FBI agent Sara Vaughn believes a group of pharmaceutical businessmen are engineering drugs with deadly results. Her boss won't approve a sting operation, so she goes roguefollowing the suspects on a hike in the Cascade Mountains to record evidence. But when Sara witnesses them murder one of their own, they target her. Saved by a handsome volunteer mountain rescue worker, Sara at first suspects Will Rankin is another bad guy hunting her. But when the widowed father of two risks everything to save her, she knows that Will is all that's standing between her and seeing Christmas morning.
Echo Mountain: Saving lives and finding love in the mountains of Washington State
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FBI agent Sara Vaughn awoke with a start, her heart pounding against her chest. Darkness surrounded her and it took a second for her eyes to adjust.
Panic took hold. No, she was beyond that. She'd outgrown it.
She counted to three, taking a deep breath, then exhaled. She clicked on her headlamp. Tall, majestic evergreen trees stretched up toward the starlit sky.
The mountains. She was in the Cascade Mountains following a lead that her supervisor, Greg Bonner, said was a waste of time.
Sara knew better.
The sound of deep male voices echoed from beyond a cluster of trees to her left.
"Be reasonable, David!" a man shouted.
David Price was one of the three business partners who were on this mountain getaway. The other men were Victor LaRouche and Ted Harrington, and together they owned the drug company LHP, Inc.
Sara made her way toward the sound of raised voices.
She was proud of herself for managing to get on the trail guide team hired to lead them up Echo Mountain. This isolated spot in the Cascade Mountains of Washington would surely give the men the privacy they needed to solidify their plan.
Getting a dangerous drug into the hands of unsuspecting consumers.
"Why do you have to make this so hard?"
She recognized Vic LaRouche's voice because of its Southern twang.
She stayed off the main trail, not wanting to alert them to her presence, and made her way through the brush. Edging around a large boulder, she stepped over a fallen branch in silence. She needed to stay invisible, hidden. Something she was good at.
The men were no doubt having this discussion a safe distance away from the lead guide, Ned, so as not to wake him. It didn't take much to wake Sara. Even in sleep, she was always on alert.
"It's not right and you both know it," David said.
"It was an anomaly, a mistake," Ted Harrington said.
"A mistake that could kill people."
"Don't be dramatic," LaRouche said.
This was itthe evidence she'd been looking for.
She pulled out her phone, hoping to record some of their conversation. If she could catch them admitting to their plan, it would go a long way to proving she was right, that she wasn't just an "overzealous" agent trying to prove something.
She crept closer, shielding herself behind a towering western hemlock. Digging her fingers into the bark, she peeked around the tree. The three men hovered beside a small camp-fire, the flames illuminating their faces. LaRouche and Harrington were tall, middle-aged men, older than David Price by at least ten years.
"I'm not in business to hurt people," David said.
"We're helping people, sport," Harrington said, slapping David's shoulder. "Letting them sleep like they never have before."
"And they don't wake up."
"That hasn't been irrefutably proved," Harrington said. "Even one death is too many."
LaRouche, a tall, regal-looking man, jumped into the conversation. It grew into a shouting match, giving Sara the chance to sneak even closer. She darted to another tree, only ten feet from the men.
She clicked off her headlamp.
Hit the video record button on her phone.
And held her breath.
"I didn't sign on for this!" David said.
"Majority rules," Harrington countered.
"Then, I'm out. I'll sell you my share of the company."
Harrington threw up his hands and paced a few steps away.
"If you leave, stock prices go down," LaRouche said calmly.
"I don't care. Some things are more important than money."
"Like your family?" LaRouche taunted. "Is that a threat?" David said. "Sure, why not?"
David lunged at LaRouche. Harrington dived in between them. "Enough!"
The two men split apart, David glaring at his partners.
"Calm down. Let's talk this through," Harrington said.
"Talk? You mean threaten me?" David said.
"I like to think of it as persuading you, David," LaRouche countered.
"No, I'm done." David started to walk away. It seemed as if the conversation was over. Then LaRouche darted around the fire, grabbed David's arm and flung him
Over the edge of the trail.
The chilling sound of a man crying out echoed across the mountains.
Sara gasped and took a step backward.
A twig snapped beneath her boot.
LaRouche and Harrington whipped their heads around and spotted her. They looked as stunned as she felt. The three of them stared at each other.
No one moved. She didn't breathe.
Heart racing, she watched the expression on LaRouche's face change from stunned to something far worse: the look of a murderer who was hungry for more.
"It was an accident," Harrington said.
LaRouche reached into his jacket, no doubt for a weapon.
In that millisecond, her only conscious thought was survival.
