On the run for her life, Chandler McCann never expected to find Ethan Moore, her childhood crush, at her family's Rocky Mountain cabin. Although the former army helicopter pilot had grown up to be honorably protectiveand ruggedly handsomecould she confess why she'd really come to this remote hideaway?
Ethan could tell there was more to Chandler's "visit" than she'd say, but with secrets of his own to safeguard, he understood. Still, with unknown assailants suddenly hot on their trail and a brutal snowstorm bearing down on them, Ethan knew he'd do anything to keep the emerald-eyed beauty safe. And keep their spontaneous reunion from ending.
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Chandler McCann kept the radio on low since the thoughts in her head were making loud screeching sounds, spurring on a headache that no amount of diet soda could touch. All night, the headlights from oncoming traffic had seemed overly bright, catching sharp corners of the mammoth mountains, making them bulge and buckle in an unfriendly way, forcing her to hold the steering wheel in a viselike grip.
She was grateful to turn off the interstate, knowing that the cabin was now less than thirty minutes away. It had been two years since she'd been there. That time she'd gotten on the plane in Denver and the flight attendant barely had time to hand out beverages before the plane landed at the Eagle County Regional Airport fifty minutes later. The flight had been crowded with skiers headed toward Vail, which sat thirty miles to the east.
Mack had picked her up in his Jeep and they'd headed the opposite direction, winding their way through the mountains. With a carefree abandon that Chandler couldn't hope to imitate, her brother had navigated the string of razor-sharp switchbacks that, in many places, offered as little as a two-foot shoulder.
That day it had been sunny in the mountains. Tonight, however, it had been dark for hours, and she'd been grateful for the half-moon that hung low in the sky. It would be after ten by the time she got to the cabin. It didn't matter. Nobody was expecting her.
She was supposed to be working. As always.
Certainly not running.
Ten minutes later, Chandler caught the glare of headlights coming toward her and clicked to low beams. The SUV passed and she caught a glimpse of two people in the front seat.
She took a sip of warm, flat soda and turned up the heat. She hadn't checked the weather but knew that it would be colder in the mountains than it had been in Denver. She suspected that she might regret not taking the time to pack a heavier jacket.
She slowed to take a curve, glanced in her rearview mirror and saw another set of car lights. She found some comfort in the fact that she wasn't alone out in the middle of nowhere. On the next curve, however, comfort turned to surprise when she realized the car behind her was gaining fast. The driver had to be flying, which was a dangerous thing on these roads.
Three minutes later, the vehicle was so close that the lights were blindingly bright. Who was crazy enough to tailgate here?
"Idiot," she muttered, just as the car bumped her.
She was so startled that it took her an extra second to react. She wrestled with the wheel. And was just bringing her car back under control when she was hit again. Her Toyota Camry skidded forward.
What the hell?
Once, an accident? Twice, no way. She pressed on the gas, desperately wanting to put some space between her and the other car.
Then she got hit a third time. Hard.
Her car went airborne and her right front fender struck a glancing blow off the side of the mountain, sending her skidding across the narrow highway, straight toward the edge.
She slammed on the brakes. And started spinning.
She was going over.
And all she could do was hang on and wait to die.
When her car came to a stop, it was jarring. She pitched forward at the same time her air bag inflated.
It slapped her back in the seat, pushing hard against her face and chest. Her shoulder belt jerked tight. She felt a burning sensation arch across her cheekbones and settle on the bridge of her nose.
She stayed conscious, at least she thought she did, aware of the deflating air bag and the strong chemical smell it left behind. She also was aware that her neck hurt when she tried to turn her head.
Knew that she was in a hell of a mess.
But she was alive.
She had to get out. Now. It was the only thought in her head.
She fumbled to unclasp her seat belt. It sprang free and she pitched forward. It took effort to keep her spine pressed back against the seat.
Her car was upright but not level. No, definitely not. The front was way lower than the back.
