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No one woke up in the morning and thought to themselves, Today I'm going to get lost in the woods. But even without a plan, it happened.
Maybe it was simply that innate human need to explore. Maybe it was bad luck, or maybe it was just people being idiots. Grandma Nell had always loved to say, "Beauty is skin deep, but stupid goes clear down to the bone." Not that Destiny Mills was going to be judgmental either way. People got lost, and her job was to make sure they got found. It was kind of like being a superhero. Only instead of laser vision or invisibility, she had a brilliant computer software program and a finely honed search and rescue team.
Well, technically the team wasn't hers. It belonged to whatever town or county had hired her company. Her firm had created the software program, and she was one of three facilitators who helped those wanting to use it. She showed up, trained the search and rescue group and then moved on to the next assignment.
If it was Monday, she must be in Fool's Gold, she thought humorously as she stepped into her small, temporary office. Fool's Gold, California. Population 125,482 per the sign she'd seen on her way in. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the town attracted tourists by the thousands. They came in winter to ski, in summer to hike and camp and all year long to attend the dozens of festivals that had put the community on the map.
None of which concerned her. What was of more interest were the literally hundreds of thousands of acres right outside the city borders. Uncharted wilderness with plenty of slopes, gullies, streams and caves. Places where people got lost. And when someone was lost, who you gonna call?
Destiny chuckled as the Ghostbusters theme music played in her head. She didn't know about anyone else, but for her, life was a soundtrack. Music was everywhere. Notes formed melodies, and melodies were little more than memories to be recalled. Hear a song from your high school prom and you were back in your boyfriend's arms.
She settled in her chair and plugged her laptop into the docking station. She only had a week or so to get up and running before the real work began. For the next three months she would be mapping the terrain, feeding the information into the incredibly intelligent software her company used and training the local search and rescue team. She was the point of contact, the human connection. And in three months she would move on to another part of the country and do it all again.
She liked the moving around. She liked always being somewhere new. She made friends easily and then just as easily left them behind when it was time to go. There would be more friends at the next new place. Sure, there was a lack of continuity, but on the upside, she was spared the emotional drama that went with long-term friendships. Whether it was her getting close to them or them getting close to her, relationships could be exhausting.
She'd grown up in a family that made any of the "real housewives" shows look as interesting as reading the phone book. Reality TV had nothing on her parents. As an adult, she got to choose whether or not she wanted that drama, and she'd decided she didn't. Destiny had deliberately picked a job and a lifestyle that allowed her to forever be moving on.
But for the next few months she would enjoy the small-town quirkiness of Fool's Gold. She'd already read up on the place and was looking forward to sampling plenty of local flavor.
Right on time, the door to her small office opened. Destiny recognized the tall, blond, good-looking guy standing in the doorway. Not that they'd met beforeshe'd been hired by the mayor, not by himbut she'd seen him on plenty of magazine covers, television interviews and internet articles.
She stood and smiled. "Hi, I'm Destiny Mills."
His eyes were a darker blue than she'd expected, and he had that easy grace that most likely came from a lifetime of being an athlete. Because he wasn't just Kipling Gilmore. He was the Kipling Gilmore. Famous athlete. Superstar skier. Olympic gold medalist. The press had called him G-Force, because on skis, at least, he went for speed. Rules of physics be damned. He could do things that had never been done. At least until the crash.
They shook hands. He handed her a small, pink bakery box. "To help you settle in."
She lifted the lid and saw a half-dozen doughnuts. The scent of glaze and cinnamon drifted to her. It was intoxicating and made her instantly want fifteen minutes alone with her sugar fix.
"Thank you," she said. "Way better than flowers."
"I'm glad you think so. When did you get to town?"
"Yesterday. I got to Sacramento the night before and made the short drive in the morning."
"You're settling in okay?"
"I am, and I'm excited to get to work."
"Then let's get to it."
