Right up until she stepped out of her car at the trailhead, Melody would have said she was ready to hike again. Maybe if she was going with a friend for a picnic, she would be. Being a volunteer victim for Phoenix Rise Search and Rescue’s annual training exercises, however, was overshooting her readiness. She knew that now. She couldn’t brush aside her fears when they were staring right at her in the form of a sea of red jackets emblazoned with the SAR company’s logo.
She stood at the fringes of the volunteer group, too nervous to chatter with the others. They were so much more relaxed than she, for one thing. For another, she didn’t want to run the risk of running into anyone who remembered Scott.
It had been four years already, and though time had eased the deepest ache, she still couldn’t think of him without feeling a pang in her chest. She met him on a hike. He was a friend of her friend, Misty’s, boyfriend. Reggie and Misty thought the two might hit it off. Their hike turned into a double date that ended with dinner and drinks. When he asked for her number, she’d given it freely, full of the sort of excitement that only came from new infatuation.
Hiking became a staple date for them, as did dinners afterward or, if it were an early hike, a browse through a farmer’s market to pick up breakfast ingredients. Scott Grainger was the first man she’d dated who didn’t dismiss her fledgling photography business as a hobby she hoped to make money from. She admired his enthusiasm for search and rescue operations. Though he was only a volunteer, he’d been working toward making it a career.
They’d been dating for seven months when he’d proposed to her. The next day, he’d gone on a hike and climb with several friends…his version, he said, of a bachelor party. She’d had an outdoor wedding shoot and couldn’t join them. Would things have ended any differently if she had?
Melody would never know. He’d fallen to his death. She still wasn’t sure she had all the details. He’d been surefooted and cautious as a hiker. He didn’t mess around or take unnecessary risks. He wasn’t into doing dangerous climbs only for the sake of great footage like some of his friends. Scott didn’t even own a camera harness. The three guys he was with had spotty information at best. They’d reached the challenging part of the climb, harnesses on, and no one had seen the exact moment of the failure. They’d heard a cry, and they’d seen him fall. No one knew exactly how it had happened.
She’d never been a mountain climber, but she’d stopped even hiking for nearly a year. Being anywhere in nature hurt too much. It was the unanswered questions that killed her, the not knowing exactly how it happened. Why it happened. She wasn’t afraid to hike. She knew the kind of climbing Scott did was risky. Risks could be managed, but they were still risks. It wasn’t fear that kept her off the trails. She didn’t want to hike, not without Scott. Misty pressed her, though, and got her hiking again last year for a charity event.
Getting back to it felt like a victory. She remembered why she loved getting outdoors, pushing her body. Hiking with Misty and some other friends brought sunshine back into her life that she hadn’t known she was missing.
This felt different. This SAR event felt…wrong. Dark. Sad. The weight that had left the center of her chest returned with a vengeance.
Melody blinked and found a young guy in a red jacket before her with a clipboard.
“Sorry?” she asked, jolted out of her memories.
“Holm, Holm,” the volunteer said, skimming the page with a pen. “Got it.” He pulled a small plastic storage bag from a pouch at his waist. “Here’s your scenario. If you have questions before starting, flag me down. Otherwise, report to that guy there, the one with the yellow band on his sleeve, and he’ll mark you down as starting your hike.”
She nodded. She’d been on three similar exercises with Scott. They were mostly the same. You were told where to hike (within a few miles radius) and what characteristics you would play for the volunteers who were searching for you. Sometimes you were just lost. Other times, you pretended to be injured. The scenarios could be quite creative. One woman in a prior group she’d been out with had been instructed that her character was deaf and was only allowed to respond to visual cues such as beams of light, though if she spotted her rescuers, she was allowed to shout out. The SAR organization didn’t make it easy on their staff or their volunteers. The exercise wasn’t fun and games. It was serious business, and it was to be “played” as if it were real.
This one was easy, she discovered as she pulled the short slip out of the bag. Her intake form, filled out online a week ago, had listed her occupation as a freelance photographer. Her instructions were to report to the exercise leader for drop off by ATV. Once she was driven out to her starting location, she was to hike between 3 and 5 miles—her choice—in a northeasterly direction and to drop her camera bag somewhere close to her final location before continuing for at least another several hundred feet. She was to sit down and wait for a rescuer or group of rescuers. If she heard her name, she was to call out in return. She would declare only a sprained ankle.
As scenarios went, hers was simple. Easy. And still the heaviness in her chest remained. Her legs felt a bit rubbery as she walked to the ATV and settled herself behind the driver. Her arms felt heavy as she put on the helmet. Heavier still as she circled his waist for the quick ride to her starting point, the sound of similar vehicles doing the same with other hikers reminding her she would not actually be alone. Not truly. Still her heart hammered and ached. Scott wouldn’t be her rescuer this time. Never again.
Why had she agreed to this?
And then the ATV drove off and left her at the starting point, its driver promising her they had her location noted.
“Don’t forget me,” she called nervously after him. He held up a hand to show he’d heard her but kept going.
You can do this.
Her feet, however, disagreed. It took several long minutes to convince herself to move. Thankfully, once she’d been walking for about a half hour, her anxiety began to subside as she grew distracted by the beauty of the area. It was the reason she’d chosen to pursue photography as a career to begin with. She could lose herself in the smallest details for hours at a time, peering endlessly through the lens until everything looked perfect. She’d ease herself back from that little window sometimes hours later, surprised at how the time had passed without her notice.
By heading northeast on the murky-at-best trail she’d been hiking, she drew parallel to a ridge. Photo opportunities were abundant along the edge of the ridge. From handsome rock formations to the forested valley below, she lost herself with her camera. A glint of water even had her hurrying along, nearly forgetting to check her pedometer for how far she’d gone. Zooming in to get images along what appeared to be a creek or narrow river below, she nearly exhausted her hike parameters.
