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Dr. Cullen Gray trudged through the Wy'East Day Lodge, his sore feet entombed in climbing boots he couldn't wait to remove. His muscles ached after two grueling days on Mount Hood. But whatever he'd been through was worth it. A climber had been rescued.
That trumped a night spent in a warm, comfy bed, a hot shower in the morning and a homemade breakfast complete with scrambled eggs, chicken-apple sausage and buttermilk pancakes with huckleberry syrup.
The smell of coffee wafted in the air, the aroma tickling Cul-len's cold nose and teasing his hungry, grumbling stomach. A jolt of caffeine would keep him going long enough to survive the rescue debriefing and the short drive home to Hood Hamlet.
Twenty feet in front of him, members of Oregon Mountain Search and Rescue, OMSAR, sat at a long cafeteria table with coffee cups in front of them. Backpacks, helmets and jackets were scattered on the floor.
Cullen was looking forward to taking off his backpack and sitting, if only for the length of the debriefing.
He passed a group of teenagers, students at the Hood Hamlet Snowboarding Academy, who laughed while they took a break from riding. A little girl, around six years old and dressed in pink from her helmet to her ski boots, wobbled away from the hot-chocolate machine holding a cup with both hands.
A few hours ago, a life had hung in the balance, cocooned inside a rescue litter attached by cables to a hovering helicopter. But down here, lower on the mountain, everything had continued as usual, as if what run to take on the slopes was the most important decision of the day. He much preferred being up there, though not because of any element of danger or adrenaline rush. He took only calculated risks to help others and save lives.
Cullen lived simply in the quaint, Alpine-inspired village of Hood Hamlet. Work and the mountain comprised his life. Sometimes it was enough, other times not even close. But days like today reminded him why he did what he did, both as a doctor and as a volunteer mountain rescuer. Satisfaction flowed through his veins.
A successful mission.
It didn't get much better than that. Well, unless the climber hadn't fallen into the Bergschrund crevasse to begin with. But given the distance of the fall, the climber's serious injuries and the technical nature of the rescue, Cullen thought Christmas magic—something Hood Hamlet was famous for—had been in play even though it was May, not December.
Either that or plain old dumb luck.
Cullen preferred thinking Christmas magic had been involved. Luck seemed too random. He might be a doctor, but living here for almost a year had opened his mind. Not everything could be explained and proven scientifically. Sometimes patients defied their diagnosis and survived with no logical explanation.
As soon as he reached the table, he shrugged off his backpack. Gear rattled inside. Carabiners clinked on the outside. When the straps left his shoulders, relief shot straight to his toes.
The pack thudded against the floor. The sound echoed through the cafeteria and drew a few glances from the skiers, riders and tourists.
Let them look. Complain even. Nothing, not even his tight muscles or tiredness, could ruin this day.
He removed his black parka with the white block letters spelling RESCUE on the sleeve, tucked it under one of the outside straps of his pack, then sat. His feet felt as if they were sighing in delight at not having to support any weight.
"Nice work up there, Doc." Bill Paulson, another volunteer with OMSAR, sat on the opposite side of the table. He passed Cullen a cup of coffee from the extras sitting between them. "What you did in the Bergschrund to save that guy's life "
Cullen bent over to loosen his boots. He didn't like anyone fussing over what he did, let alone another mountain rescuer. He didn't want the praise. The result—a life saved—was payback enough. "All in a day's work."
"Maybe in the emergency department, but not down inside a crevasse." Paulson raised his cup. "I'm buying the first round at the brewpub tonight."
A beer was in order after this mission. "You're on."
Zoe Hughes, the pretty wife of OMSAR team leader Sean Hughes and an associate member herself, stood behind Cullen. "Want anything?"
Heat from the coffee cup warmed his cold fingers. "This is all I need right now."
"Let me know when you want a refill." Her wide smile reached all the way to her blue eyes. "Rumor has it you were a real hero up there today."
He shifted in his seat. Some considered mountain rescue a reckless pursuit, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rescuer safety was the priority, no matter what the mission. "Just doing my job."
She touched his shoulder. "Sean doesn't think he's a hero, either. But you're all heroes. What you guys do, who you are, is the very definition of the word."
"Damn straight. That's why we always get the girls." Paulson winked. "You're going to be my wingman tonight, Gray. We're going to get so many numbers we'll need more memory for our cell phones."
Paulson, a firefighter with Hood Hamlet Fire and Rescue, had a reputation of being a player. No one would accuse Cullen of being one. He had never expected to be living like a monk, but he had a good reason. One that would end soon enough. Until then.
He stared into his coffee, black and strong, fighting memories and resentment.
Going out and doing anything other than drinking a beer and eating a burger didn't appeal to Cullen in the slightest. The one woman he wanted didn't want him. Time to move on. He understood that. He'd come to terms with it. But he saw no reason to frustrate or tempt himself with something he couldn't have right now. He lifted his cup. "You'll get those phone numbers whether I'm there or not."
