In the remote Rocky Mountains, lives depend on the Search & Rescue brotherhood. But in a place this far off the map, trust is hard to come by and secrets can be murder…George Holloway has spent his life alone, exploring the treacherous beauty of the Colorado Rockies. He’s the best survival expert Search and Rescue has, which makes him the obvious choice to lead Ellie Price through deadly terrain to find her missing father. There’s just one problem—Ellie’s everything George isn’t. She’s a city girl, charming, gregarious, delicate, small. And when she looks up at him with those big, dark eyes, he swears he would tear the world apart to keep her safe.With a killer on the loose, he may have no choice.Ellie’s determined to find her father no matter the cost. But as she and her gorgeous mountain of a guide fight their way through an unforgiving wilderness, they find themselves in the crosshairs of a dangerous man in search of revenge. And they are now his prey…
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“Hi, George.” Lou stopped right in front of him, and Ellie had to catch herself before momentum made her crash into the other woman. “This is Ellie Price. Her dad is missing, most likely heading to her grandpa’s cabin on the west side of Blue Hook National Forest, and she was hoping to hire you as a wilderness guide to take her to the cabin. Ellie, this is George Holloway, who knows this area like I know the inside of The Coffee Spot.” When Lou jerked on her hand, Ellie stumbled forward another step and blushed. Why was she so uncoordinated around this man? She’d always been prone to turning red at the drop of a hat, but being around George Holloway left her especially flushed and flustered. “I’ll leave you two to discuss business terms.” With that, Lou walked away.
Biting her lip to keep herself from calling after Lou and begging her to stay and be a buffer, Ellie met George’s gaze. “Um…hi.” There was no reaction from the big man, and her heartrate ratcheted up another notch. Her hands were sweating, and she resisted the urge to rub her palms against her thighs. The waterproof material of her pants wouldn’t have absorbed the sweat, anyway. “Uh, like Lou said, I need to get to this cabin.” She fumbled in her purse, grateful for the chance to focus on something besides the silent man in front of her. It was almost disappointing when her fingers closed on a folded piece of paper. “Callum printed this map of the cabin’s location.” To her embarrassment, her fingers were shaking as she extended the paper toward him. For a horrible second, she didn’t think he was going to accept it, but he finally reached out and took the map.
Ellie didn’t say anything else until his eyes left the map and met hers again. “Callum thought we’d be hiking for about three days to get from the farthest point on the plowed road to the cabin. We won’t be staying there, since we’ll just grab my dad and go”—as long as Baxter was there and unhurt and cooperative, but she didn’t let herself worry about that right then—“so it’ll be about six days. I can pay you five hundred dollars a day.”
After another long silence, George refolded the map carefully. Holding it out to her, he shook his head.
“Six hundred, then.” When he gave another head shake, she started to sweat. “Eight hundred?” She held her breath. If she went much higher, she wouldn’t have anything left for unexpected expenses, like food or a flight home.
He extended the hand holding the map another inch closer to her.
To her horror, her eyes began to burn with threatening tears. “He’s not well.” Now the quiver in her hands had migrated to her voice, as well. “My dad. He has delusions and hallucinations. When he called me, he said he thinks someone’s after him, so he’s running to the cabin to hide from them. I’m afraid…” Her voice cracked, and she swallowed. “I’m afraid for him. Not that I think someone’s really trying to kill him, but he’s out there on his own, seeing things that aren’t there. I need to find him and get him somewhere safe.”
Reaching down, he lifted her hand and gently placed the refolded map on her palm. Her fingers automatically closed around the paper as he started to turn away from her.
“Please.” Despite her best efforts, tears escaped, tracking down either side of her face and thickening her words. “I can’t make it to the cabin without a guide. I don’t even know how to read this map.” Shame burned in her chest, but her desperation was stronger than her pride. “I need your help. Please.”
“You should’ve told me you needed a wilderness guide to find your dad.” Joseph’s voice made her jump and wipe hastily at her cheeks before turning. It was one thing to bare her soul to the silent George, but she couldn’t stand to be that vulnerable in front of Joseph. “I work for an outfitter during hunting season, so I do this professionally. Here, let me see.”
When he reached for the map, she automatically jerked it out of his reach. “No…I…that’s okay.” The thought of being at Joseph’s mercy in the middle of the wilderness made panic rise in her throat. “I’ll figure out something.”