She dropped her camera bag at the base of a tree that stretched out like an ancient yogi over a clearing in the valley below. Though it was officially summer, the north country had gotten unseasonably cool weather and abundant rain all through late May. As a result, even now in late June wildflowers bloomed riotously below, all along the banks of what she’d decided looked more like a creek than a river.
“God,” she breathed, creeping forward to peer over the edge, aiming her camera downward. A bit unsteady in the tangle of large roots and needle covered earth at the base of the tree, Melody reached out to regain her footing. Instead, she felt a shifting underfoot. With a cry, she made a frantic grab at the rough trunk, fingertips scraped and burning as she missed and pitched forward.
And went right over the edge into the unknown below.
There were few things better than a solitary hike through the forest, even if the reason for the hike was a search and rescue training exercise. The smell of pine needles and an approaching storm, the crunch of tree debris and loose pebbles underfoot, the crisp, cool breeze...Parker didn’t realize how much he’d missed the actual search and rescue part of his job until he went out on an exercise. Even though his walk wasn’t strictly for pleasure, Parker took plenty from it. Getting out of the city was always nice, for one, and getting out of Phoenix in late June was better still, if only for one night.
He wondered again why he’d let himself become a paper pusher, handling more and more of the administrative and fundraising work and less and less of the hands-on stuff. It wasn’t entirely by necessity, though that was part of it.
It was Lexy.
Parker’s mood took a serious dip, the way it did whenever he let himself think about her.
Lexy Ebben. They’d met at Mud Run, a muddy obstacle course and run event. They’d exchanged friendly barbs and then encouragements as each grew tired toward the end of the event. He found his second wind as Lexy goaded him. The attraction had been instant and hellishly strong on both sides. She was a sporting goods store division manager, working her way up the ladder with an eye for a VP spot. She admired his ambition and the fact that he’d co-owned his own search and rescue support company, Phoenix Rise SARS, from a relatively young age. When his SUV wouldn’t start after the race, she offered him use of her bathroom to clean up.
The offer turned into a hot, laughing grope session under the spray of her walk-in shower followed by two days of equally hot, heartily lustful sex in every room of her house. They became one of those couples that made others sick. Embarrassingly brazen PDA and silly nicknames, the whole nine yards. He couldn’t get enough of her body, but he also loved her mind. He could talk to her for hours and not run out of things he wanted to know about her: her plans, her dreams, and her view of the world. He proposed right before they hit the one-year mark. Lexy, supremely organized and a ruthless negotiator, planned their wedding with minimal input from him, joking that all he needed to do was show up and be his delicious self. Anyone looking in from the outside would think everything was perfect. Hell, even Parker thought it was perfect.
Lexy increasingly complained about his work, which took him away at a moment’s notice to find the lost and endangered. Having sex on the fly, every moment expecting his phone to alert with a search mission of some kind, lost its appeal. She began to encourage him to take more of an active role in the office and less of one “scurrying up Piestewa Peak after stupid people.”
Still, she kept planning the wedding. He continued transferring money to her bank account to help fund it. Flowers, venue, invitations, music, catering, all the usual wedding expenses. Her family’s contributions were minimal. He understood. Her father was undergoing one last desperate round of chemo. The price tag that went with the cancer had effectively destroyed her folks’ savings accounts. Hers was not a large family to begin with. Nor particularly wealthy. Lexy was an only child, as was her father. Her mother had one brother, a guy who could barely rub two nickels together. Parker paid the lion’s share of the wedding expenses, and his beautiful Lexy paid him back with hot sex and shared dreams.
She’d been working on a proposal for a line of special SAR products for her company, ever inspired by his rescue stories while at the same time, trying to convince him to retire to the desk life. Something more predictable, more 9 to 5-ish. Not that her own job was predictable. She’d hop a plane for the company headquarters on a day’s notice and be gone for a week, then complain that he wasn’t able to meet her plane with less than an hour’s notice.
Six days before the wedding, mere minutes after one of their mini-marathons (Lexy attacking him as he walked in the door, sweaty and tired from a four-hour search for a missing six-year old on South Mountain), she rolled over, sat up, and said,
“I can’t keep doing this. You have to make a decision.”
“Lex,” he reached for her, still breathing heavily, less than sixty seconds out from orgasm. “I’m working on it.”
He struggled to get his brain cells working again after every ounce of his energy had been spent meeting her passionate pleas for “More! Harder! Now! Now, baby, now!” How she was even able to hold a conversation was beyond him.
She shook her head, tossing her legs over the side of the bed. “Nope. That’s not good enough, Parker. I’m not going to be Mrs. Myers, the woman who’s always wondering when her husband is going to be home. I’m not getting into this bed alone night after night while you monkey around on some mountain. I thought we agreed it was time for you to take a more administrative role in the company.”
“We did. But—”
“No. No buts. Unless,” she flashed him one of her impish smiles, the kind that could get him rock hard all over again, “it’s your butt, and I’m digging my heels into it at a reasonable hour every night after work.”
He fought a grin even as hot needles of irritation poked at him. “Lex, we’ve been over this. I can’t just walk off the job. We’ve got new recruits, but there’s no one senior enough yet to take over the teams.”
“Nope,” she said again, “That’s not good enough. You’ve had plenty of time. We’ve been talking about this or, rather, fighting about this, for at least three months now.”
“Lex,” he said, sitting up, realizing she was serious as she tossed her suitcase on the bed and, in only her thong, began emptying the drawers he’d not so long ago cleaned out specifically for her. “Lex, c’mon, will you wait a second?”
