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Kessler Island, Southeast Alaska
Dread crept up Cobie MacBride's spine. She'd never wanted to do this again. But here she was, facing her past in an attempt to gain a future. Facing a cave again, when she never wanted to see the inside of another one after the caving accident that had taken her brother Brad's life. She was here today for an entirely different reason, and yet it was all connected.
She'd expected a yawning opening, but instead she stared at the slim crawlway into the cave, low and vertical. A muddy chute into the underworld. A trickle of water ran down the towering rock face; velvety moss covered the ground and entrance. Surrounded by the lush greenery of ferns, the cavea product of this karst-laden landhad remained hidden on Kessler Island, one of thousands of islands, most uninhabited, in southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
Her archaeologist father had found it and written about it in his journal. That was the only reason she was here. He had been missing for six months now and presumed dead. They'd been estranged for years, until last Christmas when he'd called and claimed he wanted to make up for the past and would be in touch soon.
She never heard from him again.
Peering at the cave nowa place where he'd recently been and walked, that one last connection to himCobie knew she wouldn't go inside alone. Bad enough she'd arrived on the island via floatplane ahead of Laura and Jen, two spelunking buddies she'd lost touch with over the years who had been eager enough to go on this venture with her. After she'd dumped her pack containing extra clothes, food and other supplies at the public-use cabin, she'd figured she could scout out one of the two cave entrances detailed in her father's journal. He'd made sure that someone delivered the journal into her hands, leaving her with more questions than answers. All she wanted to do was go inside and see the last thing her father had written about.
The whir of a boat in the distance pulled her thoughts back to the present. That must be Laura and Jen now. Better head back to the cabin.
She reached for her bottled water.
From behind, a strong arm wrapped around her throat in a choke hold and squeezed. Her air supply cut off, Cobie didn't have time to think, just react. She twisted and pulled and kicked, but the man's thick muscled arm didn't budge. She wasn't breaking free from this.
She wanted to ask him why he was trying to kill her. Persuade him to let her go. But she couldn't croak out the words. Pressure built in her head. Darkness edged her vision.
Cobie couldn't die like this. She was the only one of her family left. But what to do? Her life was slipping away
He'd gripped her tightly enough that she couldn't headbutt. She'd never wrestle his arm away from her throat.
She let go, flailing. Her lungs screamed. Her head felt as if it would explode.
God, please, help me!
Her hand bumped a rock. A rock! That was the only way. She had seconds before she passed out. Or before he crushed her throat completely.
Her fingers reached for the rock, grappling, feeling the rough edges, unable to secure it, until finally she gripped the weapon. Prickles of light flashed across her vision. Before she was gone, before it was too late, she put all her strength into slamming the rock into his head.
Immediately, his grip loosened. He dropped her and collapsed.
Cobie crashed to the ground, sharp pebbles and sticks cutting into her knees. She reached for her neckhad to be bruisedas she sucked in oxygen. Rolling to her side, she let her vision clear, the pressure from her head ease.
Someone had just tried to kill her. Worse, he was still there. She gathered her strength and pushed to her feet. Still wobbly, she pressed a hand against the gray wall of limestone towering above her. She eyed the man. He was clad in a gray rain jacket over a green plaid shirt, and she guessed he was above average height and weight. Strong. But she couldn't identify him, couldn't even tell the color of his hair. He wore a black knit ski mask to hide every feature that mattered. That made this attempted murder appear premeditated; he must have planned to kill someone today. Planned to kill her.
Blood oozed from the rip in his mask where she'd hit him, and she could see the gash at his temple. Cobie pressed her hands to her own head. Had she just killed a man? It was self-defense, but still it was too much to comprehend. Nausea surged in her stomach. Then she saw his chest rise and fall. So he wasn't dead. She stepped closer, unsure what to do now.
Pull his mask off? See who it was? Or should she try to put as much distance between them as she could before he woke up?
Cobie crept forward. If he remained unconscious, she could slip the mask off. Identify him to the police or whoever amounted to law on this forsaken island. He groaned. Lifted a hand to his forehead. Cobie froze. Held her breath.
If she could get closer she could knock him out again. Maybe. But if he woke up completely and she was still here, she was dead.
She took off into the forest. Had to get deep into the thick of it. She could make her way around to the cabin somehow. She had to warn her friends. There was no cell service out here, and her SAT phone was at the cabin. At least Laura always carried a weapon. She might have to use it. Cobie had been told there weren't bears on the island, so she hadn't worried about that kind of protection, but she hadn't considered there might be the two-legged kind of predator to worry about.
There shouldn't even be anyone else on this small island. Not until later in the day when other cavers were coming to map the cave for the forest service. That much she'd found out, at least, and she'd wanted to beat them to it. See the place the way her father had seen it. Now she was regretting that she'd ever come. And, worse, that she'd invited friends, possibly putting them in danger.
Why had he tried to kill her?
Cobie pressed through the thick forest, breathing hard, running as fast as she could. Hoping the man would forget about her. Consider her too much trouble to follow. Too much trouble to kill. Maybe he'd realize she wasn't the person he was after.
Behind her, leaves rustled. Limbs and sticks crashed. Like Bigfoot himself was tracking her.
Panic engulfed her. Coursed through her veins and left her timid and shaking. Afraid she wasn't going to survive this.
So many regrets.
Too many. Oh, God, please give me another chance to set everything right. Please give me a chance to let go. I know I have to forgive. So much bad had happened; she'd lost count of everything that she'd let sprout into bitterness and resentment.
Cobie pushed through the forest and stopped, leaning and flailing over the cliff's edge, a good forty feet above the waterline. She caught herself and stepped back. The sea cliff could be where the other entrance to the cave was, somewhere at the bottom.