They both sat. She angled her laptop toward him and tapped on several keys.
"There are two major parts to getting the search and rescue software functional," she began. "Mapping the physical geography of the area and then getting you and your team trained on how to use it."
"Sounds easy enough."
"It always does, and then reality sets in."
One eyebrow rose. "Is that a challenge?"
"No. I'm simply saying the process takes time. STORMS can adapt to nearly any situation. The success or failure of a search is usually a combination of information and luck. My goal is to take luck out of the equation."
STORMSSearch Team Rescue Management Softwareworked with the rescue team. Data was fed into the system, and the program then projected the most likely areas to search first. The more information known about the person missing, terrain, time of year and weather conditions, the faster the search went. Each searcher had GPS tracking information on his or her person. That information was sent back to the software so the search could be updated in real time.
As more areas were eliminated, the search was narrowed until the missing person was found.
"I'll start mapping the area in the next day or so," she continued.
"How does that happen?"
"First by air. We use a helicopter and various kinds of equipment to supplement the satellite data we already have. The heavily wooded areas and steep mountainsides will have to be mapped on foot."
"You do that?"
While the question was polite enough, the tone suggested he wasn't a believer. Silly man, she thought with a smile.
"Yes, Kipling. I can hike when necessary. If the areas are too remote, I take in local guides."
"I thought you were a city girl. Didn't someone tell me you live in Austin?"
"That's home base for me, yes. But I grew up near the Smoky Mountains. I can hold my own in the great outdoors."
What she didn't mention was that when she'd been younger, she'd spent several years living with her maternal grandmother in those same mountains. In addition to knowing her way around rugged terrain, she could fish and knew three ways to cook squirrel, but she wasn't going to share that. Tell someone you grilled a mean steak and you were applauded. Mention squirrel stew with root vegetables and they looked at you like you were in league with cannibals. People were funny, but she'd known that for a long time.
"Then I'll trust you to take care of business," he told her. "When does your helicopter arrive?"
She checked her calendar. "By the end of the week. It's going to be a busy summer. Once we get the geography into the database, we'll start testing the system. That means looking for people who aren't really lost."
Humor pulled at the corner of his mouth. "I read the material."
"Good to know. Does that mean you also open instruction manuals?"
He hesitated just long enough for her to start laughing.
"I didn't think so," she said. "What is it with men and instructions? Or asking for directions?"
"We don't like to admit when we don't know something."
"Ridiculous. No one knows everything."
"We can try."
No surprise there, she thought. Bravado seemed to go hand in hand with being male. Another reason she'd had so much trouble finding the right one. She wanted an absence of bravado and minimal ego. When emotions got riled, the opposite sex could be counted on to act crazy, and there was no place for crazy in her life.
"Are you going to have a problem taking instructions from me?" she asked. "Because if you are, we need to get that taken care of right this minute. I can arm wrestle you into submission, if necessary."
Kipling laughed. "I doubt that."
"Be careful with your assumptions. My grandma taught me a lot of dirty tricks. I know places to dig in a knuckle and make a grown man scream like a little girl. And not in a happy way."
"There's a happy way to scream like a little girl?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I've had to use that threat before, and some men think I'm talking about sex.
His gaze settled on her face. "Interesting."
"So, am I going to have a problem with you?"
"Then this will be a good summer. I've never had a job in California before. I'm looking forward to getting to know the area."
"The town is a little strange."
"In what way?"
He sat easily in his chair. There was no squirming, no sense that he wanted to be somewhere else. He had patience, she thought. He would have to. Waiting out bad weather, waiting out the seasons. Needing conditions to be right.
Kipling Gilmore had won big at the Sochi Olympics, then disaster had struck a few months later. She wasn't one to follow sports, so she didn't know many of the details. Obviously, he'd recovered enough to take the job of heading the Fool's Gold search and rescue team. She wondered if he'd had trouble adjusting to regular life.