He tried to pull her away from the task, but the fire in her eyes shocked him. He dropped the hands he’d placed on her shoulders as quickly as if she’d burned him.
“No,” she shook her head. “You had every chance, Parker. Clearly, I’m not as important as your work, and that doesn’t work for me. I’m not going to marry a man who doesn’t put me first.”
She’d left him gob smacked and bewildered. How had they gone from explosive sex to her walking out the door in the same evening? What had he missed? Sure, they’d been fighting about his job for several months. Every couple fought. Every couple had their pain points.
He’d told his family about it casually, not believing for a second that he couldn’t patch things up in time for the rehearsal dinner at his family’s restaurant, Phoenix Rise Grill, its namesake borrowed for Parker’s company with his father’s blessing. In fact, he’d waited there for her until after closing, alone, the rest of his family shooting loaded, worried glances at him and each other as he shooed them out, insisting she’d show up if they all left. She’s embarrassed, he insisted. She missed the dinner, and now she’s probably thinking you all hate her. He’d wanted to punch Greer, his filter-free younger brother, when he retorted,
“What makes you think we don’t?”
He’d still been sure she’d come around, even when his mother and his four sisters showed up on his doorstep the next morning, their wedding day, all but wringing their hands, asking if they should cancel the arrangements, see if anyone would be willing to return the deposits.
“No. She’ll be there,” he said firmly. “She’s got cold feet is all.”
His mother tried tough love. “Parker, honey, I don’t think this is doing anyone any good. If she was going to marry you, she’d have returned your calls by now. Do you really want to get left at the altar, son? Is that what you want? In front of everyone?”
He’d met his mother’s eyes. “Of course not. But that’s not what’s going to happen. So, go. Get out of here and over to the church and set up the flowers and decorations like you promised you would. We’ll be there.”
One by one, his brothers also tried to wake him up to the facts, and he’d finally sent a group text that said,
Be there on time, or I will kill you all and enjoy doing it. We. Will. Be. There.
Or he would.
How he’d deluded himself into believing whole-heartedly that Lexy would come around, that she would show up, he still didn’t know. It had been two years now, and he half expected her to show up in his shower to pounce on him in that way of hers. Surprise sex was the best kind, she’d been fond of saying.
Too bad surprising him at the altar—by showing up—hadn’t been in her plans.
He’d lost his mind a little, he knew. He remembered feeling strangely numb while everyone around him fell apart. Not in an obvious way. In fact, he remembered only a similarly strained expression on each face and more of those concerned glances shooting all around the room. He vaguely recalled staring sightlessly toward the double doors that she was supposed to sweep through in the mystery dress he hadn’t seen—tradition and all—making some kind of threat about everyone showing up at the reception hall for the dinner and dancing and cake that he’d paid for if they knew what was good for them. And then he’d driven up to the family cabin he and his brother, Greer, had put the finishing touches on only a few months before, hoping maybe Lexy had gone there to hide, wanting to make up with him but too ashamed to show her face in front of his family.
But he’d arrived to nothing but a dark, empty cabin where he’d finally been forced to admit to himself that she wasn’t going to show up. There would be no late wedding. No idyllic, sex-fueled honeymoon in the mountains. He’d paced the cabin, room to room and up to the loft and down again. Out to the deck, around the perimeter, back up the deck stairs, back inside on a loop until Greer’s pickup and his second youngest brother, Thatcher’s, Jeep swung into view, their headlights blinding him. His three younger brothers—Kearny riding shotgun in the Jeep—eased out of the vehicles and approached him where he stood on the deck as if he were one of the bears that sometimes broke into the seasonal houses in the area. Quietly and with care, as if he might spook and attack at any moment.
He didn’t remember much else about the night. He’d been about four beers in by the time they’d arrived. He didn’t remember much else about the entire week that was supposed to be his honeymoon, actually. He only remembered going back to the SAR offices and pulling himself off of the search end of things, convinced that if he could show Lexy he was doing the 9 to 5 thing like she’d wanted, she’d come back to him and they’d try the whole wedding thing again later.
He couldn’t say for sure when he’d stopped expecting her to show up. Somewhere along the way, he’d dipped his toes back into the search end of things. In the meantime, it was two years later. Today’s exercise was the first refresher training he’d been on in six months.
He shoved thoughts of Lexy aside, turned his focus back on the forest around him. You had to pay attention, look for subtle signs if you wanted to find a missing hiker. How long had he been distracted by the memory of his ex?
He stopped, got his bearings.
Not long, he realized, judging by his watch and the GPS. Like with dreams, a whole lot of wild thoughts could be compressed into mere minutes.
As he actively absorbed more of his environment, Parker’s muscles warmed, losing the knots they’d worked themselves into moments ago. He focused on the way his body felt, walking briskly though the trees, his breath only slightly labored, his heart rate pleasantly elevated. His calves were only starting to feel challenged by the climb. From time to time, he called out the name of his volunteer victim, Melody, and listened to the forest around him for a response.
Parker’s renewed enjoyment was not dampened in the least by the fact that he was on alert for footprints, broken branches, or personal items belonging to his fictional lost hiker. His dedication to the search was as strong as if it were real, but it had been a long and challenging day overall for those participating in the exercise. His team, team four, was on the most challenging search, as theirs was the highest skill level group on the outing. Their signs would be the subtlest. Their scenarios would have the most harrowing twists. Whether it was a matter of distance—how far the hiker had strayed off the expected path—or rough terrain, team four typically took the toughest cases.
His long-range radio squawked.
“Hey, Myers, you getting anything?” Aaron Quick, one of the four other members of his team, asked impatiently.
