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It was good to be home.
Malcolm Quinn grabbed his duffel from the back of his battered Range Rover and hefted it over his shoulder with a groan. He'd left Greenland three days ago after leading a four-week expedition across the ice cap from east to west, following the Arctic Circle. After boarding a bush flight from Greenland to Iceland, he'd flown from Reykjavik to Copenhagen, then to Dubai, then to Sydney and finally landed in Auckland just that morning after two days in airports. The two-hour drive home to Raglan was the final leg of his trip, and now that he was home, he could finally relax.
To say he was knackered was an understatement. But it was the good kind of exhaustion that he only experienced after a successful expedition. His clients had been thrilled with the experience and were grateful he'd led them on a trip without a single serious hitch.
But it was nice to be able to walk around in a light jacket and shorts. It was early April, spring in the northern hemisphere. But in New Zealand, winter was on its way. Still, the weather felt balmy compared to the constant cold of the Arctic.
The offices for Maximum Adrenaline were located in a low-slung white clapboard building just outside the town limits. For a company that specialized in high adventure, the office was rather unremarkable, distinguished from other nearby businesses by just a small sign above the door. A porch spanned the front facade; weathered wooden furniture was scattered along the wide expanse.
As he slammed the hatch on the SUV, the front door opened and the family dog, Duffy, came bounding out, followed by Mal's younger sister, Dana. "Hey, Duff, look at you. Hey, Dana."
The black Lab was so excited he wasn't sure what to do with himself, and when Mal squatted down, Duffy knocked him off his feet. He surrendered to a thorough tongue bath, laughing as the dog pinned him to the ground. When he finally was able to sit up, Duffy had stretched out across his lap, the dog's subtle way of keeping him in one spot.
"I can't move," Mal said to his sister, "or I'd give you a hug."
"Welcome home," Dana said. "I expected you tomorrow."
"I caught an earlier flight. Martin stayed with our gear to get it through customs. God, it's good to be home."
Duffy wriggled in his lap, nuzzling his wet nose under Mal's chin. "Enough, Duff," he said, struggling to his feet.
"He's missed you," Dana said.
"I'm sure he hasn't thought of me since I left. Considering the way you baby him, you're the only one he'd truly miss."
"I've been taking him running every day. And he's actually lost a bit of weight."
Mal bent down and patted the dog on his flank. "Ugh, don't talk about exercise. Right now, I need a stiff drink and a shower. And I'm not sure which I'll have first. Then, I'm heading into town to kick back and get laid. And I'm not sure which will come first."
It was an unwritten rule in the guiding business that you didn't bonk the clients, no matter how attractive they might be. He had one job and one job only-to bring his clients home safely. Sex was a distraction from that responsibility, especially in extreme environments. He was also a bit superstitious. You didn't disrespect the mountain gods.
That didn't mean the trekkers and climbers didn't have sex in their own tents, but Mal turned a blind eye and often made excuses when the locals were offended.
So from the time he left until the time he returned, he lived a celibate life. But when he got back to Raglan, Mal knew a handful of girls that were willing to provide a randy bloke with a night or two in bed, no strings attached. Raglan was a surf capital, a beach town with a plethora of pretty girls.
Though Mal and his brothers were considered attractive, there weren't many women on the North Island who wanted to settle down with a guy who was gone ten months out of the year, no matter how good he was in the sack. Which was just fine by Mal. He'd never been interested in anything long-term. His life was pretty perfect the way it was. And he wasn't prepared to alter it to make a woman happy-no matter how good she might be in bed.
Besides, he had his family's business to keep afloat. Any time wasted on a woman was time he could put to better use building their clientele, getting publicity for Maximum Adrenaline and working out new trips to offer.
"Any important messages for me?" Mal asked his sister as he got up.
He strode toward the door, but Dana stayed glued to the spot at the base of the porch steps. Mal turned to motion to her, then saw the pained expression on her face. A sick fear clutched at his gut and he drew a sharp breath. Something was wrong. "What is it? Is it Ryan? Rogan?"
His younger brother was climbing Lhotse in the Himalayas with an Aussie film crew. And Ryan's twin, Rogan, was in Alaska, doing a prep course for a De-nali climb. Either trip had the potential for trouble. And then there were the other hundred or so guides that they employed on various expeditions throughout the year.
"Who is it?"
"It's Dad," she murmured.
"Dad?" Their father had died twenty years ago this spring, somewhere near the summit of Mt. Everest. Mal had been ten, the twins seven and Dana only five.
His sister nodded, fighting back tears. "They found his body."
Mal gasped. "When?"
"Three weeks ago. Gary Branbauer's expedition. The snow cover has been light this year and as they were descending, they noticed a flash of color in the snow. It was him."
"How do they know?" Mal asked.
"They took a photo and got a GPS bearing. Roger Innis confirmed it was the right location and gear. The news is out and the media has been calling. It's been crazy."
"Why didn't you say something?" He and Dana had been in contact by satellite phone at least four or five times over the past three weeks. And he'd been a simple email away for the past two days.
"I decided to wait until you got home. I haven't said anything to Ryan and Rogan either, although considering how the news is spreading, they'll probably both hear about it before I can tell them in person."
"Mum," Mal said. "She knows?"
Dana nodded. "She's a little upset over all the attention. They've been calling and wanting to talk to her, but so far she's refused to comment. She's coming to stay with me for the weekend."
