Read an Excerpt
Heidi adjusted her night vision goggles at her brother Cade's call up the rocky cliff face from below. The snow-covered, mountainous landscape looked green and black, but at least she could see instead of stumbling around in the dark and falling to her death. Even though the moon was out in full force, this side of the mountain remained in the shadows.
The helicopter had dropped them off as close as possible to the summit, but they'd still had to hike another two hours to get to the place where they would rappel down to the trapped climbers, at least one of them injured, or so the three rescuersHeidi and Cade Warren and Isaiah Callahanhad been informed.
As a member of North Face Mountain Search and Rescuelike the other Warren siblingsthis was only the second time Heidi had climbed at night, and she shoved aside the unpleasant memory of the first. There was enough tension between her and her brother Cade, and unfortunately their friend and coworker Isaiahwho usually flew the helicopterthat she didn't need to tack on anything more to an already heavy load. And it wasn't just the emotional and mental burden. The pack on her back weighed her down, too.
Drawing in a cold breath, she hoisted the hefty packloaded down with climbing, medical and camping gear for spending the nightand rappelled the cliff. Cade, ever the protective brother, had insisted on going first, though Heidi was the trained technical climber of the three.
She'd made it halfway to the next rap station and paused for a rest, when gunfire ricocheted off the mountain. Heidi jerked and lost her balance. Her overfilled pack pulled her over, flip-flopping her. Now hanging upside down, her heart pounded.
She was the technical climber here.
She was the expert they counted on to assist in getting these people out.
She hadn't wanted to come. Not after what had happened last summer. But there'd been no choice. Two other daunting rescue operations were ongoing and they needed the manpower. If only she weren't out of practice.
All her fault. This was on her, and she knew it.
Heidi was a wreck, but she couldn't afford to give in to her emotions right now. Those climbers stranded in the saddle between the summits couldn't afford her messing up.
No way would she call for help, though. The last thing Cade and Isaiah needed was a rescuer who required rescuing. Besides, she'd assured Cade she could do this, but even if she hadn't, he'd pretty much insisted that she try. Isaiah had been the one to protest. He hadn't wanted her here. Whether because he personally didn't want to work with her after distancing himself for some unknown reason or because he didn't trust her abilities, she wasn't sure. Either way, his attitude stabbed her like an ice ax.
"What's going on up there, Heidi?" Cade asked over the radio.
"You need help?" Now Isaiah. Great.
And the incident command center would hear their conversation, too. Over the years, they'd developed their own radio-speak, and didn't use the more technical terms. Cade always wanted them to talk plainly. Worked for her.
"Heidi, I asked if you're good?" Isaiah again.
At the very least, she would prove to Isaiah she was back. She could do this. "I'm rapping down. You're distracting me."
With all the strength she could muster, she grabbed the rope and inched her way up, righting herself. Then she breathed a sigh of relief.
But what about the gunfire she'd heard? Heidi used her night vision goggles to scan the mountain and the saddle below, but saw nothing of concern. Was it someone chasing off a bear somewhere? Cade and Isaiah hadn't mentioned it. Had she imagined it? Or was it simply echoing from miles away? She wouldn't bring it up. All she needed was for them to think she was hearing things. As always, Isaiah and Cade were packing weapons in case they came across a bear, so she wouldn't worry.
Following Cade down, she rappelled, careful that the unusually heavy pack wouldn't throw her off balance again. She met him at the second rappel. A glance down revealed a beaming flashlight and a small fire burning nearly four hundred feet below.
Voices resounded from the camp. The climbers must have spotted their rescuers. Cade rappelled again. Heidi watched and waited before she followed. She glanced up but couldn't see Isaiah from here. He was likely growing impatient to hear her call.
Heidi looked down at Cade and saw him swinging over, creating a new path.
"Be careful. There's a vertical ice wall and a sheer drop," Cade told them over the radio.
Negotiating the terrain would be difficult enough under the circumstances, but with the expected inclement weather, even in April, things could only get worse.
"Off rappel," Cade called.
Heidi clipped in and called up, repeating the words to Isaiah, and they were back in rhythm, rappelling and descending a snow-covered slope in the middle of a cold, wintry night.
Reaching the vertical ice wall Cade had warned about, she secured her harness and traversed the cliff face, following Cade's lead. She found the third rappel station and called up to Isaiah before descending the rest of the way.
