Read an Excerpt
The Isle of Skye Scotland
She was cold and tired and hungry. Her blistered feet ached and right now all Nell MacInnes wanted was a hot bath and a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea, followed by a warm bed to rest her weary body.
She closed her eyes, listening to the buzz of quiet pub conversation around her. The little inn nestled up against a pristine loch with towering mountains on three sides. The locals were far too polite to intrude on Nell's reverie, and when she dumped her mountain gear and backpack on the floor, sinking into a worn wooden chair, no one raised an eyebrow.
It was heaven to be warm and dry after six days of climbing the nearby peaks, battling rain and wind on every ascent. If not for her climbing partner, Nell might have curtailed the trip three days sooner, but Eric's enthusiasm was hard to resist. No doubt he would appear from his room upstairs within the hour, after taping his badly sprained ankle.
Warmth began to seep into her bones, as gentle as the low burr of the Scottish voices around her. Scotland was truly heaven, she thought.
"And I'm telling you it was no such thing as my imagination, Angus McCrae. A grand fish it was bigger than two arm spans, I'll tell you this."
Over the muted, good-natured argument about a lost fish, Nell heard the pub's front door open. Cold wind snapped through the room as two men entered, scraping booted feet. "Where is the American man, Angus? We need the climber called MacInnes."
Nell stiffened at the flawed description. Who wanted her now, when all she craved was one precious night's rest? No one from San Francisco even knew she was in Scotland.
The man at the door wore a muddy parka and broken-in boots. A satphone was gripped at his chest. "We've bad weather up on the hill and I need the Americanassuming the man's as good as I'm told."
Nell took a short, wistful look at her half-eaten shepherd's pie and the cup of tea, but a request for aid was never refused.
She gulped the rest of her tea and stood up. "I'm the American named MacInnes."
"Youa woman?" The man looked startled.
Nell nodded, used to the surprised glances after twelve years of climbing on four continents. "How can I help you?"
"A team of young climbers has gone missing on Blaven, and there's bad weather already, with more due through the night."
Nell recognized the name of the dark peaks that girded the valley on three sides. "They're on the peak now?"
"Aye. They were expected down three hours ago and no sign of them yet. We have just now received word that they're stranded." He raised the satphone, his eyes grim. "A German climber saw them scattered out over the south slope like lost sheep. They did not answer his hails, and at least two had the look of being hurt." His voice fell. "Badly hurt."
Nell thrust her arms into her waterproof jacket, already making mental notes. "How many are in the group and what level of climbing experience? I'll need to know the exact coordinates where they were last seen, too." Even in a blizzard, the GPS would help Nell track those missing.
"I'm assembling that information now."
Nell unzipped her pack, assessing her resources. "I'll need drinking water and dried high-energy food, along with a more extensive first-aid kit."
"I will have it prepared for you, Ms. MacInnes, and our thanks to you for your help. My SAR team is understaffed, all but myself sent over to assist in the recovery of plane crash victims on Uist.A terrible thing, that. I only wish I had two more people and I'd climb up myself."
"No, you're right to stay here. Someone experienced needs to be available to coordinate resources and guide the authorities. Besides, I'm familiar with Blaven." She smiled crookedly. "I worked SAR here myself nine years ago during my summer vacation."
The man looked pleasantly surprisedand a little relieved. "So you know the Cuillin, do you now? I'm glad to hear it. There are those who take our Cuillin lightly. Some of them do not live to learn their error, I'm afraid."
"I won't make that mistake, rest assured." Nell's voice was firm. She had seen enough dazed climbers and shattered bodies during her rescue summer to know just how fast conditions could change up on the nearby peaks. Within minutes an exhilarating climb could turn into a zero-visibility nightmare. "What's the weather prediction up there?"
"Northerly gale force eight. Snow already falling on the summit. Temperatures dropping to minus nine Celsius."
Nell made the conversion to Fahrenheit quickly, taking the bottles of water and zippered food bags that the local SAR coordinator handed her. "One more thing." Ruefully, she looked down at her feet. "I'm afraid I'll need dry socks. These are fairly well soaked after walking down through the rain all day."
Without a word, every man in the now silent pub bent down and began to unlace shoes or unzip boots, hearing her quiet words.
In seconds hand-knit socks appeared on every table.
Nell smiled at this instant generosity.
She cleared her throat. "I appreciate your help. What I meant is, I have special climbing socks up in my room. I'll do better with my own gear, you understand."
"Of course." The local SAR man said a few words of explanation in Gaelic. The men around Nell nodded. The socks vanished back on hidden feet.
She started toward the stairs to her room, calculating exactly how much she could cram into her pack and what injuries the lost climbers might have incurred. There was only so much possibility for medical intervention on the top of a mountain with limited supplies.
"One word, miss. Your partnerhe will be going with you, will he?"
Nell shook her head. "Not with a sprained ankle, he won't. But Eric will stay in contact. He can help you down here with backup arrangements. I'll tell him the situation."
Nell knew her friend would insist on joining her, sprained ankle or not, but he'd be no help with an injury that had kept him limping for most of the day. She'd have to make the climb alone. She didn't need any amateurs slowing her down.
"I'll be down in two minutes. If someone can drive me up to the trailhead at the end of the loch, it will save twenty minutes."