Parker stopped, figuring it was time for a quick breather, anyway. “Not a damn thing. You?”
“Nope. You suppose Dailey’s messing with us?”
Parker thought of his business partner, Mack Dailey. Though Parker would never suggest that Mack would intentionally put a SAR team in harm’s way or send one on a wild goose chase, he was not above a little temporary misdirection in the name of a challenge. If Mack thought their team, individually or as a whole, was getting lazy or soft, Parker wouldn’t put it past him to tell the volunteer victim to throw a wrench in the search.
“I don’t know,” he answered, “I’m not ruling anything out.”
“Well, we better find her fast. Storm’s coming, and I don’t want to play wet today.”
Parker grinned. “Don’t be a sissy. Wet is how Dailey probably wants us.”
Aaron offered no response, so Parker took a hit off his water bottle and continued on his way.
Forty minutes later, however, his own reserve of patience grew thinner after two more radio calls from the other two members of his team, each wanting to know where their lost hiker was. The temperature had dropped, and the clouds overhead were ripe with rain. Although he’d never admit it to Quick, rain wasn’t his favorite thing, either. Rain on SAR was more than merely annoying. Water weighed everything down…people, gear bags, and moods.
“Team four to base.”
“Go ahead team four,” Dailey’s flat voice gave nothing away.
“How’s the rest of the op looking?” Parker asked, stopping to examine a broken branch and scan the forest floor.
“Everybody’s in except you. What’s your status?”
“Empty as of the last check in.”
“Waving the white flag?” Dailey’s voice, tinged with amusement, renewed Parker’s spirit.
“Hell, no. Just checking in to make sure the rookies brought their rain gear,” he joked, knowing that Dailey would send the other teams out to search with them if they didn’t find their volunteer hiker soon. And there would be no end to the shit talking.
“They did. Want me to send in a relief team?”
“Give me another twenty minutes,” he said.
“Thought you said you were empty,” Dailey replied warily.
“Might’ve been premature,” he said, spotting what could be drag marks. “I think I’ve got something.”
Dailey didn’t answer.
Parker frowned. He approached a leaning pine with caution, unable to see much beyond it but ridge and sky. Testing the earth as he grew closer, he noted that some of the root system of the tree was showing. With pines having a shallow outward root system, anyway, Parker regarded the leaning tree with even more suspicion. Seeing the soil disturbed at the edge of the mountain made him warier still. Based on the tree’s location near the edge of the ridge, the tap root had probably never gone deep enough to anchor it to the mountain. As he backed away, first glancing at the sky then downward, a splash of blue to his right at the foot of the tree caught the corner of his eye.
“Four to base.”
“I’ve got a camera bag. Empty.”
With all of team four on the same frequency, he almost couldn’t hear the response for all the whoops.
“And the person that goes with it?” Dailey’s smirk was clear even over the air.
“Not yet. But soon…”
Parker eased back around the side of the pine again, not liking the obvious next step in his search. With the tree leaning precariously as if it wanted to follow those skid marks down the mountain, there was no way he was going to touch it. An outcropping of rock nearby seemed the better option. Grabbing a fallen branch off the forest floor, Parker tested the earth at the base of the boulder before easing carefully onto it.
He echoed the same in his radio call to Dailey. “You gave us a ledge drop, Mack? Seriously?”
The whoops changed to groans.
“What are you on about, Myers?” Dailey called over the din.
Parker studied the blonde sprawled on the world’s smallest ledge. Roll over and take a death fall small. As the first chilly drops of rain began to spurt from the sky like tears of frustration, he felt like shedding a few of his own.
Silence on the airwaves only increased the elevator drop of his heart toward his feet.
“Mack, I think shit just got real.”
“Melody?” Parker called down toward the blonde.
“Melody?” he tried again even as he gingerly tested the branch against the earth next to the woman’s feet. Seemed sturdy enough. Using it as a sort of crutch, he slid down the edge of the boulder until he stood fully at her feet.
“Mack? I’ve got her, but she’s out cold.”
The air crackled as Dailey came on. “Was she supposed to play unconscious?” he was asking someone in the background.
“What’s her story, Mack?” He glanced at the sky, at jagged lightning, and growled his impatience. “Mack!”
“Melody. Her name is Melody. A photographer, been on a couple of these exercises with us in the past. And why the hell is she unconscious?”
“Because she fell about ten feet off a ridge onto the smallest fucking ledge in the world. There’s barely room for two of us. I didn’t ask her name. I know her fucking name.”
Parker rattled off his best guess for where they were so the rest of the team could head their way, which was stupid, given that they all had GPS handhelds. Now that they knew parker was with the victim, team four could find them even if they were both unconscious. With Mack’s promise that help was coming, he signed off and considered the woman. Melody. Blonde and slender but sturdy, she remained oblivious when he called her name twice more and checked the pulse at her wrist.
“Good and strong,” he said aloud, in case his continued conversation might rouse her. “No way to reach your pupils now, so we’ll have to hope they’re good.”
But why aren’t you with me yet?
As if she heard his thought, she gasped awake, lifting her head in a panic.
“Easy,” he cautioned. “Don’t make any fast moves.”
Her eyes widened a little as she realized where she was, ridiculously close to a long, long drop.
“Oh. God.” Two words, more astonished than fearful. “Where’s my camera?” she asked, turning her head. Wincing, she froze.
“Yeah,” he said calmly, if not a little sarcastically, “that’s why I said not to move.”
“Oh, God,” she said again, eyes closed. “You’re one of those ‘I’m always right’ types, aren’t you?” But she kept her head still.