The saddle where the two summits met formed a wind tunnel. Maybe that's why Cade hadn't mentioned the gunfire. He hadn't even heard it. The high-pitched wail of the wind harmonized with deeper tones making Heidi think of a lost lover singing a seriously morbid screamo song. Thank goodness she'd grown out of that phase a decade ago.
Dropping a few feet to the ground, the pack pulled Heidi back and she fell on her rear.
Thankfully, in this spot, the curve in the rock formations above and around them protected them from the harsh blasts of arctic gusts. She hoped that would remain the case.
"You okay?" Cade offered his hand.
She didn't take it, but instead slipped from the pack. "That thing is too heavy."
"I hear you," he said.
Isaiah joined them. He tugged Heidi around to face him, his touch surprising her. She tried to ignore the current coursing through his gloved hand and her parka to burn the skin on her arm. It was the first time he'd come close to acting as if he cared in months.
Still wearing his night vision goggles, he looked her up and down. "You okay?"
"Of course, I'm fine. We're here to help them." Heidi pointed at the group who remained huddled next to their small fire, a couple of them standing, expectantly looking in the direction of the rescuers. "Stop worrying about me."
She couldn't take his attention on her right now. It only confused her and she needed to focus. Besides, she hated to be coddled, and Cade's and Isaiah's concern was too much. Cade was right to insist she had to get back into search and rescue now or she never would, but after what happened, after she'd been part of a jaunt in the mountains with friends that ended in tragedy, Heidi second-guessed everything she did. Succeeding tonight in this rescue would serve as a rescue for Heidi, in a way. And she prayed that her participation wasn't a mistake, that it wouldn't cost more lives. She reminded herself that North Face needed her today.
Heidi helped Cade and Isaiah gather up their packs and equipment so they wouldn't end up buried in the snow once the storm set in. By the look of the dark clouds rushing in from the west, they didn't have much time. She led the way, hiking over to the climbers hunkered by the fire about a hundred yards in the distance. With a glance back she saw Cade and Isaiah pointing to a cornice loaded with snow, just waiting for a reason to bury them. Cade got on his radio and communicated their status and she heard something about the potential avalanche.
Just one of many things they'd have to watch for. In the meantime, a helicopter could drop more gear now that the SAR team had made it down. After assessing the climber's injuries, they'd relay their needs to the command center.
Only, Heidi noticed, they weren't dressed like climbers. Coats, sure, but jeans and regular shoes. How could they have hiked all this way this time of year without crampons or snowshoes? Heidi told Cade to request the extra gear and whatever winter hiking wear was available. He arched a brow, the question in his eyes confirming hers, and relayed the information.
What was going on?
Isaiah caught up with Heidi. She was too stressed for her own good. That could be dangerous. But he knew he was partially to blame for that. Or was he giving himself too much credit?
She'd had a rough time of things the past few months, and Isaiah had pulled away when he'd realized they were growing too close. He couldn't let himself get involved with anyone because of his own mistakes. He wanted to keep the past he ran from hidden. Heidi deserved better than him, and when he'd seen that look in her eyesone of longing and admirationa look that he returned too eagerly, he knew he had to withdraw. And he'd hurt her.
Then came the accident. Heidi had been out for a hike with friends when someone had fallen to their death. Pain zinged through Isaiah. She'd blamed herself, and Isaiah could relate all too well to that feeling. How he wanted to be there for her. To encourage her and get her through it, but he'd already backed away. Let her family be there for her.
And they had been.
Except for when it came to informing Heidi that the man she was seeing, months after Isaiah had made his retreat, was married. Isaiah ended up with that grueling, dirty task. Why him, of all people?
But all that was behind them, and Heidi needed to focus on this rescue. Cade insisted that the only way for her to dig out of the dark place she'd crawled into was to get back into the thick of search and rescue. While that made perfect sense, Isaiah had been worried it was too soon.
He swallowed the sudden knot that arose again as he recalled seeing her dangling on the rope through his night vision goggles moments ago. It was Heidi's decision to be here, and her brother's business to watch out for her. Not Isaiah's, other than as her SAR team member. No. He wasn't in the Warrens' inner circle. Not since he'd severed his emotional connection to Heidi.
And not since Cade had started acting as if something was eating at him. It was unusual for Cade to keep anything from Isaiah. He didn't know what was going on, but he feared his secret was out. Cade was brooding over something and he didn't appear to know how to share it with Isaiah. Now that Isaiah thought about it, Cade had tried to talk to him a few times about whatever was bothering him, but then he'd shut down. What else could it be except that Cade had found out the truth about Isaiah? That was too much to think about on an easy day, so he shook away the thought and concentrated on the rescue.