Covering her mouth, she let out a sob and turned to face the forest behind her. A dark cloud had moved over the sun, turning the sky somber. Muting the lush green of the forest. Even the water of the strait, connecting with the ocean to the southwest, had turned black. Violent.
She was trapped.
She could hear him coming for her. See the leaves moving. He was getting closer.
Cobie turned to face the water surrounding the island. A boat. She saw a trawler. She waved and yelled and screamed, trying to draw the boat's attention. What did it matter if the man heard her calling for help? He was coming for her either way.
But the boat was too far away for anyone on board to hear her cries for help. Too far away to assist even if they did. Her knees buckled. She wanted to drop to the ground and beg for her life. But the killer wasn't interested in her words. Of that she was sure. If she stayed here, the man would kill her for reasons unknown. He didn't seem interested in giving or taking information from her.
Oh, God, I'm not ready to die. So much left to do yet. To figure out.
She couldn't stay where she was. But she could jump. And if she jumped, she just might miss the rocks. Then again, she could meet with a rocky death, but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of killing her.
Still, a plunge into the water below gave her a better chance of a survival.
Cobie sent up one last prayer. She took a running, flying leap off the sea cliff.
Adam Warren's stomach churned as he leaned over the railing at the side of the trawler, struggling to get his sea legs. The waters of the strait to the southwest of Kessler Island had turned dark and rough as they flowed out of Chambers Passage, just one of the many waterways of the Inside Passage weaving through Alaska's panhandle.
He rubbed his eyes. Squinted. Was motion sickness making him hallucinate? What had he just seen? "Guys?"
"I saw her, too." Gary headed up the winding staircase to the bridge. Turned his parents' trawler to starboard.
Though far away, they'd been close enough to see what looked like long brown hair whipping around, jacket flying up to reveal a trim figure as she jumped into the crashing waves.
Everyone rushed to the bridge with Gary, the highest point on the boat. "What do you think? Suicide?"
Nate and Jared, two of Adam's caving buddies, scanned the depths with Adam as the trawler sliced through the rough waves.
"No." A sense of urgency wrapped around Adam. Please, God, let her be okay.
He quickly shrugged out of his rain jacket, preparing to dive in after her, if needed. But where was she? He grabbed the life buoy and prepared to toss it out. But depending on how she hit the water, at that height, she could have a compressed spine, or any number of other injuries. She'd drown if they didn't find her, if she wasn't already sinking from cold water shock response.
Then Nate sucked in a breath. "I see her! There she is!" He pointed at the water, miles and miles of water.
Gary steered the boat toward where Nate pointed.
Adam searched the waters, too. A head bobbed. She waved. But then she went under again. "Get this thing closer, will you?"
He couldn't swim faster than the trawler, so he'd have to bide his time. But if they didn't make it soon, she was going under for good. Gary was experienced enough at handling the boat. Adam trusted him to do his best, but it was still taking too long. Adam and his siblings volunteered on the North Face Mountain Search and Rescue Teamit gnawed at him to stand back and wait when someone needed help.
They neared the last place they saw the jumper, and Adam bounded down the steps to the lower deck and tossed the lifesaving buoy into the water. But the woman didn't surface again. Without hesitation he dived into the cold depths of the strait, then swam toward the ring he'd tossed.
He guessed the water temperature to be in the low fifties, maybe high forties. Brutal enough to send a person into cold incapacitationthe loss of control of hands and the muscles in the arms and legs. Before long, they would quit working altogether.
The water's usual dark blue was almost an inky black, but as he dived beneath the surface it was crystal clear, so that he could see.
He saw her well enough. She still had some fight in her, but her eyes were wide with terror as she fought a losing battle to the surface. Her limbs had become too cold and numb to make a difference. Soon Adam would also succumb. But she'd been in the water much longer than he had. He could do this. He could save her.
Had to save her. He couldn't fail again. Couldn't let someone drown again, though his best friend's death would always be on his head.
His lungs burned as he thrust toward her, seized her arm and, with all his strength, swam them to the surface. He grabbed the life buoy and pulled her out of the bitingly cold water. Nate and Jared tugged them toward the boat, and Adam held on to the woman. Water poured from her mouth as she coughed and choked.
Fueled by adrenaline, even his relief that she hadn't drowned couldn't slow his racing pulse. His buddies assisted them onto the trawler, and then forgot about Adam and ushered her inside the galley, where it was warm. Dripping and cold, Adam followed and saw Jared wrap a blanket around her. Her lips were blue in her pale face as she shivered and sat in the booth, still gasping for breath.
"You need to remain still. Get warmed up," Jared told them.
Adam knew Jared referred to post-rescue collapse. They had to wait until their systems had warmed up completely so their hearts would stabilize.
Before he slid into the booth beside her, she lifted the biggest bluest eyes he'd ever seen to meet his gaze.
Adam knew those eyes.
Stunned, he took a step back. She appeared equally surprised to see him. Maybe in the urgency of the rescue, recognition hadn't kicked in for either of them.
When Jared handed over a mug of microwaved cocoa, she eagerly took it. Adam wrapped his hand around the mug offered him, and settled in next to Cobie MacBride.
At one time, Cobie had been the only woman for him. She'd cured him of ever wanting to go through that again. Weird to think she didn't even know about the feelings he'd had.
"Thank you for saving me." She shook her head, stared into her cup. Her beautiful eyes had lost none of their grief from the tragedy that had left her brother dead, but some sort of wild terror swam in them now, as well.
"What happened?" Adam asked. "Why'd you jump?"
He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. He couldn't stand it if she said she'd been trying to kill herself. But he wouldn't believe it, either. She'd waved for them; she'd wanted their help. And if they hadn't been there? Adam clamped down on those thoughts.
"I didn't have a choice."