Authors: Catherine Mann
A tic flicked the corner of his eye. His hands fell away. “I can’t leave you out here to die.” He stood, extending a hand. “And believe me, if I go back empty-handed, there will be search teams.”
She clasped his fingers and rose slowly until she stood in front of him. “Tell them you found a bear, not a person.”
“There aren’t any bears up this high. I do not lie.” He squeezed her hand lightly, purposefully. “And I really hate it when anyone lies to me.”
He was a second away from insisting on answers. She knew it. Could see it in his dark, demanding eyes. Answers she wouldn’t—couldn’t—give him. But how could she keep those words from falling from his mouth when it was just the two of them out here alone together?
A tempting possibility tickled at the back of her brain, a way of shutting him up right here and now. There was no chance their worlds would cross again. No chance she would ever know how things might have been had he simply walked into her life one day, asking to take a tour around the terrain, maybe even flirting a little. Things weren’t that simple for her.
And suddenly she was certain of exactly how to distract him. At least for a few minutes.
One kiss, to silence his questions and answer one of her own. This was her one chance to know if the attraction was real.
And hopefully for her peace of mind, the kiss would suck.
What the hell?
Wade stood stunned with Sunny’s mouth pressed to his. But surprise shifted fast to hardcore need. He pulled away, only an inch, but enough to see her, to figure out what kind of crazy getaway plan she had in mind now, even when there wasn’t a chance in hell she could scale her way out of here without him right there with her.
She looked up at him with wide hazel eyes that should have been vulnerable, scared, or even angry. But instead stared back at him with an answering heat that felt so damned good as it radiated from her and into him.
It could be a ploy. But she was damn willing. He was at his wits’ end and she wasn’t going anywhere. He had nothing to lose by caving in to a need that had ridden him hard all night.
Wade sealed his mouth to hers again.
His arms locked around her and he clamped her close, near enough to feel the generous swell of her breasts under the parka. Her leg was wedged between his and he shouldn’t be able to feel jack with so many layers between them. Shouldn’t. But could.
Her thigh pressed right against his swelling erection. Damned inconvenient time to get turned on. Really turned on. Arousal fed off the adrenaline pumping through him, devouring like a parched beast falling into an oasis.
He angled his mouth over hers, his tongue plunging deeper, tasting, stroking, stoking need higher and hotter. Her braid brushed against the back of his hand. He clasped the thick mass and wrapped it round and round his hand, binding them closer together as they stumbled back against the ice wall.
She tasted like peanut butter, crisp snow, and pure sex. Her tongue touched his without hesitation, met and thrust. He searched her mouth as she battled to explore his first. She kissed the same way she did everything else, with energy and confidence.
Her gloved hands pressed his head for a fuller meeting, then grasped at his shoulders, and God, he wanted to feel her bare fingers on his skin. Yeah, this was crazy and he was going on fumes after yesterday’s training mission then parachute rescue, followed by a long night sharing a blanket with Sunny, nearly naked. This was a more twisted and demanding exercise than even crazy-ass Major McCabe could come up with.
Images of Sunny’s mile-long legs walked through his memory, reminding him of just how wild she’d driven him, stripping last night. The back of his eyelids were hazy pale pink with the image of her thermals, which molded to her body and hinted at flesh tones. Legs and curves and breasts, every inch of her was right there for him to taste.
He wanted to blame the mountain air for this insanity, but he knew full well what he was doing and he wanted more. Which was impossible for about ten reasons right off the top of his head, starting with the layers of clothes and their location. He wasn’t a monk by any means, but he’d been a while without sex and the grinding need to be inside her broadsided him.
Then reason whispered through the sex-crazed fog. She had to be setting him up. The passion wasn’t real—not for her anyway. She must be using her body to get something from him one way or another. If not at this moment, then to lure him into a false sense of security for when they climbed out.
