met Mr. Hawk, Sarah expected fireworks. She patted Emily's arm. "You have enough to worry about. Let's go back to bed."
"We're not turning back. We need to go to the drill site and talk sense into these guys."
"Why do you care?" She vaguely recalled a tidbit of gossip. "Didn't you used to date somebody from BOOM?"
"I'm thinking of you," Emily said emphatically. "You're going to get blamed for whatever damage they cause. Your B and B is only a mile and a half away from the drill site, and you've been fighting Hackman Oil for years."
"Legally fighting," she said, "through sanctioned environmental agencies and the courts and-"
"I know. But how will it look?"
"Good point." Damage at the drill site would look like she was lashing out and trying to get even. The Hackman Oil attorneys would be thrilled to have a reason to sue her, even if she was totally innocent. "We have to stop them."
"See? I'm right. I'm watching out for my girl."
Sarah shone her flashlight beam in the direction of the B and B. "At least, let's go back and get the truck. Sure, it's five miles of winding roads to access the site. But driving will still be faster and warmer."
"It's better if we're quiet. I don't want Blake to know what I'm doing."
"Is there another Blake staying at the B and B?" Emily smirked. Apparently, it was her turn to tease. "Don't pretend that you didn't notice him. I saw your eyes melt like big, gooey chocolate drops when he walked through the door tonight."
"Of course I noticed." How could she overlook a man who was well over six feet tall and muscular enough to lift a Chevy truck with one hand?
"When you shook his hand, you blushed a darker shade of red than your hair."
"I'm not a redhead. It's strawberry-blond. And why shouldn't Blake know what we're doing?"
"He'd want to come with us."
Sarah didn't see a problem with that. "So?"
"I adore Blake," Emily said. "He's going to be the best man at our wedding. But he's an army ranger, and he has a temper. If he gets ticked off, he might go ballistic."
"An angry, hulking ranger might be exactly what we need."
Emily took a step forward. "Let's keep moving. I want to get this over with."
Sarah grumbled, "I'm too old for this."
"Oh, yeah, you're an ancient thirty-two."
It felt ancient. Sarah tromped forward. On her right was thick, dark forest. To the left were a few scraggly trees and rocks and the sixteen-foot drop-off. She knew every inch of the land surrounding her B and B and had labeled the nature trails with burnt wood signs so her guests could take hikes and not get lost. This path was called the High Road. If you followed it all the way to the end, beyond the site where Hackman Oil had started drilling, you reached a granite ledge with a panoramic view of the Elk Mountain range outside Aspen. Sadly, that spectacular sight would be blighted by noise pollution from the oil rig left behind after Hackman finished their work. The pristine forest would never look or feel the same.
Using the nonprofit business she ran, the Forest Preservation Society, she'd done everything she could to stop them. In other battles, she'd kept Hackman from drilling in four other locations but had lost this fight which was, ironically, the one closest to her doorstep.
From the path to her right, she saw bright lights shining through the trees, spooking the nocturnal wildlife. This intrusion was so wrong. Frustration and anger surged through her. Though her outrage was caused by the oil company, she could use this energy to argue with the jokers from BOOM.
She veered off the trail and paused at the edge of a wide clearing where she saw a flatbed truck with the Hackman Oil logo, a metal drill pipe stacked in the snow and the derrick hung with lights like a grotesque Christmas tree. A dark-colored van was parked near the entrance to the site. About twenty yards away were four men in parkas and work boots. One of them had a semiautomatic assault rifle slung over his shoulder. They all wore black ski masks.
"Why are they masked?" Emily asked in a whisper.
"There might be surveillance cameras." If so, Sarah's presence at the site would be on record as soon as she stepped into the light-an unfortunate fact that would please the Hackman attorneys. "I'm more worried about the assault rifle. They aren't planning to shoot up the equipment, are they?"
"Liam would never do anything like that."
"Is that the ex-boyfriend? Liam?"
Sarah shot her a glare. "Do I need to remind you that you're getting married in four days?"
"It's not like that. I've been friends with Liam for ten years, and I don't want to see him thrown in jail."
Sarah hoped to avoid a similar fate. She was about to drag Emily back to the B and B, but their whispering had attracted the attention of the masked men. The one with the semiautomatic pointed the barrel of his weapon in their direction and yelled, "Who's there?"
"Don't shoot." Sarah pushed the bare branches of shrubs aside and stepped into the light of the clearing. "I came here to talk."
"Hi, guys." Emily popped up beside her. "It's me, Emily."
"You sent me a text." She squinted in their direction.
A man in a faded red parka stepped forward. "He couldn't make it, but don't worry. You can trust me."
As a general rule, Sarah never trusted anyone who said "trust me." When Emily started to stroll toward the masked men, she caught hold of her arm. "Stay close to me."
A lethal weapon was pointed in their direction; Emily shouldn't need more explanation. "Do you recognize these guys?"
"Not with the masks."
Sarah called out, "What's your name?"
"You can call me Ty." He might have been smiling. It was hard to tell with the ski mask. "We didn't expect Emily to have company."
"I'm Sarah Bentley. I own the B and B and I've spent years fighting the oil companies."
He came halfway across the clearing toward them. "Nice to meet you, Sarah."
"Stop." She held up her palm. "I mean it. Not one more step."
"Fine." He halted.