She knew it could be difficult for those cursed with fame to try to live like ordinary mortals.
"Everybody here knows everybody's business," he said.
Right. She'd asked him about the town. "That's not uncommon for small towns."
"Yeah, but it's different here. People here are more involved. We'll talk in a couple of weeks and see what you think. The festivals are interesting, and you don't have to lock your doors at night. If you live near the center of town, you don't need a car very often."
"Sounds nice." Despite having her home base in Austin, she wasn't really a big-city girl. She preferred the eccentricities of a small town.
"Have you met Mayor Marsha yet?" Kipling asked.
Destiny shook her head. "No. She hired me, but it was all done through my boss. I have a meeting with her later today."
Amusement returned to his eyes. "I'll be there, too. I think you're going to like her. She's California's longest-serving mayor. She looks like a sweet old lady, but she's actually pretty tough and keeps firm control over her town. She gets things done, and sometimes I've left wondering what just happened."
Qualities she could totally get behind. "I like her already."
"I thought you might." He stood. "Welcome to Fool's Gold, Destiny."
She rose, as well. "Thank you."
As he left her office, she let her gaze drift over his body. He was in great shape, she thought, admitting he was just charming enough to make her wonder if there was any potential there.
She shook her head, because she already knew the answer, and it was no. No way, no how. She wanted ordinary. Regular. The kind of man who understood that life was best lived quietly. Kipling, aka G-Force, had roared down a mountain at who knew what speed. He was a thrill seeker at heart, which meant not for her.
She would simply keep looking. Because the man of her very own calm, rational dreams was out there, and one day she would find him.
Kipling crossed the street. As he waited for one of the few traffic lights in Fool's Gold to change to green, he glanced up at the mountains. Now that it was late spring, he could look at them and not feel anything. The only remaining snow was up at elevations that didn't allow for skiing. So there was no sense of loss, no reminder that he would never again be able to fight the mountain and win. That the sense of flying on snow was lost forever.
He knew what his friends would say, what the doctors would tell him. That he was damned lucky to have made as much of a recovery as he had. That he could walk and that was its own miracle. Anything else was gravy.
Kipling heard the words. On his good days he even believed them. But the rest of the time, he avoided thinking about what had been lost. When it got bad, he simply stopped looking at the mountains.
The light changed, and he crossed the street. As he walked he considered the fact that it might have been easier to simply find a job somewhere there weren't mountains. There were flat places. Maybe in the Midwest or Florida. Only he couldn't imagine what that must be like. To look up and see nothing but sky. He might have an uneasy relationship with the mountains; he might equally love and hate them, but there was no way he could be away from them. They were a part of him. It would be easier to cut off an arm than live without them.
He waved automatically at the woman pushing a stroller who had greeted him. Fool's Gold was a friendly kind of place. Where neighbors knew each other and tourists were welcomed as much for their presence as the money they brought with them.
He was used to people he'd never met knowing who he was. That came with the celebrity he had been. Only being in Fool's Gold was different. More intense, maybe. This town wasn't just a place. It was a living, breathing essence.
He shook his head, wondering where all that had come from. He didn't usually think too much about things. He was a doer, preferring to move than sit still. Which had made his recovery a particular brand of hell. But that was behind him now. Except for the scars, the limp and the dull aches that would be with him always, he was healed. And walking.
He headed into his offices at the corner of Eighth Street and Frank Lane, right by one of the fire stations and the police station. No one was going to break in, he thought with a grin. Or party too hard in this neighborhood.
As he unlocked the front door and stepped inside, he reminded himself that years ago he would have chafed at being so close to any kind of authority. That he'd believed that with the ability to fly down a mountain came the right to party as hard as he wanted, and damn the consequences. As long as he beat the clock by even a thousandth of a second, he was a god. At least until the next race.
But time had a way of maturing people. He'd been dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood, and here he was, running the town's search and rescue program. Who would have guessed?