Authors: Carla Neggers
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Stories, #General, #Romance, #Suspense Fiction, #Missing persons, #Suspense, #Fiction
Elijah noted three chickadees darting among the spruce trees just below the falls but didn’t pause to enjoy them. He’d done the hike up from where he’d just located Devin’s beat-up truck in forty minutes. Normally it took an hour. The trail was steep, rough and rocky. He hadn’t taken the time to enjoy the view. He figured Jo was down there, though, and decided he should have just wrestled her gun off her and thrown her in his truck with him.
She was a capable, experienced federal agent. He liked the idea of knowing where she was.
Devin had pulled onto an old lane and left his truck hidden among pine trees. Elijah had found it because he was looking for it, and because he’d been trying to think like an eighteen-year-old kid butting heads with his family and friends over a girl he couldn’t have.
It wasn’t that hard to do.
The falls trail started closer to the lodge, which allowed guests to get to it on foot without a long trek along the ridge road. The lane where Devin had parked was farther down the road, but the trail up to the falls was shorter. Also more difficult, though Elijah didn’t mind that part.
The chickadees danced off into the wilderness as he came to the falls trail. He followed it around a level curve, hearing the water rushing down off the mountain.
The air wasn’t that cold. He was warm enough in his fleece without resorting to the extra layers in his pack.
He ducked under the low branches of a red oak and made his way to a ledge above the falls. Water swirled below him in an endless cascade that smoothed and shaped the wall of gray granite.
He remembered holding hands with Jo under this same oak as she told him she wanted to marry him at the falls. It was just like her not to wait to be asked. She’d been so full of dreams, so eager to leave Vermont and their small hometown. He’d been clueless about anything beyond his desire to get Jo Harper into bed.
“Some things don’t change,” he muttered, and warned himself to focus on the task at hand.
Find Devin, find Nora. Go from there.
In his winter-camping class, Nora Asher had been dedicated and self-conscious—a perfectionist who didn’t want to be the yahoo Ivy Leaguer who got lost in the woods and had to be rescued. She hated, she’d said during their afternoon break, the idea of a bunch of Vermonters searching for her and thinking here was another dumb-assed flatlander in a self-inflicted mess.
Not that anyone would think that, but that was how Nora saw the world.
She’d also wanted to prove she was tough. In Elijah’s experience, that was as sure a way into trouble as being an idiot was. But it didn’t matter.
“Forget your pride if you get in a jam and ask for help,” he’d told her. “Just get home alive.”
She’d given him the sort of look that he’d become accustomed to—the one that said she knew she couldn’t imagine the brushes with death he’d had and wasn’t sure she wanted to.
As he turned back toward the trail, he caught a movement just below him, on the other side of the falls. Devin emerged from a cluster of hemlocks and stared up at Elijah, then spun back around on his heels.
Seeing the danger, Elijah called to him. “Devin—don’t run.”
But he paid no attention and bolted toward the cover of the evergreens, losing his footing on the wet ground and going down hard on one knee. Unable to get himself back under control, he slid, flailing, yelling, down the slippery rock outcropping, finally stopping just short of a deep coppery pool.
Elijah was already moving. He ran up through the trees to the stream that fed the falls and leaped onto a dry boulder in the middle of the shallow, sparkling water, then jumped to the opposite bank. The ground was soft, covered with freshly fallen maple and birch leaves. Avoiding slippery rocks, he ducked among the hemlocks and made his way quickly down the steep hill to Devin. As he got closer to the falls, Elijah could hear the whoosh of the tumbling water and Devin’s uninhibited swearing.
“Hang on,” Elijah said. “Don’t move.”
“I can’t move. I’m stuck.” He sounded more frustrated than panicked.
Elijah eased out from behind a hemlock. “Hit your head?”
Devin grimaced. “No—I just slid under this damn rock.”
“I’m okay.” He gulped in a breath and sank back against the steep rock incline. He had on a canvas vest over a hooded sweatshirt. And jeans. But he didn’t look cold. He squeezed his eyes shut in pain. “Just go on. I don’t need you to rescue me.”
“It’d be easier on you if I did.”
Devin swore at him, but Elijah squatted in the muck to get a better look at the situation. Devin’s momentum had shoved his lower right leg down into the muck and under a basketball-size boulder, dislodging the boulder and trapping him from midcalf down. If not for the spongy ground, he probably would have broken his leg.