“Takes one to know one,” he shot back, glancing up at the edge of the ridge. Too soon for rescue, unfortunately. But he lifted one corner of his mouth so she’d understand he wasn’t entirely serious.
“Sorry,” she said softly. “I get cranky when I lose money. That camera was expensive.”
“No. Insured. But now the premium will probably go up. Money.”
“Melody, you’re lucky you didn’t kill yourself. Focus on that.” He couldn’t quite mask the exasperation he was feeling.
“Wow,” she groaned, easing into a sitting position, ignoring his plea to stay still. “There you go again, Mr. Know-it-all.”
“Well, at least now I can have a look at your eyes.”
“Leave my eyes alone. I’m fine. I just got the wind knocked out of me.”
“Where did you receive your medical training, doctor?” Parker asked, officially past mildly annoyed and on his way to damn irritated. Here he was saving her ass, and she couldn’t be bothered to be even a little compliant. Or grateful.
She rolled her eyes. He tried not to release the mental ha! when she winced.
“You can cut out the condescension, Mountain Man. It’s not like I’ve never hiked before. Accidents happen. Stop looking at me like I’m some poor little damsel in distress.”
“Okay,” he said, looking away from her and back up at the ridge. “But tell me something. Is this your everyday attitude, or should I worry that your belligerence is actually a concussion?”
When she didn’t reply, he turned back to her vivid blue-green eyes and spat, “And the name’s Parker.”
She sighed heavily.
“Here.” Parker held out a fresh bottle of water.
She looked at it as one might look at a poisonous snake.
“I’m fine,” she insisted.
Several minutes of silence passed between them. He studied Melody blatantly, ignoring her obvious discomfort. So far as he could tell in a few quick glimpses, she wasn’t bleeding heavily, though she had a few scrapes on her hands.
“What do you remember about falling?” he asked, trying to get a bead on where she might be hurt.
She partially lifted one shoulder, frowning. “I was holding my camera, setting up a picture of the valley. I felt my foot begin to slip, so I reached out with my hand to grab the tree, and that’s about all I remember.”
He nodded. “Where’s your pain, mostly?”
She ignored him.
She sighed again. “My right ankle hurts,” she admitted. “Ironic, since I was supposed to claim I sprained it for the exercise. And I’ve got a killer headache. But that could be because you won’t stop bugging me.” Her tone implied she wasn’t completely serious. He fought another smile.
Parker glanced down at her right ankle, then compared it to the left. Swollen to about twice the size of the other, he noted, scooting a little closer. The sky chose that moment to escalate from a slow drip of rain to a furious, stinging pour.
“Shit!” He hurried to shrug out of his pack. Handing her an emergency blanket, he plucked his GPS from the front pocket of his cargos to follow the other red blips that were the rest of team four. Pulling another emergency blanket for himself, he called to Melody over the din. “Closest guy is still about a half mile away!”
She grimaced as she tucked her injured ankle closer to her body, clumsily spreading the blanket over it.
Parker shifted closer to her. Blankets and body heat would keep them safe from hypothermia. A good size chunk of their ledge fell away under his left boot as he used it to push closer to her, and he froze. Melody paled visibly. He could feel her left shoulder and arm go rigid against his right bicep.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “No more moving for either of us until my team arrives.”
“Nope,” she agreed. “I take it back,” she said a moment later.
“What?” he asked, daring to turn his head to look at her.
“You’re not a know-it-all. Or, you are, but not in a bad way. Just…” she took a shaky breath, and her voice caught with her next words. “Just get us home alive.”
He eased his radio toward his lips in tiny movements as a bit more of the ledge washed away in the rain. “Team four to base.”
“Quick’s almost there, Parker. How’s your vic?” Mack asked.
“Alert. Afraid. We’re losing this ledge, Mack. We need out of here yesterday!” Parker called out over the din of the rain.
Quick’s voice jumped into the conversation. “On my way! You got your harness set up?”
“Not sure that sort of movement is a wise choice right now!” Parker replied. Then, watching a little more of the edge fall away, he added, “But I’ll work on it.”
Melody’s eyes widened as the radio went silent.
Never taking his eyes off her, he moved increment by increment, like a film in slow motion, and plucked the first harness out of his pack, from the inside of his overturned helmet. She watched him put it on, her eyes naked with fear.
“I don’t have one of those,” she said.
He dug a bit in his pack until he felt the second harness.
“Time to suit you up,” he said, not telling her that he didn’t think they’d have enough stability—or time—to properly lift her off the ledge on a backboard rig or even in a halfback.
She winced several times as he strapped her into the chest harness, explaining each move before he made it. He wasn’t sure if it was pain or that she, like he, noticed a little more of the ledge washing away even with their tiny movements.
He tucked her back under the emergency blanket as quickly as he could, mentally cursing the rain and praying for it to slow or stop altogether.
He ducked back under his own, cursing his decision to wear cargo shorts instead of pants. Melody’s gaze was still steadfast on him, drawing hope or comfort or both from his forced nonchalance. Seldom did he get truly frightened during a SAR mission, let alone a training exercise, but with each clump of soil that dropped from his sight, his heart gave a little stutter. Parker was under no delusion of safety. They were knee deep in shit, and every second that passed felt like an hour.
Finally, finally, Quick arrived, panting from what was surely a dead run, and peered down at them.
“Chad’s about five minutes away,” he gasped, flashing a reassuring grin in Melody’s direction. “Hi, there! We’ll be getting you out of here real soon,” he assured her.
Parker noticed she didn’t lift her head toward Aaron, but she tried to smile.