"A Land Rover is already waiting for you, miss." The local rescue coordinator ran a hand through his hair. "I'd much prefer to go up the hill with you, truth be told. It's a fair nasty stretch across the south slope in weather like this."
"I'll be fine." Nell was calm, with years of climbing experience, focused on planning her route. She was used to facing the worst. Climbing a rugged peak in nasty weather wasn't half as bad as the other shocks that life had thrown her.
He watched her shoulder the heavy pack and then adjust both padded straps, working with the intense focus of someone used to carrying heavy weight well into the pain zone.
The woman clearly knew what she was doing, Dakota thought, slouched out of sight inside a dusty delivery truck parked up the road from the inn. The bug in her backpack was working perfectly, allowing him clear access to every word she said. So far she'd made no slips. Her conversation with her climbing partner had been full of good-natured bantering and reminiscences of earlier climbs.
No talk of art theft or organized terrorist activities, the Navy SEAL thought cynically.
His orders were absolutely clear. Close surveillance and assessment of all contacts made by Nell MacInnes. She'd done something to land on the government's highest priority watch list.
Better than anyone, Dakota Smith knew that SEALs didn't get called up for aimless threats. Nell MacInnes was up to her slender neck in trouble.
With or without her father's help, she was suspected of participating in the theft of one of the most valuable pieces of art ever to enter the National Gallery. Dakota's job was to find out who she was working with and locate the stolen Renaissance masterpiece before it vanished forever, traded through a shadow network of international criminals, sold to finance the activities of an elusive terrorist group active on American soil.
The SEAL's eyes narrowed on the woman's back as she climbed into a battered Land Rover, accompanied by the head of the local search-and-rescue volunteer team. Dakota wondered what made her tick, what drove her back out into a pounding storm after six days of strenuous climbing. He doubted it was simple selflessness. No, he figured that Nell MacInnes enjoyed walking on the edge, tasting danger. She looked like a classic thrill seeker, which would also explain her involvement in a complicated, high-stakes robbery.
Not greed. She didn't drive a late-model Maserati or own a string of houses. Her apartment back in San Francisco was neat but small, and her only hobby appeared to be climbing. Yet appearances could be the most unreliable thing in the world, Dakota knew.
Still, he wondered about that brief note of resignation he'd heard in Nell's voice back at the pub. The confidence had faded, along with the high energy, and she had sounded tired and worried, as if she genuinely cared about the missing climbers.
Forget about the target's emotions, a voice warned flatly as Dakota pulled onto the road, following the Land Rover at a careful distance. He'd track her up the brooding slopes of Blaven and make certain she came down in one piece. But he'd break his cover to save the other climbers only if it was absolutely necessary, mindful of his orders to stay well under the radar until all Nell MacInnes's shadowy contacts were bagged and tagged. The mission came first.
After parking down the slope from the small trailhead, Dakota pulled on an all-weather parka and a fully stocked backpack, then fingered his shortwave radio. His contact would be waiting for an update. "Teague, are you there?"
"Yo." Izzy Teague's voice was clear, despite an edge of static. "I've got the topo map on the screen in front of me. I checked with SAR and got the coordinates. You'll have a straight ascent for an hour, followed by a fairly strenuous climb through shifting rock when you near the south face. A chopper is on its way over from the mainland, but the weather may prevent a landing until tomorrow."
"So I'm on my own," Dakota said calmly. "Fine with me. I don't need anyone slowing me down or asking questions."
"Watch out for yetis up there," Izzy said wryly. "I'll keep a bottle of Glenlivet on ice for you."
"You do that. Alpha out."
The dark face of Blaven was veiled in clouds as Nell set off up the rocky trail. The Land Rover headed down to the inn. The first wet flakes of gale-driven snow lashed at Dakota's face as he started up toward Blaven's brooding darkness, Nell already out of sight before him.
For some reason she couldn't shake the sense that she was being followed. For the third time Nell stopped, peering through fingers of clouds, looking for other climbers behind her.
Only rocky slopes met her sharp scrutiny.
Of course you're alone, idiot. Any climbers with good sense are inside huddled before a roaring fire right now.
But a climber didn't turn away in an emergency. Rules of the road.
Rules of life, too.
Turning back into the cutting wind, Nell nursed her aching right knee and chose each step, careful not to trigger a slide in the loose rock. Her face was cold, wet from the wind driving up from the sea. She estimated she'd reach the missing climbers' last coordinates in another twenty minutes. If the weather didn't shift, she could begin guiding them down off the peak immediately.
But Nell was prepared for a dozen unknown variables from shattered morale to shattered ankles. Any one of them could hamper a fast descent.
No point tilting at windmills, MacInnes. Every rescue was different, so she'd tackle each obstacle as it appeared. She eased her pack lower on her shoulders, trying to stay loose.
Once again she was struck by the twitchy feeling that someone was down the slope in shadow.
One hour before sunset.
Wind raked Dakota's neck.
Icy rain howled over the cliff overlooking the restless Sea of Hebrides.
Visibility was down to zero and already the storm was driving intermittent gusts of nearly sixty miles per hour.
Over the slope Nell MacInnes had made contact with the frightened climbers. Thanks to the howl of the wind, Dakota could only pick up one word in three, but from what he heard, Nell was dealing with the rescue quickly and by the book.