His mouth stilled against hers and he eased away, just an inch, enough to see her without levering off her body in the narrow mountain gully. She stared back at him with what looked like confusion, but he knew better than to trust her. Everything she said and did was part of some game to hide a deeper agenda.
The uncertainty on her face, real or faked, faded. As determined as she was, she might even try to knock him out. Or worse.
The possibility that she might actually try to kill him splashed cold water all over his libido.
He locked her wrists with his hands to keep her still until he could clear his mind enough to think logically. Except he slowly realized she wasn’t moving after all. Her whole body was stock-still, her eyes wide as she gawked past his shoulder. Her confusion had turned to something that looked a helluva lot like horror as she kept her eyes averted, staring down. Yeah, he was pretty upset at himself too.
Except something about the way she peered downward made him want to look too. Was this another trick? He firmed his hold on her wrists. Warily, he tracked her gaze to the patch of slushy earth beside his boot.
A dead face stared back at him through the ice.
Horror raked up her throat as dead eyes peered at her through a thin sheet of ice and snow. Not just any eyes. Madison’s eyes. The woman she’d escorted through the pass just yesterday.
She clasped her throat, right where the gash gaped across Madison’s severed carotid. The dead woman’s blonde hair fanned around her. The fatal wound was outlined in crystallized drops of frozen blood, as if rusty red tears wept from her neck.
The screams kept coming and she couldn’t make them stop even as each panicked
wheeze froze in her lungs. Wade clamped a hand over her mouth just as he’d covered her lips with his moments ago in that unwise, out-of-control kiss.
Oh God, they’d been kissing beside a dead body. Nausea gagged her.
“Careful,” he said softly, urgently. “Too much noise could cause an avalanche.”
His whispered warning launched hysteria at the possibility of being buried alive—with Madison.
What had happened? Where was Ted? And the sheriff’s deputy? Questions dog-piled
inside her, shredding through her already raw emotions with vicious teeth.
Her brain went into hyperdrive. Ted and Madison must have been caught in the storm too. Although very clearly she’d been murdered. By whom? A squatter? And where were Ted and the deputy?
God, if she’d thought to look for Ted and Madison the minute the storm started, maybe she would have found her before this.
Or she could be right there under the ice, waxy and dead just like her friend.
Hysteria bubbled until her cries gurgled, much like Madison must have choked on her own blood.
“Sunny? It’s okay,” he continued softly, sliding his arm around her shoulders. “It’s all right. I know the first time you see a dead body it’s scary as hell. I wish I could say it gets better, but it doesn’t. You just learn to hold back the reaction until the crisis passes. And we need to do that now. We need to function so we can get out of here.”
She forced herself to take slow, even breaths, to push cold oxygen and reason to her stunned brain. “Okay. I hear you.”
“Good, now we have to get out of here and make our way to a better pickup zone so my team can bring us in. Then we can notify the authorities about this person so they can work on an ID and notifying the family.”
He didn’t realize she knew Madison. Her secret was safe for a while longer… Except she needed to know about Ted and the deputy, no matter the cost. “What if there’s someone with her? Shouldn’t we look around?”
“On the off chance? Even though a rescue team could get us out of here, it’s a volatile place to hang out.” He looked at the frozen face, then around the narrow crevasse about twenty feet from the edge above. “She was probably with the original group we rescued. They were so disoriented when we rescued them we never could get a solid count as to whether it was four climbers and a guide, or four people total.”
He squinted up toward the horizon, his face alert. “And if that’s the case, then we need to be careful, because there’s a murderer out there somewhere.”
Her teeth started to chatter from the cold and fear. The fall too, maybe. But her body was definitely going into shock.
He squeezed her shoulder. For comfort? More likely to make sure she couldn’t get away.
“Come on. She’s not going anywhere, and we need to think smart.”
She couldn’t hide or play word games anymore. Not with Ted’s life at stake. “I know her.
