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The call for help came late at night. They usually did.
Only this one was the worst kind. A child. Lost in the unforgiving Colorado mountains.
Melody Crawford replaced the receiver and rolled out of the bed, shoving her feet into heavy boots as she pushed to stand. She'd been asleep less than thirty minutes.
Within another ten minutes, she was wide-awake, dressed for the frigid temperatures and rummaging in her "rescue closet" for the equipment she might need on the snow-covered trail. In more than fifteen years of rescue work, she'd never stopped feeling the adrenaline rush that came with a call.
Backpack always loaded and ready, she reached for her dog's leash and vest and heard the soft pad of canine footsteps crossing the kitchen and coming toward her in the narrow hallway.
It was Ace.
A little piece of her heart broke off.
Smile wide, thick fur fluffed and ready with one hard shake of his muscular form, the big, black-and-silver German shepherd gazed up at her in question. As always, Ace was ready to work, ready to run, ready to rescue the lost.
"Sorry, old chum," she said, laying one hand on the wide, intelligent head. "Not tonight."
Not any night in the near future, although Ace was the best air-scent search and rescue dog she'd ever trained.
As if he understood, the dog whined softly and collapsed at her feet to stare up at her with sad eyes.
"As soon as I get the money, boy. We'll have you fixed up and good as new."
But money, for Melody, was hard to come by. Even by training and boarding other people's dogs, her income was limited. The monthly check from her father's insurance barely covered necessities, and the surgery to correct Ace's damaged hind knees was expensive, far over her budget. But he'd sustained the injuries in the line of duty and deserved a chance to work again. Somehow, even if she had to take an outside job, she'd find a way to help her partner and friend.
The idea of working at a regular job made her shudder. Not that she was lazy. She worked long and hard up here in her secluded section of the mountains. It wasn't work that bothered her. It was people.
"Chili," she called softly and was not surprised to find the affable, reddish-brown Lab waiting quietly in the doorway behind her. Trained to search by air and ground, Chili was an excellent rescue dog who loved kids. With a little luck and by moving quickly, he had the best chance of finding the missing child.
With regrets to the depressed Ace, she snapped Chili into his bright orange rescue vest and, flashlight in hand, headed for her truck.
One step outside and she burrowed deeper into the muffler around her neck, thinking of the search to come.
The night was still as death and ten times as cold. Unless the lost kid was well dressed or found shelter, he was in serious trouble. The colder he became, the less scent he gave off. Without scent particles floating into Chili's incredible olfactory glands, the dog couldn't do his job.
The knowledge spurred Melody to work faster. If anyone could find the boy, she and Chili could do it. They were the best in the mountains. Maybe the best in the country. They never quit until the victim was foundalive or dead. She preferred alive.
As she passed the snug kennels, the rest of the dogs, all boarders in training, slipped out of their houses to stretch and shake beneath the white moon. Silver vapor puffed around their wide, sturdy heads. Like Ace, none of them would make the trip tonight. They weren't her dogs. They were brought to her by folks too busy or disinclined to do their own initial obedience training. Melody didn't mind. Working with dogs, anyone's dogs, was her life's work and ambition.
Ace and Chili, on the other hand, were her babies, her children, her family. She took care of them and they took care of her. Together, they didn't need anyone else, but a lot of people needed them. Occasionally. And when the need was met, people faded away from her wilderness cabin like the foggy vapor faded into the night.
She touched the barely visible scar at her hairline.
Not her favorite species.
Intentionally, she turned her thoughts to the little boy lost somewhere beneath the flat white moon. He would be scared. Scared of the black, inky darkness. Scared of the night cries of wolf and owl. Scared even of the bare aspen limbs rubbing together like dead bones.
Kids were a different matter. She didn't consider them people yet. They didn't have prejudices and ulterior motives. They were at the mercy of adults, just as she'd been.
But no more. She was captain of her own fate, in control of her life, which did not include people most of the time. Thank God and Grandma Perkins, who'd left her this remote cabin more than sixteen years ago when life had been hell.