“Not smart,” Elijah said. “Running from me. Slipping like that. You’re used to being up here.”
“Go to hell.”
“I can get you out of here.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“It’ll be faster, easier with my help. Where’s Nora?”
“Who the hell cares?”
So that was it. Elijah shrugged off his pack and set it on dry leaves. He had a first-aid kit, but Devin didn’t appear to be more than scraped, bruised and distressed about his predicament. “I found your truck. You spent the night up here?”
He didn’t answer, but his breathing was calmer. And he’d stopped swearing.
“There’s a spot up above the falls where we all used to camp as kids,” Elijah said. “Did A.J. tell you about it?”
“He didn’t have to. I already know.” Devin gritted his teeth and groaned as he grasped his right knee with both hands. “Just get me out.”
“Did you tell Nora about it?”
“Beth Harper did.” He hissed through his teeth. “Elijah, hurry up, will you?”
“I don’t want to make a wrong move and end up crushing your leg.”
“That’d be bad.” He sniffed and looked up at the sky, streaked now with high clouds. “I wanted to make sure Nora was okay. I didn’t bug her. I just—I keep a daypack with a bivy sac in my truck. I slept under the stars a little ways down some from where she camped.”
“Did she know?” Elijah asked as he inspected every inch he could get to of the boulder that had Devin pinned.
“Probably. I think so. I tried not to scare her. She left at first light, while I was still asleep.” He blinked back tears, embarrassed, angry. “I would never hurt her, Elijah, and I’m not a thief.”
“Are you dehydrated? Cold?”
“No. I’m fine. Just get me out.”
Elijah paused and looked at Devin. “You’ll talk to me?”
“Where’s your pack?”
“It’s up in the trees. My walking stick, too. I set them down when I heard something. I thought it might be Nora.”
“You got me instead. No wonder you went ass over teakettle.”
Devin attempted a smile, but he made a face and groaned. “Crap. Not her.”
Elijah followed Devin’s gaze and, sure enough, there she was under the oak tree he had just vacated on the other side of the falls. She gave them a critical look, then disappeared back through the trees. Elijah stood up and eyed Devin, who probably would have shrunk himself to slug size and slithered under the boulder if he could have. Elijah couldn’t blame him. “Two minutes until the law arrives,” he said. “Anything you want to tell me in the meantime?”
“I’m sorry I ran.”
“Yeah.” Elijah saw Jo already charging down toward them and thought of her smile at eighteen—the hope, love and promises it held—then shifted back to Devin. “Sometimes it’s just easier to run.”
“I bet you never run.”
“We all run, Devin. At some point in our lives,” he said, squatting back down, “we all run. Let’s get you out of here.”
Jo arrived and immediately assessed the situation with an air of authority and competence that didn’t surprise Elijah. “What happened?” she asked.
“I slipped,” Devin said. “It was an accident. Elijah startled me.”
“Let’s get him unstuck,” Elijah said. “Then we can sort out the rest.”
Jo got down into the muck to help but kept up with the questions. “Did you see any other hikers?”
Devin winced. “I’m in pain, Jo.”
She narrowed her eyes on him. “You don’t want to lie to me, Devin.”
“Jo.” Elijah kept his voice even, but he decided he’d been indulging in too many fantasies and regrets. She wasn’t eighteen anymore. She wasn’t in love with him anymore. She was a federal agent who could hold her own when it came to shooting and fighting. “You want to help, or you want to interrogate him?”
She bit off a sigh. “All right. You’re the expert. Tell me what you need me to do.”
“Stand there and look pretty.”
She glared at him.
He grinned, then turned back to Devin, who wasn’t so far gone he was going to say anything provocative in front of a Secret Service agent. He didn’t even let out a curse.
Jo got behind Devin and tucked her hands under his arms.
“Devin,” Elijah said, “I need to make sure your leg isn’t broken.”
“It’s fine—just some scrapes. I can wiggle my toes and everything. I could get out of here on my own.”
“How?” Jo asked. “By carving off your leg with a jackknife?”
“If I had to. I’ve got one in my back pocket.”
“I could throw you both off the mountain,” Elijah said. “Devin, when I pick up this rock, Jo’s going to pull you up. Go with the momentum. Don’t fight her. But don’t do more than you can manage.”
