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Mountain Cove, Alaska
Tracy Murray knew she had little time. A storm brewed in the distance.
But Solomon's urgent bark pulled her up the rising trail, indicating that there was someone in danger.
She sucked more air into her lungs that were already screaming from her workout.
Any other season on this trailspring, winter, fallshe'd have to be concerned about the avalanche danger. But not during the summer, and because the season was so brief in Alaska, Tracy had every intention of enjoying the outdoors. Out for a run with her search-and-rescue golden retriever, summer abounded around her in the form of wildflowers and sundry small wildlife scurrying in and out of the flora.
Tracy had been heading for Keller Falls, four miles up the trail, until Solomon had taken off. She'd let him run free and hoped to practice a few commands. Up until a moment ago he'd run beside Tracy, surprisingly ignoring his natural instinct to chase forest animals, but then he'd taken off. With his continued excited and urgent barks, she knew that he had caught a human scent and was sending his vocal cue to alert Tracy that something was wrong.
Dread replaced the serenity she'd found on the trail.
Solomon was an air-scent search dog, wilderness search-and-rescue certified, and Tracy was still training him for both cadaver and avalanche certification. They'd already participated in several searches in the region as part of the North Face Mountain Rescue team. But Tracy hadn't taken her dog out looking for trouble today. No. She'd been looking for peace.
Instead her much-loved pet had likely found something. Or rather, someone.
Avoiding the steep and hazardous drop on the right side of the trail, Tracy kept running toward Solomon's sound-off. It surprised Tracy how far Solomon had gone on his own in the wilderness, but he'd obviously picked up a human scent that he intended to follow.
Though certified, Solomon was often eager to conduct a search even when he wasn't tasked with one, which frequently ended in false alarmsfinding someone who wasn't lost. But if this was something more this time, at least she wasn't alone if she needed to call for help. She wasn't the only one who enjoyed an early morning run on this trail. Another runner had taken off on the trail ahead of her, and she'd run into David Warren heading the opposite direction on the trail, too.
He'd nodded and she'd nodded and they'd both given each other wide berth. Kind of funny now that she considered it. Living in Mountain Cove for two years, Tracy had worked with the firefighter on several search-and-rescue missions, but he seemed aloof. A few years older than Tracy in his late thirties, the man still attracted plenty of female attention with his rugged appearance and strong, lean body. His smile was the kind that turned heads and could make a woman weak in the knees.
Despite all that, he wasn't married, didn't have a girlfriend, and Tracy knew whyhe was too cold on the inside. Even if he wasn't, she'd have kept her distance because of his profession. Tracy wanted to avoid any reminders of the night that had changed her life forever. Any reminders of what had sent her into hiding.
Make that who.
And that was one reason she'd chosen to live in Mountain Cove. Surrounded by temperate rain forest in Southeast Alaska, the chances of seeing a wildfire were next to zero.
She shook off the unwelcome thoughts and focused in on Solomon's alerts. His barks came from the area to her right, which was nothing but a steep ridge. Her heart sank. She'd purposefully avoided that ledge. How had Solomon found his way down? Or had he fallen?
God, please, no.
"Solomon!" Tracy crept to the edge and peered out over the rocky, jagged escarpment, part of the gorge that originated at Keller Falls. Where was he?
The drop was steep, terraced with granite or bedrock in places, and it was on one of those natural terraces that Solomon stood barking. Fear gripped Tracy. How could she bring Solomon back up?
"Solomon! Come," she called.
The position of his ears and tail signaled that he'd found someone who was injured or scared. Solomon peered up, his brown eyes somber, and when he saw her, he lay on the small spacea signal to mark the spot. But where was the injured person?
Then, just beyond a bush growing from the ridge, she spotted a body. Tracy's pulse thundered in her ears. The breath rushed from herit was the man who'd run ahead of her. But Solomon hadn't signaled that he was dead.
And then the man lifted a hand and called out to her. He wasn't dead after all, but he'd taken a fall. How had he survived?
Tracy could barely hear his cry for help.
"I'm calling for assistance," she yelled down to him. "Just hang in there!"
A chill slid down her spine. The sense that someone watched crawled over her. Phone in hand, she called for help for the fallen jogger while she scanned the woods behind and around her.
A man stepped out of nowhere and Tracy gaspedthen let out a sigh of relief when she saw it was David.
But the sense of unease didn't disappear.
And she still had a feeling she was being watched.
Breathing hard, David bent over his thighs before gasping out, "I heard the dog, wanted to see if there was a problem." David wiped the sweat from his eyes, sucked in a few breaths to slow his breathing after he'd sprinted up the trail then cut through the woods.
Phone to her ear, Tracy stared at him with those big silvery-blue eyes of hers, the terror slowly fading away to shock and concern. What was going on?
Scrunching her freckled nose, she glared at her phone. "Lost the signal. Oh, I don't have time for this."
A deep frown crossed her features as she shoved the thick red hair from her face. "I'm so glad you're here. A runner fell. He's down there." Urgency in her voice, Tracy paced as she pointed to the steep, rocky drop. "He needs our help."
David peered over the edge and spotted Solomonhow had the dog made it down there?and just beyond he saw the hiker. The man was still alive? Apprehension lodged in David's gut. How long had he been there?