Sara clicked on her headlamp and took off, retracing her steps over the rugged terrain. She was outnumbered and couldn't retrieve her off-duty piece quick enough. She had to get safe and preserve the video evidence against them.
Shoving the phone in her pocket, she hopped a fallen branch and dodged the boulder on the other side. As she picked up speed, she heard a man grunt as he tripped and hit the ground behind her.
"Where are you going? We need your help!" Harrington called.
Beating back the tentacles of fear, she searched for a trail, or at least a more even surface. She'd left everything at the campsite but the clothes on her back, so her odds for survival weren't great, especially considering the cold temperatures in the mountains this time of year.
Stop going to that dark place, she scolded herself. She had to figure out how to contact her boss and report the murder before the men reported it as an accident.
Call her boss, right, the man who'd ordered her to take time off. He didn't even know she was chasing a lead he'd proclaimed was a dead end.
"David fell and we need your help!" Harrington yelled.
Davidfell? Is that what you call it when you fling a man off a cliff?
She sucked in the cool mountain air, pumping her arms, trying to get a safe distance away where she could get a cell signal and call for help.
"Let's talk about this!" Harrington pressed.
Like they'd "talked" to David Price? The memory of his desperate cry sent shivers across her shoulders.
She found the trail, but if she found it, so would they. They were taller than her five foot three, their strides longer. It wouldn't take them long to catch her.
And kill her.
They'd probably fabricate a story about how she was responsible for David's death. That would wrap everything up in a neat bowjust in time for Christmas.
No. She wouldn't let them win.
A gunshot echoed across the mountain range.
She bit back a gasp. How would they explain her body riddled with bullet holes? Unless they hoped wild animals would rip it apart, making cause of death that much harder to determine.
Suddenly she ran out of trail. She peered over the mountain's edge into the black abyss below. "Think," she whispered.
She realized her rope was still hooked to her belt. She hadn't planned to drift off to sleep earlier, so she hadn't taken off her gear. She wrapped the rope around a tree root jutting out from the side of the mountain below the trail and pulled it tight.
For the first time in her life, she appreciated Uncle Matt's insistence that she take wilderness survival courses, along with self-defense. She used to think he'd forced her to take the classes because her small frame made her a target for bullies. She eventually realized it was because of the nightmares. He thought the classes would empower her, make her feel safe.
Sara had never felt safe.
She dropped to her stomach and shimmied over the edge. Clinging to the rope, she let herself down slowly, hoping to hit a ledge or plateau where she could wait it out. She clicked off her headlamp. At least if she could disappear for a few hours until sunrise, she might be able to make her way out of Echo Mountain State Park.
She calmed her breathing, questioning her decision to follow this lead on her own. Was her boss right? Was she too determined for her own good?
Sara gripped the rope with gloved hands and steadied herself against the mountainside with her boots.
"What do you want to do?" Harrington said.
His voice was close, right above her close. She held her breath.
"We'll send Bill to find her," LaRouche said. "He's got climbing experience."
"Wouldn't it be better if we"
"No, we need answers, like who sent her and what she heard. Then she needs to disappear."
Disappear. They were determined to kill her. Sara's pulse raced against her throat.
As she hung there, suspended in midair, she searched her surroundings, trying to see something, trying to stay grounded.
All she could see was a wall of black, which reminded her of
Stay in here and don't make a sound. But, Daddy
I mean it. Take care of your brother.
Suddenly someone tugged on the rope, yanking her out of the memory.
"Sara Long, is that you?" LaRouche said.
She was relieved they only knew her undercover name, Sara Long. That should keep them from discovering her true identity.
Then, suddenly, they started pulling her up. No, she wouldn't let them get away with it, killing people, innocent people.
She released the rope and grabbed the tree root, then edged her way down the side of the mountain, grabbing onto whatever felt solid. She grabbed onto a branch.
It pulled loose from the earth and she started to slide. Flailing her arms, she reached for something, anything, to slow her descent.
But it was too dark, and the fall too steep.
It wouldn't surprise the guys in her field office if she died out here like this: alone, on some rogue assignment gone south.
She didn't care. At least this time she'd taken on the enemy instead of hiding from him.
I'm sorry, Daddy. I should have done something to save you.
She came to a sudden stop. Her head whipped back, slammed against something hard, and she was swallowed by darkness.
Will Rankin approached the end of the trail and made the final turn. His breath caught in his throat at the stunning view, sunlight sparkling off the calm, turquoise water at the base of Echo Mountain, with the Cascade Mountain range spanning the horizon behind the lake. This was it, the perfect place to open his heart to God, hoping for peace to ease the resentment lingering in his heart.