“It’s already figured out.” This time, Joseph leaned over her shoulder to grab the map. “I’m taking you. I’ll even offer you my friends and family rate. We’ll track down Baxter and bring him back, safe and sound.”
“No.” How does he know Dad’s name? Has he been researching me? Her fingers tightened as she twisted, holding the paper out of his reach. She was reluctant to let Joseph even see the map. A mental image of him aggressively hitting on her the whole way to the cabin, of sharing a tent with him and his roving hands, flashed through her mind. The thought was horrifying.
He caught her arm, tugging her toward him as his other hand extended toward the map. Before he could grab it, George locked his enormous mitt around Joseph’s biceps and hauled him back several feet. Joseph let out a yelp, releasing her as he stumbled to catch his balance.
“What the hell, Holloway!”
George didn’t respond except to place his bulk between Ellie and the other man. Relieved to have a buffer—especially such a big buffer—blocking the incredibly persistent Joseph, Ellie peeked around his arm. Joseph looked furious, his eyes narrow and his lips tight. The two men stared at each other for a long, tense moment while Ellie held her breath. Finally, Joseph gave a forced laugh, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Didn’t know you’d already volunteered for the job,” he said, sending a fake smile in Ellie’s direction. She resisted the urge to duck all the way behind George. “Since when have you started babysitting tourists?”
George didn’t say a word, but something in his expression made Joseph back away from them. When he was several feet away, he dropped his hands and turned to leave the training room.
“Um…” When the big man didn’t look at her or respond, she cleared her throat. “Mr. Holloway, does this mean you’re going to be guiding me?”
He finally rotated until he faced her, but it was a long time before George answered. Although his beard hid the lower half of his face, his eyebrows were mashed together. Ellie wasn’t sure if he was annoyed, bewildered, worried, or some completely different emotion. All she did know was that his brown eyes were very striking, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of them.
It could’ve been a few seconds or several minutes that they stood in silence while Ellie barely breathed. Finally, finally, his chin dipped ever so slightly. When his short nod finally sunk into her jubilant brain, she hopped forward and hugged him around the middle. He felt as large and as hard as a tree trunk. Once she realized what she was doing, she jumped back just as quickly.
“Sorry! I’m just really glad you’ll be guiding me. So, thank you. Thank you very much. When did you want to leave? I haven’t bought anything yet, except for clothes.” She waved a hand at her current layered outfit. “Nothing like a tent or anything, since I wasn’t sure what I’d need or what you already had or…um. I’m babbling. I’m sorry. I’m just really relieved.”
His shoulders dropped in a silent sigh. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a pen and plucked the map from her nerveless fingers. Turning over the map so it was blank side up and using the wall as a writing surface, George scribbled a couple of lines and then handed the paper to her. As soon as she accepted it, he turned and stomped out of the training room.
“Ho-ly cow!” Lou was suddenly standing next to her. “I want every single detail of that conversation, because I couldn’t hear a thing over those loud idiots.” She swung an arm to indicate a cluster of men standing on the other side of the training room. “Not a single one of those useless buggers could read lips, either, so I’m dying to know—did he actually say yes?”
Still stunned, Ellie turned toward the other woman and stared at her until the final question penetrated. Only then did she start to smile. “Yes.”
With a squeal of delight, Lou threw her arms around Ellie. Grinning, Ellie squeezed her just as hard. The two women bounced in a circle, still hugging. When they finally stopped, everyone in the room was staring at them.
Too happy to be embarrassed, Ellie just ignored their audience.
“When are you leaving?” Lou asked, reminding Ellie of the scribbled note on the back of the map. She flipped it over and read the scrawled words.
31490 Cty Rd 43. 6am.
“Tomorrow morning.” Meeting Lou’s gaze, Ellie grinned and held up the paper so the other woman could read it. “I’m going to find my dad, Lou.”
“Yes,” Lou grabbed her in another hug, crumpling the map between them. “You are.”
When she’s not writing, Katie Ruggle rides horses, shoots guns, and travels to warm places where she can SCUBA dive. Graduating from the Police Academy, Katie received her ice-rescue certification and can attest that the reservoirs in the Colorado mountains really are that cold. While she still misses her off-grid, solar- and wind-powered house in the Rocky Mountains, she now lives in Rochester, Minnesota near her family.
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