Authors: Alysia S. Knight
“Are we okay for water?” She accepted it gratefully.
“It’s okay, Doc. I’ll filter more when we get to the next stream.”
“Oh.” Marley shifted, brushing away the moisture that sat on her lashes.
“Sit down and rest, while you can.” He pointed to a downed tree, and she settled on it.
“Are you going to rest?”
He sat not far from her. “For a minute. I want to backtrack and check our trail.”
Marley felt steadier now that she had something in her stomach. “You think they’re still following us?”
“I won’t bet against it.”
Silence fell between them.
“Zan, what is the plan? I should have asked it earlier, but everything was a bit much, and it was a relief just to lay it on you.”
“We’re heading for town. I think I mentioned that. It’s about another twelve miles, but I think we can make it there by tonight. Then we’ll get some transportation and try to contact General Gallup. They’ll make arrangements where to take you, so they can keep you safe while everything is being investigated. Main thing is, they’ll be able to stop the immediate distribution of the drug.”
Marley felt a chill go down her back.
Zan must’ve picked it up because he leaned forward placing a hand over hers. “It’s going to be all right.”
“How? I’m destroying my company. We really are doing a lot of good, but all those men died.”
“I doubt your whole company is involved. You weren’t, were you?”
Marley realized he had never asked her before. “I did some work in the early phase, but I was kicked off the team.” She paused. “That makes me s-sound bitter. But it was-sn’t lik-ke that.” She took a deep breath to steady the flow of her words. “Sometimes they would pull in others to help run tests, but you really aren’t on the team, just extra hands. I haven’t had any direct involvement with Gladiator for over a year. Though Dr. Hymas, who’s the director over the program asked me yesterday, right after I found the information, if I was interested in taking Dr. Bone’s place. Dr. Bone’s who sent me the in-nformation, who d-died in the fire last week.”
Marley didn’t realize she stumbled over the words or gripped Zan’s fingers as she was talking. “They killed him, and I think they k-killed the Seavers.”
“We’ll stop them.” He tightened his fingers on hers then released them. “I better check the trail. Wait here.”
Marley watched him disappear into the woods, feeling again like the load on her lightened. She really wasn’t alone. With Zan helping her, she really could do this.
Two hours later, when she looked at the swollen river, she really wasn’t sure she could cross it. They had paralleled the river for almost a mile, and this was their only chance to cross. They had tried to go farther upstream, but there was a cliff blocking their way that Zan decided was too difficult a climb and not worth the risk. So they came back to the tree. Marley wasn’t sure it was any less risky. The downed tree was only about four inches around and hung just barely over the current.
As if reading her thoughts, Zan spoke from beside her. “Don’t worry. I’ll go first and tie off a rope, so you’ll have something to hold on to,” Zan said with confidence, but Marley could tell the way he stepped up on the log, he was concerned.
There were none of the quick easy movements with which he had crossed the log before. He edged his foot out, testing before he moved his weight on it. He was only about a third of the way across when Marley caught her breath. The log began to sag. Another step and it dipped to only a few inches above the water.
Zan eased forward, and Marley had to fight to keep back a cry as the log shifted. Zan teetered, and, for a second, she thought he’d fall. He caught his balance and steadied himself.
Water lapped over the log, covering the toes of his boots. She knew it had to be slippery under his feet. Still, he moved forward. Marley raised her hand, covering her mouth to keep from crying out and distracting him. What she wanted to do was cover her eyes, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
She reached for him when he wobbled, though a good ten feet separated them. Marley tried to reassure herself if he fell in at least he had the rope tied on him that was attached to the tree behind her. It didn’t help much as she pictured him driven into the jagged rocks pushing up through the raging water.
Miraculously, Zan somehow kept his balance. Two more feet and the log got a little wider and no longer dipped into the water. Marley wanted to sigh, but it wasn’t over yet. A four-foot long, broken branch jutted almost straight up in the air. It afforded Zan a handhold, but it also meant he had to maneuver around it.
Zan got one foot on the other side when the log shifted again. Zan pitched over. For an instant, it looked like he’d go into the water. He dropped, but somehow, he managed to come down with one knee on the log and gripping the branch, which kept him from going into the river.
