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Lost in the Alaskan wilderness.
Penelope Lear's great adventure was not supposed to end this way, with her standing on a shadowy path in the middle of nowhere. Mountains surrounded her, cutting her off from the rest of the world. She was completely, utterly alone in a world so huge she didn't know in which direction to turn.
What had started with her brilliant idea that she could find the treasure and save the town of Treasure Creek was now looking like a news alert. All because she was positive she'd seen a clue from the treasure map. Just days ago when she'd taken a hiking tour of the area, she really thought she'd seen the rock formation that people were talking about. Her dad would have told her she was less than a week in town and already in over her head.
Instead of the confidence she had started out with, she was picturing the headlines that would be splashed across newspapers tomorrow morning. Or whenever they finally realized she was missing.
"Penelope Lear, Heiress, Lost in the Alaskan Wilderness."
She didn't want to think of other headlines, worse headlines. But she couldn't stop herself from thinking about what would happen if someone didn't find her. If they didn't find the Jeep and her note that she was hiking out, heading south toward Treasure Creek, what would happen?
As for heading south, she hoped she was heading south.
She glanced at her watch and then looked west, where the sun would have been setting in an hour, if not for the mountains encircling her. At least she thought she was looking west. She had a compass in her bag, but she didn't know how to use a compass. It had been part of the equipment she'd bought at the general store.
The clerk had grinned at her when she'd bought supplies. Either because he was single and enjoyed all the single women trotting through Treasure Creek and his store, or because he thought she was another clueless city slicker.
Fortunately Joleen Jones had bounced into the general store in time to take some of the pressure off. Joleen with the hair, the clothes and the personality to draw attention the way sugar drew ants. Joleen, like so many other women, had come to Treasure Creek looking for the hunky tour guides described in the Now Woman magazine article.
In the short amount of time Penelope had been in Treasure Creek, she had realized she wasn't the only woman who had shown up to see what the men of Treasure Creek were all about; if they really were different.
Penelope insisted on being married to the man of her choosing, rather than the man with the right business portfolio.
Cold seeped into her bones, pulling her back to the present and her horrendous situation. Penelope pulled her coat a little closer and took a few careful steps on the trail.
November in the Alaskan wilderness. She'd lived in Anchorage her entire life. Even if she had spent her time in the city, she should know something about the Alaskan wilderness, something more than the fact that it was cold. And dark.
Yeah, she should know somethinglike stay home where it was safe and warm.
She hitched her backpack over her shoulder. At least she had jerky to eat, a few bottles of water and a rain poncho. And matches. If it came down to it, she could build a fire.
A noise, just a rustle or maybe rocks shifting under someone's careful steps, caught her attention. She froze, and then turned cautiously, carefully. Chills were sweeping up and down her spine, tingling through her scalp and arms. She didn't want to be dinner for a bear. Or a mountain lion.
How far back had she left the Jeep? It had to be miles. She'd been walking for hours. Not that going back would do her any good. Something had run out in front of the vehicle a few hours ago and she'd veered, sending the blasted thing over a small ledge and into a ditch. It wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
If only she hadn't allowed herself to get distracted. But instead of paying attention to the trail that passed for a road, she'd been daydreaming about the Chilkoot Pass, an icy trail over the mountains that had claimed many lives back in the late 1800s as settlers hurried to Alaska, hoping to find gold. Instead they'd found greedy traders, icy trails and death.
She'd been imagining that trail, with steps cut into the ice. She'd been imagining how her ancestors might have felt as they walked into this frozen land, and how it might have changed their lives. She had imagined wagons and livestock left behind.
She hadn't imagined crashing a rented Jeep or getting lost.
She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and she lifted it, hoping for a signal and still not getting one. So what was her story going to be, since "lost because of her imagination" didn't work?
Maybe people would believe her if she said Bigfoot ran across the trail in front of the Jeep? She shivered again, imagining Bigfoot. Of course that was just a story. Bigfoot wasn't real. She was sure he wasn't. More than likely. She peeked around again, just to make sure she wasn't being followed.
The November wind whipped through the pass, straight through her coat. She wasn't one of those settlers looking for gold in the Yukon, looking to make her fortune. She was a Lear, daughter of Herman Lear, one of the wealthiest men in Alaska. Or maybe the wealthiest man in Alaska. She didn't need gold.
She needed a map.
She knew how to read a map. She knew more than anyone had ever given her credit for. She wasn't arm candy or an empty-headed socialite.
That thought brought back leftover anger and her brother's words when he'd heard her plan. He had told her he didn't believe she could survive a day in the small town of Treasure Creek, let alone in the wilds of Alaska. But she had insisted she could. She didn't need fancy boutiques. She didn't need pedicures.
At the moment she needed help. She yelled again, hoping she'd hear more than her own voice echoing back.
Good gravy, Miss Mavy, what a mess. But surely someone would come looking for her. Amy James, the owner of the Alaska Treasure's Tour Company. Or that police chief; if he wasn't too busy trying to keep people from stealing maps. If he wasn't too busy looking for Tucker Lawsonthe last person to go missing in the Alaskan wilderness. Someone would realize she didn't come back to the Inn. Maybe the receptionist who had invited her to church when she first showed up in town. It had amazed her how easy it was to get to know people in a small town. Until someone rescued her, she'd do her best to get herself out of this mess. And then, when they found her, the headlines would be about the heiress who survived the wilds of Alaska, not the heiress who got lost.
And eaten by bears.
She shivered and started walking again. The trail she was on seemed to go south. Or she assumed she was heading south. With mountains towering around her, how was she supposed to know?
She'd stay on the trail heading "south" and she'd pray.