Intellectually Will knew it was time to let it go for so many reasons, not the least of which being his daughters. They needed a loving, gentle father, not a bitter, angry one.
Will thought he had coped with Megan's death pretty well over the past two years, but the dark emotions continued to have a stronghold over his heart. He was still angry with his wife for shutting him out as she battled cancer, and he struggled with resentment about his mother-in-law, who challenged nearly every decision Will made about Claire and Marissa.
I love my girls so much, Lord. Isn't that enough?
Apparently not to his mother-in-law.
No, he wouldn't think about that today. Today he'd commune with nature and pray: for his daughters, for emotional peace and for the strength to get him through the upcoming Christmas season, the girls' second Christmas without their mom.
It was unseasonably warm at the base of the mountain. Although a recent light snowfall dusted the area around the lake with a layer of white, it would probably melt off by noon. He smiled, thinking about how much the girls were looking forward to playing in the snow.
Then something else caught his eye across the lake.
A splash of red.
Curious, he pulled out his binoculars and peered through the lenses. It looked like a woman in a red jacket, jeans and hiking boots. Her long brown hair was strewn across her face.
She looked unconscious, or worse.
Will shoved the binoculars into his pack and took off. He had to get to her, had to save her. He glanced at his cell phone. No signal.
Please, Lord, let me save her.
As he sped toward the unconscious woman, he wondered how she'd ended up here. Was she a day hiker who hadn't brought enough hydration? He didn't see a backpack near her body, yet even day hikers knew better than to head into the mountains without supplies since the weather could change in a flash.
By the time he reached the unconscious woman, his heart was pounding against his chest. He shucked his pack and kneeled to administer first aid. "Ma'am?"
She was unresponsive.
"Ma'am, can you hear me?"
What had happened to this fragile-looking creature? He wondered if she got separated from her party or had fallen off a trail above.
He gently brushed jet-black hair away from her face. She had color in her cheeks, a good sign. He took off his glove and pressed his fingers against her wrist to check her pulse.
"No!" She swung her arm, nailing Will in the face with something hard.
He jerked backward, stars arcing across his vision. He pinched his eyes shut against the pain. Gripping his nose, he felt blood ooze through his fingers. He struggled to breathe.
"Don't touch me!" she cried.
"I'm trying to help."
He cracked open his eyes. She towered above him, aiming a gun at his chest.
"Please," he said, putting out one hand in a gesture of surrender. "I'm sorry if I upset you, but I really do want to help."
"Yeah, help them kill me."
He noticed a bruise forming above her right eye and lacerations crisscrossing her cheek. "You're hurt," he said. "I'm fine."
Will guessed she was frightened and confused. Maybe even dehydrated.
"I'm Will Rankin, a volunteer with Echo Mountain Search and Rescue."
"Sure, and I'm Amelia Earhart."
"Check my pack. My driver's license is in the side pocket."
It was worth a try, although he knew all the sensible conversation in the world may not get through to someone in her condition.
Narrowing her eyes, she grabbed his backpack and stepped a few feet away. Never lowering the gun, she unzipped the side pocket.
"May I sit up to stop my nosebleed?" he asked.
She nodded that he could.
He would continue to act submissive so she wouldn't see him as a threat. It was the best way to keep her from firing the gun by accident. He sensed she wasn't a killer, but rather she was disoriented and frightened.
Sitting up, he leaned forward and pinched his nose, just below the bridge. He'd have dual black eyes for sure and didn't know how he'd explain that to his girls, or their grandparents.
You've got bigger problems than a bloody nose. He had to talk this woman down from her precarious ledge.
She rifled through his wallet and hesitated, fingering a photograph of Claire and Marissa.
"My girls," he said. "They're in first and third grades."
She shot him a look of disbelief and shoved his wallet and the photos haphazardly into his pack.
"Did you fall from a trail above?" he asked.
"I'm asking the questions!" She straightened and pointed the gun at his chest again. "And you'd better give me the right answers."
"Please," he said. "My girls I'm all they've got. Their mother died."
He thought he'd gotten through to her.
She flicked the gun. "Get up."
He slowly stood, realizing how petite she was, barely coming up to his chest.
"Where are they?" she demanded.
"LaRouche and Harrington."
"I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about."
"Right, you randomly happened to find me."
"Uh-huh. And you're out here, in the middle of nowhere, why?"
"I'm spending a few days in the mountains for" he hesitated "solitude."
"You're lying. There's more to it."
"I'm not lying, but you're right, there is more to it."
She waited and narrowed her eyes, expectant.