"True that," Paulson agreed. "But think of the fun we'll have together. Just so you know, I'm partial to blondes. Though I don't mind brunettes or redheads."
Zoe shook her head, her long hair swaying back and forth. "One of these days you're going to have to grow up and realize women weren't put on this planet solely for your enjoyment."
Paulson flashed her a charming grin. "Not going to happen."
Zoe grimaced. "Too bad, because love does conquer all."
"Love sucks," Paulson countered before Cullen could echo the sentiment.
"Sometimes." A sigh seemed poised to float away from her lips at any moment. "But other times it's pure magic."
Yeah, right. Cullen sipped his coffee. Love caused nothing but heartache and pain. He'd stick with Christmas magic.
Zoe went to refill someone else's cup. The din of conversation increased, and so did the number of people in the cafeteria. More rescue-team members arrived. A photographer snapped pictures. Someone placed a plate of cookies on the table. It had to be getting closer to briefing time.
He checked his watch. "What's taking so long?"
Paulson grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from the plate. "Hughes must still be outside talking to reporters."
Cullen wasn't a big fan of the media when it came to the way they covered and dramatized rescue missions on Mount Hood. Whenever anything went down on the mountain, reporters and news trucks raced to the rescue operation's base at Timberline Lodge, eager to capitalize on some poor soul's misfortune to increase ratings, web-page hits or circulation.
His stomach growled. He reached for an oatmeal raisin cookie. "Better Hughes than me. I want no part of that feeding frenzy."
Paulson snickered. "Once the press finds out who was lowered into the Bergschrund."
"How about we say it was you?" Cullen bit into his cookie.
"I'm game," Paulson said. "Especially if the hot blond reporter from Channel Nine wants to talk to me again."
Cullen took another bite. Tasted like one of Carly Porter's cookies. Her husband had been on the mission, too. Jake owned the local brewing company and brewpub. A pint of Porter's Wy'East Lager, with Paulson buying, would hit the spot tonight.
Sheriff's Deputy Will Townsend approached the table with Sean Hughes at his side. Concern clouded their gazes. Worry was etched in their features.
Cullen wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. He hoped the climber hadn't taken a turn for the worse on the helicopter ride or at the hospital. The guy was married with two young kids.
"Hey, Doc." Will tipped his deputy's hat. "Cell phone turned off?"
"Battery died." Cullen wondered what his cell phone had to do with anything. He placed his cup on the table. "Not a lot of places to recharge up there."
Will's eyes darkened. "We've been trying to reach you."
The deputy's words tightened Cullen's throat. He recognized the serious tone and steady cadence. He'd used both when delivering bad news at the hospital. "What's going on?"
"You're listed as Sarah Purcell's emergency contact."
Hearing the name startled Cullen. His coffee spilled, spreading across the table. "Damn."
Paulson grabbed napkins. "No worries, Doc. I've got it."
Cullen stood and faced the deputy. "What about Sarah?"
The deputy's prominent Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "There was an accident on Mount Baker."
"Accident?" Cullen asked.
A muscle twitched at Will's jaw. "The details are sketchy, but it appears Sarah was at the crater rim when a steam blast occurred. She was hit by rock and fell a significant distance."
Shock reverberated through Cullen's body. His vision blurred. The world tilted sideways.
A hand tightened around his arm. "Steady, Doc."
"Deep breaths," another voice said. Paulson.
Cullen felt himself being seated.
Sarah. Please, God, not her.
His emotions swirled like a whirlpool. Fear and dread spi-raled, one on top of the other. Nightmares from another time joined in. Images of his twin brother, Blaine, flashed with strobe-light intensity until Cullen thought his head would explode. He forced himself to breathe. "Is she ?"
What was happening? He was a doctor. Death was something he saw almost every time he worked a shift at the hospital. But he couldn't bring himself to say the word.
Will leaned forward. "Sarah's at a hospital in Seattle."
Not dead. A hundred pounds of anxiety melted away from each of Cullen's bone-weary shoulders. Tears of relief pricked his eyes. He hadn't seen Sarah in months. Cullen had wanted her out of his life, but he hadn't wanted anything bad to happen to her.
Will named one of the top trauma centers in the Pacific Northwest.
Cullen blinked, gaining control in an instant. He'd done his residency there. Sarah would receive top-notch treatment, but he needed to make sure it was the right care. A good thing Seattle was only a four-hour drive away.
He stood, nearly toppling over before he could catch his balance. Tired. He was tired from the mission. "I've got to go."
Hughes steadied him. "Not so fast."
"We've been getting updates," Will explained. "Sarah is in surgery again."
Again. Not good. Cullen's hands fisted. Surgery could mean anything from pinning a fracture to relieving pressure on the brain. Volcanoes weren't safe places. Being a volcanologist had put Sarah in danger, but no serious injuries had resulted. Bumps, bruises, a few stitches. But this
Cullen dragged his hand through his hair. He was a doctor. He could handle this. "Any prognosis yet?"