“I’m okay,” he assured her after a minute, slowly pulling himself up, bringing his other leg around the branch. He stepped out, still keeping his hold on the branch, then releasing it, and took two long strides covering the last of the distance in a leap.
Marley almost dropped to the ground in relief.
“Okay, Marley, it’s your turn.”
She started to shake her head. “I-I d-don’t think I c-can.” Her fear made her stuttering come back with a vengeance.
“Yes you can. Look at me, Marley. Yes, you can,” he repeated deliberately slow. “I’m going to tie this rope high on this tree, like I did on the one on that side. It will make it so you’ll have to reach up above your head for the rope. I want you to take the short piece of rope we used earlier to tether us together while climbing. It’s in your jacket pocket. I want you to grab the end and tie it around your waist like I showed you.”
“A b-bowline.” She concentrated on his words.
“Yes. Can you remember how?”
“I think so.” Her hands trembled as she pulled out the rope, but she refused to appear totally helpless in front of him. Wrapping the rope around her waist, then with the end of the rope in her right hand, and her left holding out the other end, she crossed her right hand over, wrapping the rope over her hand.
“Yes, that’s it.” Zan directed her. “Now pull it down through. Perfect. Now, we’re going to tie it over the other rope, but we’re going to leave a loop at the top so it will slide over the rope. I’ll walk you through it. What we are doing is making a bow-line that is not around you.” It took her two tries but she got it.
“Good, now step up on the log then reach up and grab the rope.”
“Zan.” There was no keeping back the fear.
“You can do it. You can’t fall because you’re tied on.”
Marley closed her eyes trying to block out the raging water, and steady her nerves. She could do this, she thought to herself. When she opened her eyes, she looked directly at Zan. There was confidence in him and anxiousness. She knew if she didn’t cross, he would come back for her, and she didn’t want that.
She placed a jogging shoe clad foot on the log and, with a deep breath, stepped up.
“That’s my girl.”
Marley heard the endearment and knew he probably used it on purpose, but she took it to heart. The words warmed her within, and she took a step out onto the log. She wobbled slightly, but with the rope to hang onto, she moved much quicker than he had.
With her lesser weight she was almost halfway across before the log began to dip. Unfortunately, though it remained above the water, it was slippery from Zan’s crossing. Marley slowed her pace. Carefully, she placed her foot squarely in the middle and made sure she was steady before shifting the rope.
All the while Zan kept up his encouraging banter and instruction. She was moving smoothly with more confidence when she reached where the branch jutted out. Fortunately, it now tilted off at a ninety degree angle, making it easy to get her lead foot around it. She clung to the rope, letting it take more of her weight, but it remained firm. Slowly, she drew her back leg forward around the branch when the rough bark snagged her shoe lace.
Marley jerked and stumbled. The shoelace came free, but the log shifted again. Marley fought for balance and just regained it when the log dropped from under her feet.
Pain spiked up through her arms. Her outcry was echoed by Zan calling her name.
Marley clung to the rope dangling over the river. The rope quivered and sagged but held. Marley stared down at the tumultuous water boiling barely beneath her toes.
“Marley, look at me,” Zan demanded.
She tore her gaze away from the water. He was at the edge of the bank, leaning out toward her. His arm outstretched but still at least two feet short of reaching her. She glanced back down at the water.
“Look at me,” he yelled, pulling her gaze back to him. “You’re not going to fall, but I can’t reach you.” His voice was low, calm, reassuring. “I need you to swing a little closer. Work your legs back and forth. Just like on a swing.”
Marley followed him. It took a second to gain any movement. Zan grabbed the rope above him and pulled down so it was lower toward him. As she swung, the line she was holding onto jerked and slid along the rope.
“Good, again. A little closer,” Zan directed.
Marley was so focused on her movements and the action on the rope that when Zan caught her around the waist and pulled her into his arms, she cried out, tightening her hold on the rope.
“I have you.” He growled the words out against her neck.
Marley felt his hot breath on her fear-chilled skin. Releasing the rope, she sagged down in his arms, her own arms locked around his neck, her toes not even touching the ground.