And she wouldn't get distracted. She wouldn't stop to look at trees that reminded her of the Treasure Creek treasure map that Amy's boys had found by accident several months ago.
She picked her way along the trail that grew narrower as she walked. And it didn't look like the path most taken. It looked like a forgotten trail to nowhere.
She was surrounded by high peaks, towering pines and shadows. A branch cracked somewhere in the brush to her left. Penelope stopped, frozen to the spot. She held her breath and waited.
What if Bigfoot was real, not a legend?
A mountain goat crashed through the brush and hit the trail twenty feet ahead of her. Now she knew who had made this trail. And it wasn't a guide or hikers.
She kept walking, keeping her gaze on the trail, listening to the rush of a stream bouncing off rocks. Something crunched under her foot. She glanced down at the white stick and shivered. What if it had been the poor, lost lawyer, Tucker Lawson?
He'd disappeared months ago. She'd heard all about him when she'd eaten dinner at Lizbet's Diner. She had loved sitting with the crowds that gathered there. She loved pretending to be a part of the community, a part of their group of friends. They had shared stories with her about the town, about the treasure they hoped to find, and the struggles they'd seen of late. She'd learned that Amy's husband had died suddenly a few months ago, leaving the town and Amy in mourning. She'd also heard how Tucker Lawson had come home to see his dying father but hadn't made it in time. Tucker had been flying his small plane when it crashed somewhere in the wilderness.
According to the folks at the diner, the one good thing that had happened was an article about the town that had been meant to bring in tourists and instead it had focused on Treasure Creek's hunky bachelors bringing swarms of single women to the tiny town of seven hundred.
Penelope had listened, thankful that they hadn't known who she was, because had they known they wouldn't have shared. But Penelope's heart had been touched by their plight and by the desire of the community to keep their little town strong.
And she knew that she could help. Her family and small circle of friends thought that she was really only good for spa days and charity functions, but that's because they didn't understand her heart and how much she really wanted to help others.
No one had ever really understood her. Obviously her dad understood her less than anyone, or he wouldn't have taken it upon himself to find her a husband, to insist that it was time for her to settle down.
Treasure Creek had given her a chance to be the person she always wanted to be.
Penelope stopped to brush stray tears from her cheeks. It was getting cold and she'd have to find shelter soon. And she could do that. She'd watched those survivor guys on TV. She had matches. She had food, water and a rain poncho. Little children survived in the mountains, surely she could, too.
She could even fish. She'd done that on the guided tour she'd taken a couple days after getting to Treasure Creek. Oh, but one little problem: no fishing pole this time.
A shadow flashed on the ground in front of her. She looked up, shading her eyes with her hand. The bald eagle swooped and circled before landing in a tree. Penelope closed her eyes and remembered the painting on the wall of her room at the bed-and-breakfast in Treasure Creek. She recalled every single detail with vivid clarity.
A painting of a bald eagle, and the words "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings as eagles. They shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint," from The Book of Isaiah.
Wait on the Lord. She could do that. She was new at faith, but she could wait.
Faith, that was her real reason for coming to Treasure Creek. Oh sure, there was the added bonus that she might find a real man and not get stuck with the man her father had picked. She didn't even know the man, but she knew the type. He'd be motivated and seriousand all about his career. And she'd be left at home, wishing someone cared.
That wasn't going to be her life. Not anymore.
She was going to find someone who would really love her, and who wouldn't want to change her.
The plan had formed just a couple of weeks ago, when she'd been at the day spa getting a manicure and facial. As she'd waited for her toenails to dry, she picked up an old issue of Now Woman magazine and read the article about the hunky men of Treasure Creek and the lack of available women. There had been pictures, and Penelope made a decision to get herself one of those men.
But she had noticed something else in the article. There was a paragraph about the town, about their faith in God and the belief that He would get them through their hard times.
The words had hit Penelope in the heart, where she'd felt empty for as long as she could remember. She'd spent her life trying to help others, to be more than just Penelope Lear, socialite.
And no one had noticed.
So she'd packed her bags and headed for Treasure Creek in search of the life she wanted.
She wouldn't have any life at all if she didn't keep walking and find a place to make a shelter. With sticks and her rain poncho. She could do that.
A snarl behind her stopped Penelope in her tracks. She froze, too afraid to even turn and face what was behind her. It stepped on twigs and leaves, crunching, probably close. She could stay and get eaten, or run.
She turned to get a closer look and her foot slipped. The bear opened its mouth and roared. She grabbed at a tree, reaching for a limb. Her fingers grasped, and then slipped. She continued to slide, slipping down the steep sides of the ravine. She screamed, and screamed again.
Tucker Lawson had left the lodge hoping to bring home meat for himself and the Johnsons. The missionaries were a nice couple, and since their garden had been providing food since he showed up at the abandoned lodge during the summer, he had been the one to provide meat. Usually fish.
He walked along the trail, enjoying the quiet, breathing in the fresh air, and feeling almost peaceful.
The guilt was still there, though, a double load of it. How did a man get past not speaking to his father for years, and then getting home too late, getting home just in time to bury his dad, but not in time to say goodbye?
He shifted the gun he carried and stopped, looking out at the quiet afternoon, shadowed and gray. The mountains loomed, blotting the sunshine that might peek through the clouds this time of year. Possible, but not a great possibility. But being close to the coast, at least they weren't buried in snow. For November, that was a plus.
It was just cold. And soon it would be dark. And he didn't want to be out here in the dark. The wilderness was huge and it could overwhelm a guy, make him feel almost claustrophobic because it closed in around him, keeping him in a cocoon that was safe but confining.