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It had been six long months since his beautiful daughter had disappeared. When another girl was kidnapped in the Washington State woods, Detective Aaron Donovan was convinced the two crimes were related. After joining the search-and-rescue team, Aaron was forced to work with top-notch tracker Sabrina Adelante and try to ignore the attraction they'd shared before his world had been shattered. Offering up his military sniper skills, the group soon uncovered some helpful clues. But then Sabrina nearly became a madman's next victim, and Aaron wondered how he could possibly get close to another woman he cared about when he might just lose her.
Then again, how could he afford not to?
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Sabrina Adelante's sturdy Casio Pathfinder watch beeped once on the hour, the shrill noise causing her skin to prickle with restless anxiety.
Time was working against one very young and very lost girl, and even her watch had something to say about that.
Time, and some idiot at the Port Renegade PD. Tara Fisher had been missing for nearly two hours inside the state park. Two hours before the police had thought to call in the park search-and-rescue unitnever mind that the hiking trails on which Tara had disappeared were as familiar as breathing to every member of the SAR team. Two hours during which Tara, walking at an average pace, could cover about five miles.
Given that Tara could have traveled in any direction from point last seen, or PLS, their search area was a circle with a radius of five miles and, as any geometry student could tell you, an overall area of nearly eighty miles.
Damn the Port Renegade Police to hell. With a snap of her wrist, Sabrina wrenched the steering wheel to the right, executing a too-quick turn into the parking area at the Black Wolf Run trailhead and sending a spray of gravel into the air. She barely registered the sound of tiny stones raining against her shiny black paint job as she stomped on the brake, bringing the car to a skidding halt.
Muttering a few Spanish curses that years ago would have had her mother stuffing a bar of soap in her mouth, Sabrina angrily kicked open the Jeep's door. As she stepped out, Alex Gray and Jessie DiCosta, the other two members of her tracking team, jogged across the parking lot to greet her. She gave them a quick nod of acknowledgment as she hefted her bulging backpack in front of her to rummage through it.
When the two of them reached the Jeep, Alex reached inside its open back to pull her walking stick out, just as he had a hundred times before. "Here you go, beautiful." Holding the stick out with one hand, he used the other to readjust the backward Mariners baseball cap that had already flattened his short, dark hair. He wore the thing so often, it was a wonder it hadn't fused to his head.
She glared at him while leaning her body against the driver's-side door until it closed with a heavy click. Normally she would have laughed or at least snorted at the "beautiful"her mom had always said Alex would flirt with a broom in a dress if one presented himself. Today, she merely smacked the sheet of paper she'd dug out of her pack against his chest, leaving him scrambling to grab it when she let go. She tucked her stick under her arm and then handed a second sheet to Jessie, who'd been quietly waiting beside her.
And then her skin started to prickle and crawl with the peculiar kind of restlessness that her family generally referred to as "ants-in-her-pants syndrome." Whatever they wanted to call it, all she knew was that her body needed to be in motion, because standing still in the parking lot had suddenly become unbearable. Knowing Jess and Alex would understand, Sabrina pulled her pack onto her shoulders and started off toward the trailhead without another word.
A few seconds later, Jessie came up beside her, her long, athletic legs matching Sabrina's stride for stride and then some. She reached out with one pale, freckle-dotted hand and untwisted one of the shoulder straps of Sabrina's backpack as they walked. "Jacket?, She motioned with her head back toward the Jeep, then caught her shoulder-length blond hair in her hands, tying it up with a rubber band into a messy knot. "Smells like rain."
Sabrina slanted a glance at Jess and kept moving, her hiking boots crunching down hard on the gravel as she headed toward where the trailhead sat enshrouded by a thick cluster of hemlock and giant sequoias. "Screw the jacket," she said, then immediately regretted her harsh tone. While she didn't mean to direct her anger at Jessie, she knew her tracking partner well enough to know that her colleague's sweet nature also came with a highly sensitive side. "But thank you," she added.
Alex whistled as he jogged up to take his place on Sabrina's other side. "Damn, you're tense today. Whaddup, boss?"
"We're looking for Tara Fisher." All three of them were finally on the move, but that fact did little to settle the butterflies of anxiety knocking against Sabrina's rib cage. "Senior at Port Renegade High. She's five foot one, weighs 110 pounds, and is wearing a navy-blue zip-up sweatshirt and jeans. Her point last seen is Hot Spring Seven, which is where she and her friend Paula Rivers were soaking when she decided to try to find a sweet spot on the mountain where her cell phone might work. Paula said she waited about twenty minutes and then tried to look for Tara, but she never found her."
Hot Spring Seven was one of at least twenty hot-spring pools along Black Wolf Run, an intermediate five-mile hiking trail that wound up the first third of Renegade Ridge, through what was arguably one of Washington state's most beautiful forests. The springssome hidden, others out in plain viewwere what made Black Wolf Run one of the more popular trails in the whole fourteen hundred square miles of Renegade Ridge State Park. Despite the left, Alex muttered a soft his breath, letting her know she to explain any further. She did anyway. "The police, in turn, bumbled around from two-thirty to four before calling us. Add twenty minutes for us all to get here and for the tracking team leaders to get briefed, and you have."
She let the sentence trail off. All three of them knew what they had. They had a lost, undoubtedly frightened girl who'd been missing for way too long. The first few hours were critical when it came to finding a lost hiker.
Her walking stick struck packed dirt with a frustrated thump as the gravel portion of the trail ended, and the sounds of Alex's and Jessie's followed. It only took them seconds to reach the bend in the trail, where the ferns lining the side of the gravel path marched inward, narrowing the passage on Black Wolf Run. Tall, densely-packed coniferous treesmostly Douglas firs, Sitka spruce and the western hemlocks that marked the area as temperate rainforest also closed in around them, dripping with moss and blocking out much of the pale-gray light overhead.
"Two hours." Jessie sighed. "What is the matter with these people?"
If they were lucky, Tara would be sitting on a rock somewhere, waiting for them. But as they'd all learned from experience, teenagers rarely held still, especially when caught up in a panic.
A flurry of footprints that looked like the right size caught her eye, and Sabrina stopped to examine them. Crouching near the loose dirt dusting the edge of the trail, she scanned the area, piecing together a complete print in her mind from the partials before her.
The muffled sound of thunder rumbled from the east, and she glanced upward at the fast-rolling gray clouds, the fall breeze that drove them sending a chill across her exposed face and hands. This part of the Olympic Mountain Range, in a region where southern maritime and northern outflow winds combined, was known for bad weather and heavy precipitationboth of which would undoubtedly strike before the afternoon was over.
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