“I have you,” he repeated the words, followed by his lips brushing against her skin.
A shiver ran through her that had nothing to do with her fear of falling but all with the man holding her. He let her slide lower until her feet touched the ground but didn’t release her. His hands stroked up and down her back.
Marley went limp, absorbing the feel of him, warm and safe. With her head resting on his chest, she could hear the pounding of his heart. It was a nice beat. She relaxed more, studying the feel of him.
The strap from the pack was rough against her cheek. She wanted to push it away. Instead she shifted her head, rubbing her cheek over an area where just his shirt covered the hard muscle underneath. Marley sighed.
“Hey, are you going to sleep on me.” His voice rumbled down to her.
She shook her head, rubbing her cheek against him again in the process. “No, you just feel really good.” She gave a little half laugh, feeling happy to be alive and in Zan’s arms. Marley really couldn’t believe it. She shivered again feeling his hand slide up her back and over her shoulder to cup her cheek, tilting her face up.
His eyes blazed fierce in streaks of cool blue lightening. “You keep saying things like that, and you are going to get yourself into trouble.”
“I’ve never said anything like that before. I usually keep my mouth shut so I don’t look stupid, stumbling over my words.”
The thought of her looking stupid took Zan by surprise. The idea was so absurd it made him smile. Her next words shook him more.
“I don’t feel awkward talking to you.” She looked up at him with such confused earnestness on her face, he knew it was true. Something inside him soared. His breath caught. Unable to stop the motion, he lowered his mouth to hers.
Her lips parted under his gentle pressure, following him into the kiss. He felt the softness of her hair as he buried his fingers in it, holding her head steady for his assault of pleasure. The kiss went on for a full minute before his logic finally forced its way forward enough to remind him of the situation and where they were.
Slowly, he broke the kiss, placing a few smaller brushes of his mouth along her cheek and a last one on her forehead before pulling back. He held her tight a minute more waiting for his breath to steady and giving her time to gain her own composure.
When he stepped back, he looked down, examining her. Her lips were moist, swollen, and a deeper shade of red than normal from his attention. She looked slightly dazed he thought with satisfaction.
Good, because she kept blowing all his sensors.
She took in a deep breath. “Yes.”
“Good. I want to get moving away from the river. Up over that ridge we can stop and get something to eat.” He glanced back at the river. “Well, you saved me from having to work the log free and dumping it in the water so no one else can cross it. That should buy us some time and distance before they pick up our trail.”
He had Marley sit down and rest while he took two minutes to release the rope, roll it back up and stow it away.
“Ready?” He turned toward her.
They were off again, climbing over rocks until the ground evened off. It was a good two mile hike through the valley before they headed up over the next ridge. Luckily, the sky remained clear and the temperature cool, so they made good time. Zan backtracked several times but couldn’t see any signs of being followed. For now, they’d lost their pursuers. Crossing the river had gained them some time.
They were deep in the trees when they came upon a small glade.
“Let’s take a break,” Zan announced, turning in time to see Marley stagger slightly.
“I’m okay,” Marley said automatically, straightening her shoulders.
Zan almost smiled at the picture she made. She was exhausted, but still, she hadn’t once complained. “Yeah, but we need to keep up our strength,” he said, pulling off his pack.
She just collapsed on a rock, sighing in relief. “So what’s for dinner?”
“I was thinking Chicken Tetrazzini.”
“What?” She laughed.
“Chicken Tetra-,” he started to repeat but she cut him off.
“Nope.” He tossed her a packet.
She caught it. “What’s this?”
Her face showed confusion.
“An MRE, that’s meals ready to eat. This one’s really pretty good, at least, compared to some of the others. Believe me. You don’t want to know some of their nicknames.”
“Really, what?” She kept looking at him with an openly curious expression.
“Okay, the best one’s probably ‘four fingers of death’. That’s the frankfurters. But the one I really didn’t want to eat was the cheese omelet. It is not on our menu. There were times that I chose to starve before I ate it. And I tell you, when you’re in a real miserable place, with guns shooting at you, you’d be surprised how good these taste.”
As soon as it was out, he wanted to take the last sentence back. He was relieved when Marley changed the subject.