Things soon became a blur of efficient movement. Melody’s rescue from their rapidly narrowing perch relieved him in ways that went far beyond the normal satisfaction of a rescue. Parker pushed a niggling question away as he eased to his feet in incremental movements, the iceberg in his chest only melting once he was safely back on the ridge, plucking the blue camera bag from the base of the leaning pine.
And then they slogged their way toward the rest of the SAR group, the four members of team four sharing the load of a collapsible stretcher between them for what could have been six miles back to the makeshift SAR base but which Mack generously cut back to under two by collapsing their equipment and sending an off-road pickup as far in as he dared with the ground saturation and weather conditions being what they were.
Parker was never so happy to get the hell off a mountain as he was that day. He sent the three other members of his team into the quad cab with the driver, a guy from team two, and climbed into the truck bed with Melody.
“This is the rough part,” he called, over the sheets of rain, holding a large emergency blanket over their heads. “Even strapped in like you are, you’re going to feel every bump and jolt on the way down.”
“Th-that’s okay,” she replied as the truck jostled into drive. “I’m glad we’re off that ledge!”
“You and me, both,” he grinned.
She closed her eyes, obviously weary.
With her eyes closed, Parker was able to study her without judgment or accusations of condescension.
Blonde hair in a single braid that he knew was now trapped under her back. The color, at her crown, reminded him of dry sand. Norwegian features, like a Helly Hansen cover model.
The truck bounced violently. Her face twisted up. Watching that and hearing her soft moan hit Parker straight in the gut. He didn’t get emotionally tangled up in his victims, whether volunteers or actual rescues. Sure, nobody was immune to the little kids. Some of those stabbed his heart, sure enough, but he generally felt nothing other than a routine sort of concern. But he genuinely ached at her pain symptoms.
He put a hand on her arm. “Easy,” he soothed, “it’s not much farther to the main road. That will be smoother. Not perfect,” he admitted, “but not as much jostling.”
She nodded weakly, keeping her eyes closed.
Glancing downward, he noticed her ankle had swollen even more, to epic proportions for her slight frame. “Melody, I’m going to have to remove your shoe. The swelling at your ankle is so bad, I’m afraid you’re going to lose all circulation if I don’t.”
“Okay,” she agreed on another moan as the truck hit another rut.
“It’s going to hurt,” he warned, wincing at the thought of how it would feel. He’d had a similar injury on a rescue in his late twenties, and he still remembered the pain when one of his fellow SAR workers removed his hiking boot. “A lot,” he added grimly.
“O-kay,” her voice caught.
He tried to be fast with it. Like pulling a Band-Aid. And still the ball of ice in his gut grew at every whimper, every cry, every tortured wail. With her shoe and sock off, he paused to study her face. Tears cut paths through a layer of dust that hadn’t been visible before.
“You did great,” he said, reaching up to gently squeeze her hand. He dug in his pack and found an instant ice pack. “I’m going to ice it to try to get some of the swelling down.”
She moaned softly again as he laid a small microfiber towel packaged with the instant ice down over her swollen ankle and gently draped the pack on top. With the movement of the truck, he was forced to hold it in place.
Every minute felt excruciatingly slow. He’d never been so anxious coming down from a rescue in his life. Parker mentally kicked himself for it, yet he checked his watch about every third minute.
He always rode back with members of his team. After an exercise, he’d head back to camp with the others, have a beer, and dissect the strengths and weaknesses of their rescues. Today, he found himself ducking into the ambulance. Today, he paced the waiting room until, many more endless minutes later, an ER nurse reported back that patient Melody Holm had a serious ankle sprain (but no broken bones) and a mild concussion and would likely be released the next day.
Parker stood outside her room an hour later, debating whether or not to go in. He wasn’t family, but she’d given the nurse permission to inform him of her injuries. Just as he’d been trying to decide whether to message for one of his team to pick him up, the same nurse returned.
“Ms. Holm was wondering if you’d stop by her room for a moment.”
He shot to his feet, abandoning the half-finished text message, and followed her out of the ER to the second floor to a closed door. She didn’t wait. She turned back briskly for the elevator, so she didn’t see how he was suddenly frozen there, wondering why he couldn’t quite detach himself from what should be just another rescue, another volunteer, another training exercise.
Finally, a technician wheeling a mobile cart breezed up to the door, whipped it open, and said cheerfully, “I’m here to get your vitals, and I brought a friend!” He was forced to follow or make the technician a liar.
“Hi,” she croaked drowsily. That little word, like her pained sounds earlier, stabbed him in the gut.
“Hi,” he half whispered, watching her watch him from the foot of the bed.
“Thank you for staying. You didn’t have to,” she said. She didn’t seem puzzled. He would be. Puzzled, that is. If some random SAR guy hung around for hours for a virtual stranger.
He dipped his head. “Do you have, you know, someone to help you out when they release you? Drive you back home?”
She nodded. “My sister, Claudia, will come up from Phoenix.”
He wasn’t sure why the next stab to his gut was one of disappointment. “Good,” he said, nodding. “I’m glad you’ll be alright.”
“Thanks to you,” she said, yawning.
He shrugged. “That’s the job,” he said lamely, then instantly regretted it.
“Well, I wanted to say thanks. I mean, after you hung around and all. The nurse mentioned you were still in the waiting room and asked if we were family and whether she could share private information with you. I didn’t know you were still here.”
He shrugged again. Regretted it again. Tried to show her he wasn’t as nonchalant about it as he might seem. “I hated the thought of you stranded here, alone and hurt. Especially when you gave your time to our exercise.”
She smiled, her eyes drifting closed.
“Get some rest, Melody,” he said. “I’ll try to stop by tomorrow, make sure your sister made it here okay and that you have a ride home.”
“Thank you,” she mumbled.