She couldn't see much but what she could see wasn't encouraging. By some miracle, one of her headlights appeared to still be working. That, combined with the moonlight, allowed her to see that her windshield was cracked in multiple places and the front of her vehicle was badly damaged. She could feel the cool night air on the back of her neck. She turned her head, half expecting to see that the back of the car had been sheared off. But it was still intact, although the back window had been blown out.
And there were branches poking in.
Her car had somehow gotten hung up in the trees. She had no idea how far she'd fallen, how many times the car had rolled. She also had no idea of how much farther the car might tumble if it lost its perilous perch.
And that paralyzed her, until she finally forced herself to move. She carefully reached out and patted the seat next to her. Nothing. Her backpack, her purse and the cell phone that was in it had gotten tossed somewhere.
She extended her arm over the seat and waved it around, frantically hoping to hook a strap by some miracle. She could feel the car shift beneath her and heard the soft creak of a tree limb. She stopped, afraid to move, afraid to even breathe.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a patch of light. Bobbing and fading. Someone up on the road had a flashlight.
She wanted to weep with joy or scream for help. But she did neither.
She'd met only one vehicle. Minutes after it had passed, there had been someone following her.
Was it possible that the car had passed, realized it was her, turned around, and hurried to catch up? Then deliberately rammed into her. Three times.
What was the likelihood that they now wanted to help?
Deciding that playing dead was the best course of action for the time being, she forced herself to slump over the steering wheel with her eyes closed.
She listened, knowing that voices carried in the night air.
It was quiet for several minutes. Finally, she heard a man say, "There. Happy? Now let's get the hell out of here."
There was a response, but it was too faint for her to distinguish the words. She couldn't even tell if it was a man or a woman.
"Oh, she's dead," the first man said, his voice booming with confidence. "Nobody could have survived that fall. Let's go."
Chandler heard the slam of two car doors. Then the sound of an engine starting. The noise faded as her attackers drove away.
She felt cold and battered and the urge to vomit came on with a vengeance. Someone had tried to kill her. The notion of it was so absolutely terrifying that her mind went blank.
But only for about ten seconds. Then she got furious. And determined.
Moving slowly and carefully, she leaned back in her seat. She took a deep breath, then another. The ability to think, to reason, started to come back as she flooded her brain with oxygen.
Nobody could have survived that fall.
She had. And from what she could tell, all her fingers and toes and all the parts in between were working.
Now she just needed to get out before the car took a final plunge.
Ethan Moore had just turned the last page of his book when he heard a noise that didn't belong to the quiet Colorado countryside. He raised his eyes at the same moment his dog, Molly, raised her head. "What do you make of that, girl?"
Molly started to whine and turn circles on her rug.
"You just went out," he said. She did another circle.
The temperature had been dropping all day. What had started out as a pretty October morning had become a windy, cold night. Snow was coming. He could feel it. He had no desire to be outside when it happened.
But Molly was dancing by the door.
He placed the hardcover he'd been reading on the ottoman, stood up and stretched. Better to do this now than in the middle of the night. He opened the cabin door. Molly wriggled her lean, strong body past his legs. He lost her in the darkness as her black fur blended into the tree line.
"Molly, damn it," he said. "We already played this game once today."
The black mutt, more nothing than Lab, was just shy of a year and still had some puppy in her sixty pounds. By morning, she could be halfway to Grand Junction.
He grabbed his jacket from the hook by the door and his big heavy flashlight from the shelf, and stepped outside to follow her. The dog had grown on him. Four weeks ago, he'd only been back in the States for three days when he'd gone to the local animal shelter. Forty-five minutes later, Molly was sitting next to him in the truck, her head hanging out the window. An hour later, he and his new sidekick had made his first big-box-store run and had a coffee pot, an electric fry pan and an oscillating fan.
A week later, he'd moved his meager belongings to the Donovan cabin, which sat three hundred yards down a dirt road, high in the Rocky Mountains.
It was as close to off-the-grid as one could get. The nearest town, which was being generous because it was less than five hundred people, was forty minutes away. The nearest city was twice that.
The isolation felt good after spending the past twenty years in the company of mostly men, many of whom had felt the need to talk. About their families, the jobs they'd left behind, their favorite places to eat back home. And he'd listened.