“So what else is on the menu?”
“Tonight, if we don’t make it to town, is jambalaya. It’s another good one. We have chicken and dumplings for tomorrow. Then things get a little rougher, but we have energy bars to help.” He looked down at the food packets he’d been fixing and handed one to her.
“Eat up, Doc.”
Marley sighed contently as the food filled her stomach. “Oh, yes.” A few minutes later she finished it off with another sigh. “That was good.”
“Hey, only the best when I take a lady out.” Zan tried to put some mock indignation in his tone. It must have worked because Marley grinned over at him.
“Are you s-saying this is a date?”
“A man’s got to take what he gets. This is the closest thing I’ve had to a date for a while.”
“I f-find that hard to b-believe.” She grimaced when she stumbled over the words.
“Believe it. I’ve only been out a couple of months and have been pretty focused on fixing up my house.” He didn’t add recovering from being shot. Danger was something he didn’t want to bring up in this peaceful setting, but Marley broached the subject anyway.
“I’m s-sorry about your house. Do all your dates put your life in jeopardy, get your door broken and windows blown out?”
“Well, you’re not boring.”
“Actually, I really am.”
“No.” He cut her off. “Don’t ever think that. I said it before and I mean it. I find you beautiful and amazing.” His sincerity brought heat into his eyes, and Marley blushed.
She looked down, fiddling with the small packet of crackers from her meal. After a minute, she spoke up. “How far to town?”
“Five, six miles. It’s late but I still think we can make it tonight.”
“I’ll see about getting us a car.”
She looked horrified. “Steal one?”
“Not unless I have to. That’s kind of illegal, and I’d really rather not go to jail in the near future, or distant for that matter.”
“Sorry. I th-think this has me a little rattled.”
“It’s understandable,” Zan said easily. “I was thinking more of buying a non-descript clunker if I can find one that runs well.”
“I don’t think it’s safe to go to a bank.”
“You’re right. No cards either.”
“You have enough cash on you?” Shock showed on her face.
She was so easy to read. No wonder the men after her knew she was hiding information. He’d like to get her in a poker game sometime.
“I always keep some for emergencies and I had some extra to pay a couple boys from town that had been helping me clear some wood. They just haven’t gotten over for me to pay them yet.”
“I’ll reimburse you when this is over.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“That wouldn’t be right. I’ll never be able to make up for what you’ve done for me as it is. I can’t have you out money besides.”
Zan noticed she made it through without stumbling on any words. “I’m thinking we can work something out on the line of you cooking me some gourmet meals.” Again he let fire fill his eyes. He knew Marley picked it up because her cheeks colored.
“I-I-I think,” she swallowed, “I c-could do that. After a-all, I’ll be out of a j-job.
He hated to see her struggle and knew it embarrassed her, but she was so adorable, so flustered. The urge to kiss her again crested over him, but he pushed it away. “Looks like my social life is looking up.” When her blush deepened, he stood to keep from reaching for her. “We’d better get going.”
They cut over two small hills then met up again with the river, following it. The sound of rushing water masked out all but a few birds and squirrels that let out shrill cries of alarm as they approached. It was beautiful and peaceful then the sound of the water grew to a roar as they rounded the next bend.
“Oh, wow.” Marley exclaimed as they reached where the water dropped twenty to thirty feet. A rainbow slashed across the mist. “It’s beautiful.” She breathed in deeply, taking pleasure in the sight.
Zan smiled back at her, pausing about six feet in front of her. “You like waterfalls?”
“Oh, yes. Love them. There is just something about them.” She let it hang.
“I agree. There’s a couple north of here that I will have to take you to sometime.”
Marley was surprised how easy the comment came from him. As if he already put them together in the future in some kind of permanent basis. She tried to tell herself she was reading more into it but couldn’t hold back the rush of emotion that flowed through her. She was falling in love with Zan.
It didn’t matter that she’d only known him two days, well not even a full two days. He’d slid into a place in her heart that no man had ever touched. “I’d like−”
The sharp crack of a gunshot echoed through the canyon, cutting her off.
Zan jerked, spun to the side then dropped over the edge of the embankment. One instant he was there, the next he was gone.