She opened the truck door and waited for Chili to leap easily into the passenger side, ready for the trip to a ranger station four miles down the mountain. As she climbed in behind her dog and cranked the engine, Melody wondered why she'd awakened tonight with the old memories so sharp.
But memories were okay, occasionally. They kept her focused, kept her mindful of why she'd never permanently leave this mountain again.
John North paced the command center he'd set up inside the ranger station near the small community of Glass Creek. Slowly, too slowly for his liking, the emergency personnel began to trickle in, waiting for their assignments. He tossed back the last dregs in his coffee cup, grimacing at the bitter taste.
As the new director of the equally new emergency management office in Dulcimer County, he had to do this first search rightand every search hereafter. Lives, as well as his livelihood, depended upon his exceptional training and expertise.
"How far away is that dog team?" he asked Brent Page, the county sheriff, who stood to one side chewing the end of a toothpick. John could see the man was aching for a cigarette but wouldn't give in while on duty.
"She'll be here."
He figured that. He'd called the woman, hadn't he? And he distinctly remembered the soft, feminine sound of a voice still drenched in sleep.
As director, coordinating all the necessary team members was part of his job, right down to making the phone calls. As soon as all the emergency services were assembled, they could begin.
For the distraught parents, huddled with a female forest ranger at a small round table, the moment couldn't come too soon.
John laid out the topographical maps and mentally went through the scant information they had about the missing child.
Outside the station, truck motors roared and doors slammed. Voices carried on the still, thin air. A couple of park rangers came in followed by a slight woman with a happy-looking, red dog.
For John North time stopped. He stared at the woman. Bundled for the cold, she wore a bright yellow-and-blue ski suit and hooded parka. From within the frame of sheepskin she looked out over the assembled group, assessing, cautious, almost angry. She was both fearsome and fascinating, and John experienced a most unusual reaction. Interest. Attraction. He, who had sworn off women five years ago, was mesmerized.
The newcomer's face was delicate and pretty, though devoid of makeup. Her full lower lip looked soft and sensitive, kissable even, though he cursed himself for noticing at a time like this. But her eyes fascinated him the most. Pale, pale silver with edges of gold, her eyes were the strangest he'd ever seen. Not just the unusual, otherworldly color but something he saw in their depths, some deep and frightening knowledge. He'd seen that look before but he couldn't place where.
This must be the search and rescue team or "dog woman" as the other emergency personnel called her.
Shaking off the odd sensation that had gripped him the moment she walked into the station, John stepped forward. "I'm John North, director of operations."
He offered a hand. She didn't take it. If anything, she shrunk back, placing her palm on the dog at her side.
With those disturbing eyes, she quietly looked him over, and John was sure, found him woefully wanting.
"Melody Crawford," she said shortly. "This is Chili. Let's get started. Give me some details."
So much for introductions.
"The boy is ten. He and his father were hiking. Somehow they got separated."
"About three hours ago." He pointed to the map spread out on a table next to the coffeepot, a telephone and a handheld radio. "Here."
He was acutely aware of the woman as she leaned forward and took note of the area. Her scent, as she leaned in, was a mix of cold air, warm woman and peppermint. She said nothing, only studied the map with the kind of intensity he'd witnessed during his many years as an Army Ranger.
Leaving her to the task, he began to disseminate duties to the various gathered personnel, all bearing maps and compasses and other search gear. The rangers and police officers would walk grids or drive the roads, hoping the boy would find his way out of the wilderness and onto a road. Others would ride snowmobiles or ATVs as far into the area as possible.
No other dog teams could be here anytime soon and time was too critical to wait. They'd have to go with this one woman and her Lab and pray that her reputation for success was warranted.
"We need to get started." He turned to Melody, who now waited quietly, while her canine made the rounds of the station, receiving pats and shaking hands. John found it especially interesting that the others present knew and liked her dog, but not one had spoken to the trainer. "You'll take the direct trail, following this grid."