Most hadn't noticed that he hadn't reciprocated with his own stories.
He'd always assumed that once he retired after twenty years in Uncle Sam's army, there'd be a few fellow soldiers he'd want to catch up with. Share some stories about acclimating back to civilian life. Had never dreamed that he'd come home with a cloud of suspicion hanging over his head. Certainly hadn't been prepared for the hostility that he'd encountered when he'd run across men who not so long ago had called him friend.
It was a damn mess. He didn't know whom he could trust and whom he couldn't.
So he'd come to a place where he'd always felt safe. Crow Hollow. Freshman through junior years in high school, he'd spent his summers here, running between the two cabins that graced the wilderness. The Mc-Canns' and the Donovans'. Mack McCann and Brody Donovan had been his best friends. Rich kids who hadn't seemed to understand the difference that money made.
Maybe it was only the poor kids who knew that.
It had been the happiest three years of his life. And if he'd been inclined to reminisce about his youth, it would have been those summers that he'd have remembered fondly.
But then his stepfather had gotten some crazy idea that he wanted to live on the coast and they'd packed up and moved to Oregon for his senior year of high school.
He and Mack and Brody had sworn they wouldn't lose touch. And they hadn't. Even when oceans and continents separated them over a period of many years.
What the hell would Mack and Brody think about what had gone on this past year? Even in the middle of the worst of it, he hadn't told them anything. They were active military and if they'd tried to help, it might have tainted them in some way. Ethan figured if he went down, he wasn't taking his two best friends with him.
But he hadn't gone down.
He'd survived the investigation with his career intact. But everything had been different.
And that, ultimately, had led him to this place, to chasing a stupid dog through the mountains.
"Molly," he yelled. "I swear, if you and a coyote mix it up, I'm going to root for the coyote."
His dog barked in response. He took that as a good sign. And while they'd only been buddies for a few weeks, he understood the message. Hurry. I found something. Last week she'd practically barked herself hoarse because he'd been too slow to acknowledge the dead raccoon that she'd stumbled over.
"I'm coming," he said. He walked the remaining fifty yards, the frost-covered grass crunching under his feet.
Molly was dancing, her nose in the air. He used his flashlight to search the ground. Nothing. He made another sweep. It was hard to see much; the whole area was thick with underbrush.
He looked higher, thinking she might have something up a tree. He ran his flashlight from side to side.
"What the hell?" he said, holding the light steady. There, barely visible through the thick branches, was a car suspended in the towering trees. The front end was badly busted up and was tilting down at forty-five degrees.
He supposed it could have been there for some time. But he didn't think so. First of all, there'd been heavy wind and rain just two nights ago, heavy enough to blow the car out of the trees. Secondly, the car still had a headlight burning. Given the noise both he and Molly had heard, he suspected it had just happened. He angled the powerful beam of his flashlight even higher to inspect the road above them. He didn't see any other cars to suggest that it had been a multivehicle accident.
Had the driver fallen asleep? Or maybe he was simply drunk? Whatever had caused him to plunge over the side of the mountain, one thing was pretty sureif he wasn't dead, he was likely banged up pretty badly.
"Hey," he yelled. "You in the car, can you talk?"
No reply. He considered his options. He hadn't brought a cell phone with him to Crow Hollow. Reception was always spotty in the mountains and quite frankly, he wasn't interested in talking to anybody. His only good option was to hike back to the cabin, get his truck and drive into town for help.
He studied the patch of trees. They were mammoth pines, the kind with big trunks and spreading branches, crowded close together. He walked around, looking up, Molly at his heels. He stopped when he found one that had possibilities. He considered the angle of the car.
It was possible, he supposed. He'd done crazier things.
It'd be a hell of a fall if he didn't make it.
"I'm coming up," he yelled. He took off his coat, rolled his flashlight inside of it and then belted the sleeves around his waist. He was definitely going to need both hands free.
"Are you sure?" a faint voice asked.
A woman. If the wind hadn't been blowing the right direction, he probably wouldn't have heard her.