Rescue Me | Chapter 15 of 25

Author: Susan May Warren | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1934 Views | Add a Review

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11

“WILLOW, ARE YOU AWAKE?”

Yes. No, or she had been, but as Willow stirred to the whispered voice, she realized she’d finally dropped off.

She’d watched Sam for what seemed like eternity across the flickering campfire.

He stared into the flames, occasionally looking over at her to meet her eyes with a piercing, bone-jarring gaze that could reach down to her soul and give it a shake.

I kissed you on purpose, Willow!”

She didn’t know if she believed him—she wanted to. But that couldn’t possibly be right.

Not when he had Sierra waiting for him back home.

Maggy, Vi, and Zena all curled up together. Willow slept on one end, holding the blanket over them for warmth. She’d propped her head on a backpack and wore a lime-green bandanna Dawson had pulled out of his bag and offered her with a tight apology.

She had to give Sam credit. After his declaration that he planned on leaving—not abandoning—them in the woods, he galvanized the kids and built them a rudimentary windbreak, something to capture the heat from the fire. It was her idea to strip off the backpack straps and use them to secure a crossbar to a couple pine trees. Then, the kids gathered sticks and cut off lower pine branches to create a sort of wall against the wind.

Now, Dawson, Riley, and Josh slept under the protection of the windbreak. Gus sprawled out in the open, closer to the fire, on his back like a lumberjack. He emitted, now and again, a snore.

Quinn had sat up with Sam until he finally curled into a ball near the fire.

Somewhere in there, she’d fallen asleep, finally warm.

Willow stirred now at Sam’s voice, found his breath on her skin, his mouth nearly to her ear. “Can I talk to you?” His hand touched her shoulder.

“Yeah,” she whispered, her pulse awake now too.

She slipped out from under the warmth of the blanket and stood up. The fire still flickered, although with a dire cost to their firewood supply. The morning was still an hour away, the sky overhead a pewter gray, the stars fading.

Sam looked rough and tired, with tiny lines around his eyes, his jaw set tight as he reached out to take her hand and lead her away from camp.

She put her other hand on his to warm it up.

He pulled them out of earshot, into the fold of the woods. In the shadows like this, he appeared downright heroic, a champion about to say good-bye to his lady, although that was probably her imagination having its way this early in the morning.

In fact, she might still be asleep, evidenced by the way Sam wore so much tenderness in his gaze, the way he reached out, touched her face. His soft words. “I couldn’t leave without telling you I’m sorry. I know I hurt you.”

“Sam, you’re not the one who needs to apologize. I shouldn’t have gotten so angry at you. I am a little naïve. And yeah, maybe a little sensitive about not graduating from high school.” She sighed. “It’s just, sometimes I feel so . . . the fact is, I’ve tried to take my GED twice and failed. I’m just not smart—”

“And that’s a lie. Just because you didn’t pass a test doesn’t mean you’re not smart.”

She looked away.

He put his hand on her face, guided her gaze back to his. “I only offered to help you with your GED because I thought it mattered to you. I was trying to tell you that when we get back, I want to figure this thing out.”

She looked up at him. “What thing?”

He stared at her, his expression incredulous. “What thing? This thing—between us. This amazing, surprising, really scary thing that I should have figured out a long time ago—”

“Really scary?” she said, a small twist to her mouth. “Really?”

That stopped him, and he nodded. “Yeah, really scary. The truth is, ever since my dad died, I’ve had this . . . this anger inside me. I’ve spent the last twelve years trying to shake it free, and instead it’s nearly consumed me. I thought it was about regret and blame, but it took getting lost with you—and I mean that in the best way—to figure it out.”

He caressed her face, his thumb leaving little tingles on her skin. “But the strange thing is, the more that I’m with you, the more I feel free.”

“Sam, you can be free. It’s all about letting God in, with his grace to forgive, to heal. God’s light can overtake the darkness.”

He wove his fingers between hers, took her other hand and did the same. Met her eyes. “I want to believe that. And maybe I can start by letting you in. And that’s the scary part.”

Oh, Sam. She touched his face, seeing the man she’d kissed at the hospital, the one she’d fallen in love with.

His voice softened. “I don’t know what it is about you, but you make me feel like the guy who I’ve tried so hard to be for the last decade. A guy who has half a chance of living again.”

“Are you sure? I get it—we’re out in the woods, and we nearly died a few times, and we’re tired and maybe not thinking clearly.”

His mouth tweaked up on one side, his gaze in hers. “I’m thinking clearly for the first time in years, Willow.”

Oh, Sam.

“I meant it when I said I don’t want Sierra—I want you.”

He had so much honesty in his eyes, she couldn’t escape it. “I want you too.”

The smallest of delicious smiles crept up his face. “Good, because when we get back, I’m going to straighten everything out with Sierra, I promise.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, Sam—”

“Listen. I don’t think Sierra is going to put up much of a fight for me.”

“If she’s smart she will.”

“You’re the smart one in the family,” he said and moved his mouth to inches away from hers. “Smart and beautiful and kind and the one I should have been kissing from the first.”