"I'm not on your side," she said, "and I sure as hell didn't come here to participate in any sort of vandalism."
"Why are you here?"
"To warn you. There's nothing to be gained by damaging property. Believe me, I've done everything possible to stop the drilling, but Hackman followed all the correct procedures. We can't win this one. You should go home."
"You're not giving the orders."
"I'd be happy to give you an in-depth explanation of my position. First, tell your friend to put his gun down."
Ty glanced over his shoulder at the other three men, and then he looked back at her. "We're going to do this my way. If you cooperate, nobody gets hurt."
"Why would you want to hurt us?" Emily pulled her cell phone from her pocket and held the screen toward him. "Read the text. You invited us."
Ty held out his hand. "Let me see that text."
Dutifully, Emily walked toward him.
Sarah was more apprehensive. This felt like a trap. If Emily got too close to Ty, Sarah feared she would never see her friend again. Darting forward, she caught hold of Emily's wrist above her glove and tugged. "We're leaving."
Emily balked. "I'm just going to-"
"Now," Sarah said.
Ty came at them, moving fast. His arm shot out and he grabbed Emily's other arm. With a hard yank, he wrenched her away from Sarah's grasp, pulling so hard that Emily stumbled and fell to one knee. She let out a yelp.
Sarah didn't have the physical strength to fight with Ty, much less to take on all four men. Their only chance was to run. She drew back her arm and took a swing. Using her heavy-duty metal flashlight, she whacked Ty below the elbow. "Let her go."
"What the hell?"
Sarah hit him again. He could have fended her off, but Emily was struggling against him. As soon as he released her, Sarah and Emily dashed toward the trees at the edge of the clearing.
A blast of gunfire exploded in the still forest night. The sound rattled her, but she kept going, dragging Emily with her. Those were warning shots. A semiautomatic rifle wouldn't miss at this distance.
"Stop," Ty yelled. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Could have fooled me," she muttered as she and Emily charged through the trees and found the trail. "No flashlights."
This section wasn't wide enough for them to go side by side. Sarah clutched Emily's arm and guided her, managing a clumsy trot. "Stay close. I know this trail."
From the clearing, she heard Ty crashing through the trees, yelling that he needed a flashlight. As soon as he had light, he'd locate the trail. When he did, he'd be able to run and catch up to them. They needed a different escape route.
Sarah dragged Emily to a full stop beside a granite boulder that bordered the steep side of the trail. She whispered, "We're going over the edge."
"Have you done this before?"
"Sure." That climb had been in the summer in full daylight when she could carefully pick her way. "We can do this."
"Show me how."
"Get down on your butt." She squatted beside the boulder. The cliff wasn't vertical, but the angle was steep. Below this ledge was a wider area that descended to a winding creek. "Follow me."
She dug her heels into the crusty snow, bracing herself so she could control her descent and not tumble head over heels. With her gloved hands, she grasped at rocks and clumps of frozen foliage. Emily followed.
Behind them, she heard more shouting and gunfire. The bursts from the semiautomatic were met with single shots. It sounded like a battle. She could only hope that whatever was happening at the clearing would provide enough of a distraction for her and Emily to get away.
Inching slowly and carefully, she was halfway down the hill when she heard a frantic gasp from Emily. "I'm slipping."
There was no place for Sarah to go. She steadied herself and prepared for impact as Emily collided with her backside. Sarah couldn't hold them both. Together, they careened the rest of the way down the incline and sprawled at the bottom.
"I'm sorry." Emily's voice was a whimper. "Are you okay?"
Sarah wiggled her arms and legs. No broken bones. Tomorrow, there would be bruises. "I'm fine."
Huddled together at the bottom of the slope, they listened to shooting and yelling and a car engine starting.
Emily stared up the hill. Even in the moonless night, Sarah could see the whites of her eyes and her fear.
"What's happening?" Emily whispered.
"It sounds like they're fighting somebody else. Maybe somebody from the oil company?" Sarah glanced at her. "We should call the sheriff. Do you have your cell phone?"
"I dropped it in the clearing."
"Follow me. Try not to make noise."
Though Sarah wanted to believe they were invisible at the foot of the cliff, she knew better. Anyone who knew about tracking would see the disturbance at the edge where they'd gone over. They needed to put more distance between themselves and the men in ski masks.or the men from the oil company. One was as bad as the other.
She picked her way through the forest. There were no marked paths in this area, but the trees thinned as they got closer to the creek. She paused to listen. "I don't hear shooting."
"Is that good?"
Either they'd left or they were spreading out in the forest to search. "I don't know."
Crouched beside a boulder, she looked back toward the ledge. In daylight, she would have had a clear view. She saw the beam of a flashlight and pointed. "They're coming."
Emily ducked down beside her. "What now?"
The flashlight beam bobbled along the path. When he passed the boulder where they made their desperate slide, her tension lessened. Maybe he wouldn't notice their escape route. Maybe they'd be safe.
The beam scanned the forest. Though she knew the light wasn't powerful enough to penetrate this darkness, she crouched lower, wishing she could disappear.
The light came back toward the granite boulder. "Emily?" a deep, male voice called out. "Emily, are you out here? It's Blake."
Blake-the hulking, angry ranger-had come to their rescue. Sarah was so relieved that she almost burst into the "Hallelujah Chorus."