The technician finished and wheeled her cart toward the door. He beat her to it, held it open, and followed her out.
He made it as far as the nurses’ station. He couldn’t make himself exit through the floor’s double doors to the elevator. What the hell was the matter with him?
But he knew. He wasn’t an idiot.
She got to him. Something about her snagged him and wouldn’t let go. And it wasn’t, contrary to her accusations, that he was a condescending know-it-all or that he looked down on her, saw her as a damsel in distress. It was that she refused to be treated with kid gloves. Didn’t want or need sympathy. Tried not to complain as they pulled her back up on the ridge and then made her suffer through a grueling ride out of the woods and into the ambulance, though she was obviously in a lot of pain. Her matter-of-factness about it all touched a chord in him. Her attempts to joke around with his team, in fact, as they stretchered her to the truck and again as they unloaded her into the ambulance, were part of why he stood rooted near the exit, unable to leave.
She’d be sleeping through the night, pulled down by the painkillers, for Christ’s sake, and wouldn’t notice if he was there. And still, Parker asked the charge nurse if he could crash in her room on the recliner. Gratitude shot through him when she said she’d bring him a pillow and blanket.
He checked his phone a last time, intending to turn it off until morning. It had, without his notice, blown up with texts from his team.
Dude, r u coming back 2nite or what?
Did u get lost on the way back from the hospital, Myers?
Are u alive???
Hello, bro??? WTF?
Mack’s about ready to send a team out after u. WHERE R U?
Smirking, he typed, Sorry. Staying at the hospital.
Whoa. That bad?! Quick answered.
She’s ok, but she’s alone until family arrives. Night!
He switched off his phone so he wouldn’t have to see their inevitable jokes. Bad enough he knew it would send them into a gossip frenzy. SAR workers could be as bad as tabloid reporters. He’d face that mess tomorrow.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Melody tried to whisper into her phone, glancing at Parker. Unbelievably, he was still in her room, sprawled on what was probably the world’s most uncomfortable recliner. With his face toward the window, she couldn’t tell if his eyes were open.
She tried to slide from the bed noiselessly, but it creaked and rattled and made enough racket to wake the comatose. His head lifted. Melody could all but see him wonder where he was, ignoring her sister’s voice at the other end of the phone.
“Melody, I’m sorry! Are you still there?!”
As his sleepy eyes turned her way, Melody felt a jolt in her belly. What would it be like to wake up to that sexy, disheveled, slightly confused look every morning?
“Claud, hold on…” she said, pointing at the phone as she hurried off the bed, forgetting her ankle until the air brace hit the floor and sent a sledgehammer of pain through her foot and leg. “Agh!!!!!”
Her surprise roommate went from dazed to alert in under three seconds, launching himself across the room to her side. So much for a touch up in the bathroom to make her look presentable.
“Easy!” he cautioned, taking her elbow and her weight as she stumbled. Their bodies bumped together. She felt all but naked in her gown, the hard planes of him making her belly flutter again, even through the pain.
“Claudia, I’ll call you back,” she groaned into the phone, hanging up and tossing it on the bed. “Ow, ow, ow!”
Parker captured her other elbow and was effectively keeping her from dropping to the floor, but he was also still plastered against her, waiting patiently for her to regain her footing.
Could this get any more embarrassing? She tried to smile at him as the worst of the pain subsided, but even though she couldn’t see her face, she could feel it. She could only imagine the grotesque grimace she was putting on.
He coughed lightly and eased her back toward the bed. “Sit down,” he said, releasing her the instant her bottom hit the mattress. Before she could thank him, he whipped toward the door and called over his shoulder,
As he turned to head down the corridor, she caught sight of a hearty bulge at the front of his shorts before he covered it by zipping up his long SAR jacket.
She took a breath, the room spinning lazily. She grabbed her phone to avoid considering whether it was a chill in the room or the sight of Parker’s obvious morning wood as he fled that had her nipples firmly beaded under her gown. After an excruciatingly slow trip to the bathroom, she eased back into bed and pulled the covers almost to her chin. Last thing she wanted was some nurse or technician barging in and seeing her that way. With shaking fingers, she unlocked her phone and dialed Claudia’s number.
“Jesus, Melody, are you okay?” Claudia’s voice burst over the line.
She didn’t know whether to feel touched at the alarmed shout or annoyed at the sizzle of pain that zipped through her skull from the volume. “I’m fine. I forgot about my ankle and came down too hard on it getting out of bed.”
“Look, I’m trying to find a car, I swear.”
You’d have your own if you had one iota of responsibility in your body.
Melody sighed. “Even if you find one, how am I going to get mine back to Phoenix?”
“I don’t know. I can bring Brad with me, if I can wake him up.”
Oh, sure. Boyfriend du jour. Which one is this, again? The out-of-work, garage band guy, or the shady guy with the auto body shop that seemed to be open only at night to a few select customers?
“No,” she said firmly. “I’m not having some hungover, half-asleep dude I’ve never met drive my car.”
I don’t even want you driving my car, but I’m desperate.
“I would drive your car,” Claudia countered. “He’d drive whatever we came up in. Look, I’ll call around and see what I can find and call you back in a few—”
“Don’t bother,” Melody sighed deeply, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I’ll figure it out.” Like I always do. Like I’ve always done.
“No, Mel, I can do this. Cars break down. No biggie. I’ll find another.”
No, you won’t. I’ll get discharged and end up waiting for six hours on a bench outside this hospital before I have to get a taxi to some hotel for another night while I try to figure out how to get myself and my car home.
“No, Claudia, really. It’s okay. The rescue group is still in town. I’m sure I can hitch a ride with them.”
On some crampy charter bus full of gear and rowdy SAR guys with energy to burn. Yay.