The moonlight had crept across the sky and into the gap between the two peaks so he tugged his goggles over his helmet and pushed past Heidi, leading the way to the group. They needed to establish that the SAR team was in charge from the very beginning.
As he approached the climbers, two of the men left the circle around the fire and hiked toward him, bundled up in their winter coats, though it was spring. But mountain summits didn't often care. Isaiah squared his shoulders and stood tall as he closed the distance to meet them.
When he reached them, one of the two stepped forward. The leader of this climbing party?
Isaiah thrust his gloved hand out. "Isaiah Callahan, and behind me, Heidi and Cade Warren. We're part of the North Face Mountain Search and Rescue."
"I'm Zach, and this is Jason. Rhea and Liam are by the fire."
Zach was trim enough, though he looked bulky with his coat, but he was about Isaiah's height at five feet eleven inches. Jason was both stockier and taller.
"Good you were able to make a fire." Isaiah noticed a bruise on Jason's forehead, a cut and smudges across Zach's temple and face. "How are you holding up?"
Jason huffed, and Zach sent him a glare over his shoulder. What was that about?
"Where's the injured party?" Cade asked, coming up behind Isaiah, carrying his pack and ropes.
"We were informed someone had taken a fall." A little breathless, Heidi finally joined them. She handed off the pack holding the medical gear to Isaiah. Though they were each trained to assist in all situations, Isaiah had the most medical experience.
"That was Robbie." Zach gestured to the shadows beyond the fire. "Over there. But he's already gone. No point in worrying about him now."
Was the guy in so much shock he couldn't render any emotion over a fallen friend? The cold words struck Isaiah. He glanced to Cade and Heidi. Did they sense that something was off here, too? He couldn't read them.
Zach led them over to the fire.
The radio squawked and Cade answered, discussing the coordinates and the extra gear the helicopter would drop. He left the group to position himself to receive the goods. Heidi began unpacking, preparing for an overnight stay that would include a winter storm.
Spring didn't mean anything up in the mountains in Alaska's Coast Range.
Letting his gaze skim the fire and the climbers' sorely lacking gear, except for one conspicuous green bag near the fire, he finally spotted the bundle, likely the body, about fifteen or more yards away in the shadows. Isaiah hated hearing they hadn't made it in time to save someone but it happened all too often.
Zach was suddenly at his side again.
"What happened to him?" Isaiah pointed to what he assumed was the body of the injured climber.
"But he was still alive when you called us." They'd gotten here as quickly as they could.
"I don't know, man, you know how these things happen. He fell and his injuries killed him."
Yeah, Isaiah knew. He trudged in the direction of the body, the thrum of a helicopter drawing closer. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Cade's silhouette in the distance as he made his way to gather the gear being dropped.
Something didn't add up. None of the climbers were equipped to climb the summit or traverse the cliff side. How did they get here? Confusion along with an unwelcome sick feeling that something was definitely wrong crawled over him like a sudden, drastic drop in temperature.
"Where are you going?" Zach followed. "I said he was dead. There's nothing more you can do for him. We need to get out of here tonight. You're wasting time."
Isaiah kept walking. "None of us are getting out tonight."
"What?" The guy jerked Isaiah around.
"A storm's coming. Life Flight is planning to hoist the injured man out of here in the morning, that is, after the storm clears out."
"We don't need to wait."
"The logistics of getting everyone out tonight are a nightmare. In the morning when the storm clears is better. It's safer. And it's the only option."
Isaiah proceeded to the body. He knelt down to examine the man, pulling out his flashlight. Had he died of hypothermia?
Then he found the blood and
a gunshot entry wound. When he was up top, he thought he'd heard a gunshot ring out in the distance behind him, too far to be related to the group in the valley. Had he been wrong about that?
Stiffening, Isaiah slowly pressed his hand inside his parka, covering the weapon in his shoulder holster. He was here to rescue people, not hurt them.
"Don't even think about it." Zach pressed the cold muzzle of a gun against the back of Isaiah's exposed neck.
Closing his eyes, Isaiah sent up a prayer and calculated his next move.
The gun pressed harder, digging into his flesh. "Put your hands up where I can see them and slowly stand up."
Zach backed away from Isaiah as he turned to face the guy, his hands up. Too bad. He could have wrestled the weapon from him.
"He's dead because he'd only slow us down," Zach said. "Are you going to be next?"