Pulling his own phone out, he looked for the bars. "Got 'em. Use my phone to call for help. I'll climb down to him." David was assistant chief of the Mountain Cove Fire Department and a paramedic. He spent most of his time as a firefighter answering EMS calls rather than fires, and he had too many SAR certifications to count. He was well qualifiedhe just wished he was better inventoried. Out on his morning run, he had no medical equipment or emergency supplies. All he could do was assess the man's injuries and reassure him while they waited for help to arrive.
Reaching over, Tracy pressed her hand against his arm, uncertainty in her eyes. "Be careful. You don't even have your climbing gear."
He'd gone on enough free-soloing climbsfree climbing with no ropesto know this ridge wouldn't be a problem for him. "Don't worry. When you reach someone, tell them we'll need a helicopter to hoist this man out. That fall had to have severely banged him up." If he wasn't mortally wounded.
David suspected the latter but wouldn't voice his concerns because Tracy was already on edge. She'd seemed unusually distressed. In their previous interactions, the experienced search-and-rescue volunteer was always in control of her emotions. Was there more to this than she'd admitted?
Before he climbed down to the injured jogger, he needed to know. "Did you see what happened?"
She shook her head. "Like you, I followed Solomon's bark. He took off ahead of me."
David eyed the dangerous ledge, deciding on the safest and quickest path to the man. He started down, with one last glance up to Tracy, and noticed her looking behind her as though she expected someone to jump out of the woods.
Gripping the rocks, he paused and called up. "Tracy."
His short, snappy tone got her attention.
She peered down at him. "What?"
"Did you reach anyone?"
"I'm on hold."
"Figures. Are you going to be okay?" He should be more concerned about the fallen runner, but he couldn't shake the sense that something had scared Tracy. Or was he just being an idiot?
"Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"
He shrugged and continued down.
Tracy had caught his attention the first time he'd met her a couple of years ago. She'd just moved to Mountain Cove, she'd explained after he'd run into her coming out of his brother Adam's bicycle shop. Collided, more like, and he'd had to assist her off the groundher and the new bike she'd purchased. He should have offered to buy her coffee or something. Any normal red-blooded male would have. With her thick, red mane and deep, striking eyes, he hadn't stopped thinking about her for weeks after running into her.
Maybe he was just lonely. Starved for female companionship. But he didn't think that was it. There was just something about Tracy. But getting involved wasn't for him anymore. Yeah, he saw how happy two of his siblingsHeidi and Cadewere now that they had each finally gotten married. Cade and his wife, Leah, had had their first child two months ago, naming him after their late father, Scott Daniel Warren. And Heidi had married Isaiah, a family friend, SAR volunteer and a coworker at the avalanche center that their father had founded. David's siblings had done well for themselves.
He'd known that kind of happiness once. But he'd lost it; let it slip through his fingers. He didn't deserve it again. His wife had died in a fire when he, a decorated firefighting hero, had failed to save her. How could he have let that happen?
He didn't deserve happiness. Not after that. And after Tracy had snagged his thoughts with one run-in, he knew to keep his distance from her on their search-and-rescue missions and training events. And even when he saw her in town.
He reached Solomon and petted the dog, giving him plenty of reassuring verbal rewards.
"I'm on my way down," he called to the injured man.
The trim man looked to be about average height, healthy except for the way he lay twisted at an angle a few feet below the narrow ledge where David and Solomon now stood. He likely had a few if not many broken bones and possibly had internal injuries, as well. David was astounded he had survived, and if the rescue helicopter didn't arrive soon, he might not make it.
Carefully gripping the rocks, David inched his way down.
Finally he reached the narrow terrace and looked down into dark gray eyes filled with pain and fear. "My name's David. I'm a firefighter and paramedic. Lie perfectly still. Help is on the way."
Kneeling beside him, David assessed the fallen man's wounds the best he could, but with a possible spinal injury, David avoided moving any part of his body. Blood oozed from a gash in the man's head, coagulating in his light brown hair. David removed his own jacket and then his T-shirt, using it to apply pressure to stanch the flow. He could do at least that much. He cringed to think of what was going on inside the injured man's body.
"It's pretty bad, isn't it?"
"You're going to make it."
God, let my words be true. Save this man, help him. The man closed his eyes.
"What's your name?" David had to keep him awake, keep him talking, if he could.
Maybe David couldn't offer much physical assistance, but emotional and mental encouragement was just as important.
Clouds brewed in the distance, forecasted to bring a torrent, and David could already smell the rain. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled, warning of the storm's imminent approach and leaving David unsettled. They didn't usually get thunderstorms. He sure hoped that helicopter got here soon. He didn't want to see Jay suffer any more by getting soaked and chilled on top of his injuries.
"Why?" Jay's croak resounded with the shock of his trauma.
Recognizing the man's emotional distress over his predicament, David frowned. Was he asking why God would allow him to fall? David had enough of those questions himself. Questions he'd never resolved since he'd lost Natalie. He feared it might take a lifetime to find the answers, or worse, that he never would. He fought to keep from railing at God on some days. But he shoved his inner turmoil aside to focus on the here and now and the man who needed his help.
David might not be able to answer those kinds of questions, but maybe he could help in other ways if he knew more. "Can you tell me what happened?"
pushed me over. Tried to kill me."
The news stunned David. Did Jay know the person who'd done this?
David glanced up the rock-faced cliff and spotted Solomon watching. From here, David couldn't see Tracy. He wished Solomon would find his way back up to her.
Was Jay's attacker still up there? If so, Tracy was up there alone with a dangerous mana man who'd attempted murder.