Hughes touched Cullen's shoulder with the strength of a rescue leader and the compassion of a friend. "She's in critical condition."
A snowball-size lump burned in his throat. While he'd been on the mountain saving a life, Sarah had been fighting for hers. Bitter-tasting regret coated his mouth. Oh-so-familiar guilt, too. He hadn't been able to help Blaine. Cullen had to help Sarah.
He couldn't waste any more time. Sarah needed someone with her, and he was all she had.
Cullen grabbed his pack. "I've got to get to Seattle."
Hughes touched his shoulder again. "Johnny Gearhart has a plane. Porter's making arrangements. I'm going to drive you home in your truck so you can change and pack a bag, then we'll get you there. ASAP. I promise."
A protest sat on the tip of Cullen's tongue. He hadn't lived in Hood Hamlet long, unlike several of these guys who'd grown up on the mountain. He'd climbed and drunk beer and watched sports on television with them, but he relied on himself and didn't ask for help. He didn't need help. But Sarah did. He swallowed the words he normally would have said and tried a new one instead. "Thanks."
"That's what friends are for," Hughes said. "Let's go."
Cullen nodded once.
"I'm in." Paulson, carrying his gear, fell into step with them. "So Sarah. Is she family? Your sister?"
"No," Cullen said. "Sarah's my wife."
Where am I?
Sarah Purcell wanted to open her eyes, but her eyelids felt as if they'd been glued shut. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't open them.
What was going on?
Something pounded. It took her a minute—maybe longer—to realize the pounding was coming from her head. Maybe she shouldn't try opening her eyes again.
Her head wasn't the only thing hurting. Even her toenails throbbed. But the pain was a dull ache as if it were far off in the distance. Much better than being up close and personal like a battering ram of pain pummeling her.
She'd been hurting more. A whole lot more. This was better.
White. She'd been surrounded by white.
Cold. She'd been so cold, but now she was warm. And dry. Hadn't she been wet? And the air It smelled different.
Strange, but it felt as if something were sticking out of her nose.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
She didn't recognize the noise, the frequency of the tone or the rhythm. But the consistent beat made her think of counting sheep. No reason to try opening her eyes again. Not when she could drift off to sleep.
The man's voice sliced through the thick fog clouding her brain. His voice sounded familiar, but she couldn't quite place him. Not surprising, given she had no idea where she was or why it was so dark or what the beeping might be.
So many questions.
She parted her lips to speak, to ask what was going on, but no words came out. Only a strangled, unnatural sound escaped her sandpaper-dry throat.
Water. She needed water.
"It's okay, Sarah," he said in a reassuring tone. "You're going to be okay."
Glad he thought so. Whoever he might be.
She wasn't sure of anything. Something told her she should care more than she did, but her brain seemed to be taking a sabbatical.
What had happened?
Clouds had been moving in. A horrible noise had filled the air. Swooshing. Exploding. Cracking. The memory of the teethgrinding sound, worse than two cars colliding on the freeway, sent a shudder through her.
A large hand covered hers. The warmth of the calloused, rough skin felt as familiar to Sarah as the voice had sounded. Was it the same person? She had no idea, but the touch comforted and soothed. Maybe now she could go back to sleep.
"Her pulse increased." Concern filled his voice. He seemed to be talking to someone else. "Her lips parted. She's waking up."
Not her. He couldn't mean her.
Sarah wanted to sleep, not wake up.
Someone touched her forehead. Not the same person still holding her hand. This one had smooth, cold skin. Clammy skin.
"I don't see a change," another man said, a voice she didn't recognize. "You've been here a long time. Take a break. Eat a decent meal. Sleep in a real bed. We'll call if her condition changes."
The warm hand remained on hers. Squeezed. "I'm not leaving my wife." Wife.
The word seeped through her foggy mind until an image formed and sharpened. His eyes, as blue as the sky over Glacier Peak on a clear day, had made her feel like the only woman in the world. His smile, rare to appear but generous when it did, had warmed her heart and made her want to believe happy endings might be possible, even if she'd known deep in her heart of hearts they didn't exist. His handsome face, with its high forehead, sculpted cheekbones, straight nose and dimpled chin, had haunted her dreams for the past year.
Memories rushed forward, colliding and overlapping with each other, until one came into focus.
He was here.
Posted January 25, 2015
What a heartfelt and emotional story. McClone takes her readers deep into her characters’ lives to tell an unforgettable tale of love, loss, and miscommunication. This is an emotional tale that definitely tugged at my heart many times.
I enjoyed the cast of characters in this one, right from the main players to the lowliest of supporting ones. Everyone was so real & genuine. The main characters’ less than perfect outlooks on life added to the emotional impact of the tales. Their pasts, both together and separately, were poignant reminders of just how different things are from the outside, as opposed to when you actually live them.
McClone has worked her magic with this novel. It is definitely one of the best ‘second chance’ romances I’ve ever read.