He nodded. “Okay. Come on. Let’s just hurry.”
Elijah ignored him and positioned his arms under the boulder. As he lifted, Jo moved fast, helping Devin get his lower leg free. He yelled and swore, pounding the muck with his fists, which Elijah interpreted as his way of getting over a rush of pain.
“Does he need an ambulance?” Jo asked.
“Nah. He’s fine.” Elijah bent over him. “You going to be okay, Dev?”
He grabbed a fistful of muck and hurled it into the water.
Elijah shrugged at Jo. “I’m taking that as a yes.”
Devin rolled onto his back and hissed through clenched teeth. “Damn, that hurt. Jo, what kind of fingernails do you have? They’re like finishing nails or something. I think you took a chunk out of my underarms.”
She showed him her hands. “No fingernails to speak of.”
“Well, it was your fingertips digging into me, then.” He sat up, breathing hard, sweat creating streaks on his dirty face. “I can get myself back to the lodge.”
“I’m taking you back,” Elijah said.
Devin looked at Jo, then nodded, obviously concluding that Elijah was a better bet than a no-nonsense Secret Service agent.
Elijah turned to Jo. “You can go on and finish your hike.”
“I’m not hiking.” She settled her federal-agent gaze on Devin. “Did you spend the night up here? With Nora?”
He wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist, smearing dirt and sweat. “Why? She hasn’t done anything to upset the Secret Service, has she?”
“Have you seen her?”
“Yes, you have.”
“Technically, no, I haven’t. And it doesn’t matter. She wants to be alone.” Devin got unsteadily to his feet, groaning in pain, but shaking off any help from Elijah. “She didn’t tell me that. As I said, I never saw her. But she’s okay. She’s just getting away from everyone. Me, included.”
“How do you know if you didn’t speak to her?” Jo asked sharply.
“I just do.” Devin stared at the water and shivered once. “I followed her last night and camped nearby. I’m not sure she even knew I was there. She was gone when I woke up.”
“Then you weren’t invited—”
“I’m getting out of here. I don’t have to answer any more of your questions.”
He took a couple of steps up the hillside, limping. Elijah hoisted his backpack on his shoulder. “Let’s get your pack,” he said, falling in behind Devin.
“I’ll get it later.” He stumbled and yelled, swearing, then continued up the hill.
“He’s hurt,” Jo said tightly behind Elijah. “And he’s got attitude.”
Elijah glanced down at her, noted her mix of concern and irritation. “Pain will do that,” he said. “I’ll find out what I can. Meantime, you should come with me back to the lodge. You don’t need to be out here alone and run the risk of having to be rescued yourself.”
If she wanted to argue with him, she didn’t. “I’ll check the campsite and see if I can pick up Nora’s trail.” She scrutinized him a moment. “I’m not missing anything, am I? You didn’t come up here last night, did you?”
“Nope.” He adjusted his pack. “I stayed in my toasty-warm bed thinking about you a couple hundred yards away in your toasty-warm bed.”
“My bed wasn’t warm.” But she obviously regretted her words as soon as they were out of her mouth. “Never mind. Can you get Devin back to the lodge by yourself?”
“Yes, but I’d rather you came with us.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“What about Rigby? Any idea what he’s up to?”
“None. He could be on a different mountain altogether, or sitting in town drinking coffee. I’ll have a look around and meet you back at the lodge. I have my cell phone, Elijah. It should work out here. I’m wasting time.”
He didn’t know why he felt such a protective impulse toward her. It’d happened that morning, too, when he’d spotted Rigby at her place.
It wasn’t as if Jo Harper couldn’t take care of herself.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and fell in beside Devin.
When they reached his truck, Elijah yanked open the passenger door, grabbed Devin around the waist and heaved him up onto the seat. Not that he appreciated the help. “I could have done it,” he said, sullen now.
Elijah ignored him and went around to the driver’s side. Devin had managed the few easier stretches of the trail down to the lane with little difficulty. On the steeper sections, he moaned, swore, complained—as if that gave him energy—and yet refused any assistance. When he stumbled, Elijah steadied him as best he could and let go.
“I can drive my own truck.”
“You’re not driving your truck,” Elijah said.
Five minutes later, he pulled into the lodge and parked as close to the shop as he could. Devin was out of the truck, stumbling for the walk, before Elijah had a chance to get the key out of the ignition.