Then he did. Sweetly, his mouth soft on hers, an achingly tender caress. The warmth that had touched her at the fire curled right through her, seeped into her bones. He smelled of the campfire, the wild currents of the river, strength and determination and everything she’d discovered—and always known—about him.

Dependable, sacrificing, and heroic to the bone.

He lifted his head, met her eyes, a light in his expression she hadn’t seen until now. “I’m coming back to you, I promise. So you promise me—don’t go anywhere. Okay? Stay here.”

She nodded, his words sliding through her, latching on. “I’m coming back to you.”

He let her go, pushed away from the tree, took her hand, and led her back to camp.

Quinn stood by the fire, holding a water bottle. “Ready?”

“Let’s go,” Sam said, giving her a final look.

“I’m coming back to you.”

Please.

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Pete nursed his early morning coffee and stared at the search map on the wall. Darkness pressed against the windows, the dim light of the meeting room puddling on the floor.

They still needed a PLS—point last seen—to start their search.

The map was marked with the flyover areas and road markers Ty and Gage had stopped at yesterday. After finding nothing on Camas Road, they’d doubled back, hit McFarland Lodge for leads, then driven deeper into the park, stopping in at all the trailheads, searching for a clue. No one at any of the lodges or campsites had seen them.

Kacey and Ben had fruitlessly swept the areas along the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the chopper.

“Couldn’t sleep either?”

Jess’s voice was a sweet balm on his tired, raw places.

A dangerous balm. Because yesterday as they’d fled the bear, he remembered promising God not to make any more reckless mistakes.

She came into the room dressed in an oversized PEAK Rescue sweatshirt, a pair of yoga pants, and fuzzy wool socks. With her face scrubbed clean of makeup and her blonde hair down, she looked devastatingly innocent and sweet. But when she smiled at him, a hot blast of desire hit his heart, desire that had only grown since kissing her on a mountaintop.

Mistake, with a glaring neon capital M. Especially if he hoped to keep his head in this game and not blow his chance of being incident commander.

Although as she walked over to him, a sad smile tugging up her lips—those delicious, soft lips—he thought that maybe right now he didn’t need his head in the game but rather Jess in his arms.

Oh boy.

“Trying to figure out where the park has cell service?” she asked.

He nodded and turned away fast because he didn’t want her to know what was really roaming around in his brain at this hour.

This was why he probably shouldn’t have kissed her. Sam’s words from the Gray Pony jabbed at him. “I swear, you’re the most irresponsible person I’ve ever met.”

Oh, he didn’t want to be.

“We know there’s a cell signal at the Apgar Visitor’s Center. And McDonald Lodge.” He traced his finger along Lake McDonald. “It gets spotty from there along Going-to-the-Sun Road.”

“I checked my phone. Sam called at 9:36, so that’s about an hour and a half from when they left here. It takes about an hour to get to Huckleberry Mountain, so . . . Where could he go in thirty minutes that still had cell phone reception?”

“Maybe north.” He traced the same distance on the inside North Fork Road, along the edge of the park. “Polebridge? That might be too far—”

“No. I’ll bet Polebridge has a tower.”

“You’re right. They might lose signal between Huckleberry and Polebridge, but he could have reached the Polebridge signal by 9:36. But that seems so far. What’s in Polebridge?”

“Willow’s mom’s commune is there.” Jess pointed to a spot just southeast of Polebridge. “But that’s the last place she’d take the kids.”

“Why?”

“She doesn’t like the commune. She felt trapped, and . . . it was a dark time for her.”

Pete frowned, trying to fit that information into what he knew about Willow. Happy, life-is-fun Willow.

“No one is exactly what they seem, Pete,” Jess said softly, as if reading his mind.

He glanced at her, nonplussed. Because he hadn’t given any thought to what he might not see about Jess. She was so . . . easy to be with. No secrets, no agenda.

Except, they’d spent the entire summer talking about football, television shows, pizza toppings, their favorite Ben King songs and house repairs, in between training and hanging out at the Gray Pony and working together on callouts.

She never talked about her life before Mercy Falls. He couldn’t pinpoint one conversation about her past.

“Jess, is there something you’re not telling me?”

She swallowed, turned away. “Polebridge. Why would they go there?”

“Jess.”

She headed to the kitchen area. “I need coffee.”

He paused but couldn’t seem to stop himself. “Okay, I get it. I know I haven’t been the most . . . well, sensitive of guys. Or committed, maybe. But, Jess, you have to know that I . . .”

What? Loved her? He might not go that far—yet. But he could love her. Maybe. “I care.” Yeah, that worked. “If you want to talk. About . . . anything.”

She stood at the counter. Shook her head.

A rock sat on his heart. “Okay. But here’s the thing. When we find Sam and the kids—and we will—I’m showing up on your doorstep. I’m calling you. I know I said I don’t want more, but . . .”

He swallowed, found the words, refusing the nudge of warning inside. “With you, I do. I’m not just out for a good time, Jess. I want to know you and what matters to you—”

She frowned, and he held up his hand.

“I mean more than football and your house. Like, why you became an EMT, and where you’re from, and I’ll even meet your family if that’s something you want.”

She looked up at him, her eyes glistening, so much unshed emotion in them, it shook him.