The media attention made sense. Maxwell Quinn had been one of the most renowned climbers of his generation and, in the early '90s, only one of a handful of men who had completed the Seven Summits in less than a year. Max's partner, Roger Innis, had used the media coverage after Max's death to his advantage, claiming that Max had died trying to rescue a client. With all the publicity, Outbound Adventure had suddenly become a high-profile guiding company.
But because of a badly written business agreement, Lydie Quinn had been left with virtually nothing. All the business assets went to Innis, and though Max was supposed to have had a life insurance policy through the company, Innis had stopped paying the premiums a few months before the Everest expedition. So Lydie had been forced to sell their little house in Rotorua and move the family back to Auckland, where they'd lived with Mal's grandparents.
Though they'd moved away from their childhood home, Max Quinn's sons couldn't forget his legacy. So they'd started their own adventure guiding business, the name a nod to their father-Maximum Adrenaline. In deference to their mother, they refused to return to Everest, but with only two eight-thousand-foot expeditions on their trip list, it had been hard to compete with Innis's company.
The family's relationship with Roger Innis became almost hostile when they became competitors, with Outbound Adventure doing all it could to win the battle for clients and reputation.
But Innis took chances, sometimes putting his clients at risk in order to get them to the top of a mountain. The Quinns were known to err on the side of caution, and for climbers who paid dearly to get to the summit, this was not always a popular choice. Nor was it flashy enough to get them the media coverage they needed to expand their business.
But they were getting it now, weren't they?
Mal sat down on the front steps and ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm not sure what to say."
"Well, you'd better come up with something. We're going to have to make a statement to the media at some point. I didn't think it was my place, and Mum just refuses to talk about it."
"All right. The next person who calls, have them ring my mobile and I'll make a statement."
"There's something else," she murmured.
"Please tell me the business is bankrupt or my house has burned to the ground. I'd be much more equipped to cope."
"Innis announced that he's going to mount an expedition to recover Dad's effects."
Mal felt as if he'd been punched in the stomach, his breath leaving him. "What the hell? Where does he get off? It's his fault Dad is dead. Does he think he can make up for that by rescuing him now? He should have done his job twenty years ago."
There had been whispers all those years ago, comments from other climbers about Innis's reckless disregard for his partner's safety. They'd said he'd made decisions that had directly contributed to Max Quinn's death. But those had only been rumors; no one knew the real story except for Roger Innis and Mal's father-and neither one of them was talking.
Dana wrapped her arm around Mal's and leaned against him. "It's just talk," she said. "Publicity. You know how he is-he'll use anything to get his business in the news. Just last month he had the cover story in High Adventure magazine for his Antarctica expedition."
"The cover?" Mal cursed. "How the hell does he manage that?" Mal had been trying to get a feature in High Adventure for years. Mal was convinced the glossy American magazine was key to capturing more American clientele. "I suppose he's hoping for another cover with this harebrained scheme of his. The bludger."
"He can't mount a trip to Everest until at least next spring, and even then, he'd have to get permits and shuffle his clients around. By then all the interest will have died down and-"
"He wants Dad's journal," Mal muttered. "He's well aware Dad kept it in his climbing suit and he's afraid of what might be written there. Innis has worked all these years to rebuild his reputation. He's not going to let it all fall apart now."
The sound of a phone ringing echoed from the office and Dana stood up. "Probably another reporter."
"Do you want me to handle it?" Mal asked.
"No. You're just home. You deserve a chance to relax a bit. I'll tell them what I've been saying for three weeks. No comment. Although that seems to make them even more determined to get a quote." She paused. "You know, maybe we should give an interview. All of us, Mum, too. The publicity couldn't hurt. We could beat Innis at his own game."
"Maybe," he murmured.
"And High Adventure magazine has rung three times in the past few days. I told the girl you'd be back tomorrow. Maybe you should talk to her."
A feature article about their father and the Quinn family business might finally bring them out of the shadow of Roger Innis. Especially if they mounted their own expedition. Maybe it was time they learned the truth about that week on Everest.
But did he really want to know? It wouldn't change anything. His father would still be dead and he'd force his mother to relive the tragedy all over again. And he'd promised her that he and his brothers would never climb Everest. There were so many reasons not to go.
Yet Mal couldn't help but wonder if learning the truth-his father's truth-might not put to rest some of the pain he and his family had suffered. Could the answers be found in his father's journal? Had he written his farewells there before he died on the mountain? There were so many unanswered questions.
"I'm going to go see Mum," Mal said, pushing to his feet. "And then I'm going home to grab a shower and a drink, and maybe I'll get myself a haircut."
"What about the woman?" Dana asked with a wry smile.
"That might have to wait," he murmured. Mal gave Duff a rough pet and the dog trotted beside him to the Range Rover. "You want me to take him?"
"No, I'll keep him."
He waved at his sister, Duffy at her side, as he drove out to the main road. Life had always been pretty uncomplicated for Mal and he liked it that way. But the reality of their business problems was beginning to weigh on him. There was never extra money; he could barely afford to make rent from month to month. When finances were tight, he bought new equipment instead of food and ate expired rations from their expedition stockpile.
He reached into his pocket and grabbed the wad of cash that he had left over from the client tips he and the other guides had divided amongst themselves. He'd take enough for a single night out. The rest would have to go to pay the bills.
"I'd better make it a bloody good night," he muttered. "I've had enough of living like a damn monk."