"The map is inaccurate."
"I'll follow the direct trail from where the boy was last seen, but this grid is off by at least a quarter of a mile."
"Great. Just great." Frustration burned in John's gut. Ever since taking this new position, he'd run into the same problem over and over again. All the data, the maps, the grids, the disaster plans were outdated. Coordinated out of the County Sheriff's office for years, emergency management was woefully lacking. That was why the mayor and governor had developed this new department in the first place, but as director, John had far more work to do than he'd imagined. And less time to do it. The governor had given him a year to prove the department was worth the extra funding.
"Do you know the area?"
Again that cool, cool stare from those bizarre eyes. "Of course. Does the family have any item that belonged to the boy? An item which hasn't been contaminated?"
"Is that necessary?" He'd always heard that SAR dogs could work without prescenting.
"No. But a scent helps get Chili moving much faster. And in case you haven't noticed, time is not on our side."
Though the comment bordered on sarcasm, she was right. The temperatures continued to fall. The boy was warmly dressed, which was a plus, but hypothermia remained a real threat.
"I'll ask the family." He made his way to the parents and returned with a stocking cap. He thrust it toward her. "Will this do?"
Strangely enough, she shrank back. "How many hands have touched it?"
"Mine, the dad's, and the boy's."
"It will have to do."
Without further ado, she spoke quietly to the dog, held the inside of the cap to his twitching black nose, and then left the command post.
Melody's insides trembled as she loaded Chili once more into the truck cab and climbed behind the wheel.
John North was military. She could see it in his precise bearing, hear it in the clipped, confident commands, feel it emanating from him in waves of danger. She knew his type. No pretty boy this. Rugged and masculine with snapping brown eyes and darker hair, John North was fit and powerful
She laid her head on the steering wheel.
Upon hearing that the county had finally hired a full-time emergency management director, Melody had been pleased. The sheriff had done his best but was too understaffed to do an efficient job. Search and rescue had taken a backseat to all the duties of a sheriff to serve and protect, a fact of life that had severely hampered rescue operations. For a while, she'd worried they might hire Tad Clauson, a deputy who had lobbied long and hard for the development of an emergency management program within the county. While she agreed with his concept, she despised the deputy, who seemed intent on making her life miserable at every meeting.
But this man, this John North fellow, was far worse than Tad. He was military. He was deadly. And he scared her to pieces.
Chili, sensing her unease and wondering why they weren't moving whined softly and nudged at her hand as if to say, "Get moving, Mama, we have a kid to find."
With a shaky laugh, she cranked the engine. "Right. Focus, huh, boy? A lost kid is in a lot more trouble than we are."
Suddenly the passenger door was yanked open, and Melody changed her mind. John North slid onto the bench seat next to Chili.
Melody scowled, hoping to frighten him away. "What are you doing?"
"I thought I'd ride along with you, watch you work."
Her pulse ratcheted up to mach speed. "Chili and I work alone."
"Not this time. If I'm going to use your services, I need to see for myself that you know what you're doing."
In the darkness, lit only by the moon and the lights of vehicles beginning to move, he looked across at her, expression mild. There was a stubbornness about him, and a confidence that bordered on cockiness. He was the boss and she'd better get used to it.
She didn't like him.
"Suit yourself." She cranked the engine and drove in silence. The truck could only go so far before they'd have to hike into the wilderness to the area where the boy had last been seen. When they reached the vicinity, she parked the vehicle and got out, strapped on her backpack, leashed Chili and started through the woods without a word to her uninvited guest. If Mr. High and Mighty Military Man wanted to come, he'd better keep up.
He did. With little effort, he was beside her, his breath puffing gray smoke into the cold night.
Ignoring the man took effort, but Melody concentrated on her job with Chili. With soft commands, she unsnapped the dog, told him to search and waited while he gained his bearings. For several seconds, he stood, nose high, sorting the millions of scents that invaded his brain.
"What's he doing?"