“Do you need me to meet you at your place? How are you going to get upstairs by yourself?”
Melody froze. Crap. She hadn’t even considered that, herself. Thinking quickly, she blurted, “I can crash in the studio for a couple days.”
“A couple days? Sounds like it will be longer than that. Do you need me to come? I can come. My friends could use a break from me, anyway.”
Yeah, because you’ve been surfing their couches for the last year and a half, drifting from one crappy job to another.
Melody closed her eyes again. She couldn’t. Not now. She couldn’t have this conversation. Couldn’t have Claudia barging in, making more problems than she solved. No. “No, I’ve got Grace to help out. I’ll be fine.”
Focusing on her capable, confident assistant kept Melody’s head from exploding. Just barely.
“Are you absolutely sure? It might be fun, you know, me taking care of you for once.”
Yeah, sure. Until you hear about a raging party or someone invites you to go houseboating at Powell and you take off and leave me with your dirty laundry, dirty dishes, and an empty fridge.
“I’m sure,” she said aloud.
Was that disappointment in Claudia’s voice?
Probably bummed out because she doesn’t get to freeload.
“I’ll call you when I get back to town,” Melody said, “so you know I made it okay.”
“Okay,” Claudia repeated. An awkward silence followed. “Look, seriously, are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I have to go. I think the nurse is coming in with the discharge papers already,” she lied.
“Okay. Love you,” her sister said, the line going dead before she could reply.
Sure, you do.
Melody let the phone fall to her chest. What little energy she’d woken with was gone. Claudia had that effect on her. More so lately, it seemed, as the years passed and her baby sister stayed frozen in place like a female Peter Pan. Never growing up. Never learning responsibility. Drifting. Drifting from relationship to relationship, minimum wage job to minimum wage job. Sleeping on friends’ couches. Refusing Melody’s offers of a job in her photography studio over and over again until she’d been forced to hire an assistant. No matter. Grace was a godsend. And over the last several years, they’d become good friends. She couldn’t hire Claudia now even if she wanted to. She could only afford one employee.
She’d also offered her own couch in the apartment she occupied on the floor above her studio. Claudia refused it time and time again. Determined, it seemed, to stay a kid forever.
A food service worker brought her a tray of breakfast she had little appetite for, but she picked at it, realizing she’d had nothing since about halfway into her hike the day before. She thought again of Parker and wished she didn’t find him so attractive. The last thing she needed in her life was another Scott. Another climber.
Her heart panged. It felt right that the day had been a disaster. From the moment she’d exited her car, she’d wanted to get right back in and turn around and drive straight back to Phoenix. She stayed because she’d made a commitment. Volunteering was a job like any other except without pay. You couldn’t show up when you felt like it. If someone was expecting you, you needed to follow through. So even though memories of Scott clung fiercely to her like a cat lowered into a bathtub, she’d stayed.
She’d missed him all the while, returning to an old habit of talking aloud to him as she walked, confident that she was alone and wouldn’t be overheard. But it felt different than it had the last time she’d done it. This time, she didn’t feel like he was there with her. She’d stopped talking as soon as she’d realized it, that she couldn’t feel him around her. Admitting to herself that it had been over two years since the last time she had felt as though he were somewhere nearby brought her to tears. But then she’d been distracted by the beauty of the hike and her tears dried up.
Melody’s phone pinged. Claudia.
Are you sure?!!
Oh, for the love of God!
Positive! She texted back, frowning.
She closed her eyes and groaned, wondering if Parker was even going to come back after getting coffee. He’d been gone long enough that she’d finished breakfast and they’d collected her tray.
The thought alone seemed to summon him.
Why was he always seeing her at her worst, her snarkiest?
“You okay, Melody?”
She felt him watching her. Probably had that same concerned look on his face, the one that made her feel guilty. Guilty for being stupid and slipping yesterday, guilty for scoffing at him for doing his job, guilty for somehow making him feel obligated to sleep in a chair by her bed, and guilty for making him hang around her room when he probably had much better things to do.
“My head hurts, but I’m fine.” she told him, opening her eyes. Keenly observant, he didn’t miss her clutching her phone in a white-knuckle sort of grip.
“Everything arranged for your ride home?” He set his coffee on the little sink counter in the room, edging toward the bed, his eyes cool and assessing.
“Car trouble,” she said, shifting in the bed, unable to find something comfortable.
“Need a ride?” His phone interrupted, blaring the chorus from the Skillet song, “Hero”. He rolled his eyes. “Which one of you jackasses messed with my phone?” he barked into it, turning back toward his coffee. “When did you even have time...Yeah, well, just wait. I’ll return the favor when you least expect it.” Parker paced the room. “Well, tell Mack I’m sorry. I didn’t realize he wanted to leave before sunup.”
Melody wanted to crawl out of bed and sink into a hole on the floor. She’d kept him from leaving, guilting him into napping in the recliner with her pitifulness the night before. Now she added a pitifulness that stemmed from being stranded without the ability to drive herself, mixed with a healthy dose of residual, “Oh, my God, what if this ledge gives way completely?”
And then he looked her way again, with that SAR concern of his all over his face, along with something else that made her fluttery in her belly, and asked, “Need a ride back to Phoenix?”
She nodded, heat flooding her face. “I could use someone to drive my car down.”
“Go,” he told the teammate at the other end of the phone. “She brought her own vehicle and could use a ride home. I’ll drive her down. Yeah, man. Okay.”
Melody opened her mouth to apologize and froze at the smile he gave her.
“Problem solved,” he said, grabbing his coffee and easing back down on the recliner.
She didn’t know what to say to that, so she said nothing at all.