She’s not with the other team, and she must have been murdered recently. Sometime after yesterday morning.” She swallowed hard. “I do guide work and I was out helping her meet up with another, uh, guide today. She had a partner, Ted.”
Her voice cracked with emotion. Damn it, she was stronger than this. But the exhaustion, the horror of seeing Madison, thinking of her friend’s dream to attend college, remembering how she’d always made homemade granola for the whole community at Christmas… It was all too much.
Wade stared into her eyes for four toe-numbing seconds—deciding if she was a party to this horror?—before shaking his head. “Right. You’re good at making crap up, but I’m not letting you run again. If there’s someone else out there, then my team can track him.”
“But what about Ted? The deputy?”
“My first priority is to get you out of here alive. Now let’s go.” He pulled a knife from his boot and began carving a toehold out of the ice.
“I’m not a child.”
“I noticed,” he said, then continued without missing a beat. “We need to haul our asses back up out of this gorge. Are you going to help me dig out some handholds or not?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” She pulled out her survival knife.
His curse stopped her. “What?”
He slapped a hand against the ice, his shoulders braced in resignation as he looked down, giving her only a scant second’s warning before he said, “I think I just found Ted.”
Misty sat cross-legged in front of the computer screen at Sunny’s place, wondering how long it would be before she could email with Madison or Ted. The computer booted up—God love the hydropower from the volcanic hot springs that generated electricity whenever the solar panels were drained due to longer nights.
Internet access wasn’t widespread around here. Satellite connections could be iffy, depending on the weather. But thanks to a deal Sunny had cut with the sheriff’s office, they had Internet at her business and at the library that also served as the school. On the rare occasion when there was some kind of hookup or membership fee or info required, Deputy Smith helped them out. He was a good guy that way.
Since her older sister was running behind, their brother had opened today, and he would rather work out than play on the Internet. Which left Misty free to use one of the two computers tucked by the snack counter that served muffins and granola.
The bright gym full of windows was just coming to life with the early-morning crowd.
The metal grate was still rolled down in front of the juice bar, but the Everett twins—Flynn and Ryker—lumbered out of the locker room without speaking, ready to pump iron after their early start running snowplows.
Over on the small stage, Lindsay, the substitute aerobics instructor, toyed with the sound system, increasing the bass reverb until the floor buzzed under Misty’s feet. Lindsay—a former classmate—was also a first-year art teacher at the village school who taught first grade all the way through to twelfth. And as if that wasn’t enough, she was four months pregnant with her first baby by the younger Everett twin. Lindsay’s life was moving forward, while Misty’s stagnated.
She spun her seat back toward the computer, away from Lindsay’s growing tummy.
Still no messages on the computer. Bummed, she tugged at her purple hemp sweater, wrapping it closer around her in the chilly gym. It was probably too early to expect anything from Madison, but Misty couldn’t help watching, wondering, hungry for anything about how someone from here would adapt to the world outside. A world she would be joining soon.
Madison had promised to update her, even send photos of their new place once they got settled. When community members left, they always sent messages at first, but the notes faded away over time as they got wrapped up in their busy new lives.
She wouldn’t be that way, though, once she left. Even if she couldn’t come back, she had to hear about her family’s lives and she hoped they would want to know about hers. She would never stop praying that they would join her.
Or at least understand her reasons for leaving.
The cursor blinked on the computer screen. Still no new messages in her mailbox. It would probably be a while before they got their place set up, but they’d promised she could stay with them. Ted’s family had money. They would be so happy to have him back in the family fold, they would probably do anything he asked.
She resisted the urge to cross her fingers under the table. She was an adult now, for crying out loud. Twenty-two years old last week. Able to go out on her own.
It was rare to have community members leave twice in a week. For the most part, people were happy here. Decisions to live off-the-grid didn’t come lightly. There was a lot of preparation to do ahead of time, things to learn. Although in her case, she’d been a kid.
So there was a whole other aspect of facing the unknown beyond their mountain valley.