“What is it, Jess? Please tell me.”

The stairs creaked behind them, another teammate headed down from the upstairs sleeping quarters, and in that second, Jess moved away.

“Hey, guys,” Ty said as he hit the landing. He’d showered, his dark hair still wet, his blue T-shirt clinging to his body. “Oh good, coffee.”

Pete stood there, rattled. She was hiding something, a hurt that had flashed to the surface. Why hadn’t he seen it earlier?

Because he was all about himself. Had he even once asked her about her past?

He wanted to order Ty from the room, or drag her away, get at the truth. For now, he met her eyes. This isn’t over, Jess.

She looked away.

His heart heavy in his chest, he walked back to the map and stared at it, nearly unseeing.

“Working on your cell phone theory?” Ty said, coming to stand by him.

Pete had delivered the scenario to the team last night, when they returned to base frustrated, strung out, and not a little worried. Thankfully, the predicted storm hadn’t rolled in, yet.

The fact that the temperatures held above freezing in the mid-forties last night, and Chet’s reminder that Sam had taken emergency gear with him, were the only things that kept Pete from heading back out.

Besides, they’d find nothing in the dark.

Senator Starr had other ideas, but Sierra, who’d spent the evening with the congregation at the church, had calmed him down, kept them all abreast of the search.

The congregation was probably still holding their prayer vigil.

“We’re thinking Polebridge,” Pete said. “It seems to fit the window of the call.” He turned to Ty. “Let’s get the rest of the team in here. We have an hour before sunrise to figure this out.”

His gaze landed on Jess, who was leaning against the table, but she looked away fast, set her coffee cup down, and headed upstairs to where Kacey Fairing slept in the women’s bunk room.

“Gage is on his way down,” Ty said. He had his cell phone out, probably to call Ben and Chet, who lived just down the road. “I think Miles is in Chet’s office, on the sofa.”

Pete headed to the office. Sure enough, Miles Dafoe lay on the sofa, his head at an awkward angle against the arm.

“I have an idea,” Pete said into the darkness, and Miles opened one eye, as if he hadn’t really been sleeping.

“Pour me coffee,” Miles said as he sat up.

Twenty minutes later, with the night turning to grays, the moon low in the west, the team gathered around the map. To Pete’s surprise, even Ian had shown up, unshaven, wearing a sweatshirt, cargo pants, and hiking boots, back in the SAR game.

Pete had already cleared his idea with Miles, who leaned against the table, on his second cup of java, watching.

“We have a very sketchy PLS, so we’re going to have to get creative,” Pete said. “Let’s brainstorm probable scenarios. Given that they headed toward Polebridge, where did they go? The closest hikes are the Quartz Lake trail and the Hidden Meadow hike.”

“How about the Logging Creek trail?” Gage said. “It’s not as far north, but there’s an unstaffed ranger station there—it could have cell service.”

“We’re assuming they stayed in the park,” Ben said. He wore his baseball cap backward, his hands over his chest. “The Camas Road hooks up with the outside North Fork Road. They might have headed south, to the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center. There’s also a ranger station there—with cell service.”

“We’ll call them, see if the kids were there,” Pete said.

“It hit the news last night,” Sierra said. She’d come over from the church. The stress of the last twenty-four hours and managing the terrified parents didn’t show on her face. Although, admittedly, Sierra never looked rattled. She carried Gopher, the cute golden retriever pup. He rested his snout on her shoulder, still sleepy. “Maybe someone will have seen them, will call in.”

“What about . . . well, have we thought about the lookout tower?” Jess stepped up to the map, pointed at the Numa Ridge tower. “Willow—”

“Has a thing for lookout towers. You’re right, Jess,” Pete said and flashed her a smile.

His heart gave a little jump when she met his eyes, gave a quick grin in return.

So, maybe his words were sinking in. “I’m not just out for a good time, Jess.”

“What if they went up to the Numa hike and maybe got lost or hurt?” Sierra said.

“We did a flyby yesterday, but not nearly that far north,” Kacey said. She wore her jumpsuit, had downloaded the weather reports for the day. Now she stepped up to the map, pointed to Bowman Lake and Numa Ridge. “We could start canvassing that area.”

Pete shot a look at Miles, who leaned up from the table.

“All right,” Miles said. “Gage, you and Ian take the medical van and head over to the Logging Creek trail and station. Ben and Kacey, establish an aerial search around the Numa Ridge Lookout hike, and include Bowman Lake. Pete, grab your truck and head up to Quartz Creek. Ty and Jess, take Ty’s Silverado, go farther north, toward Polebridge. If you need to, head all the way to Bowman Lake. Call in everything you find—anything. We have about a six-hour window on this storm front. So, today, people, we bring these kids home.”

The team began to disperse, including Jess, who headed out the door, her hair pulled back and cascading out of the opening in her baseball cap. She didn’t even look Pete’s direction as she followed Ty out the door.

Pete had the strangest urge to grab Ty. Tell him to keep her safe.

And, right behind that, the irritating pinch of frustration.

“We’ll find them,” Chet said, coming over from his spot behind the team and clamping Pete on the shoulder. “You did a good job, there. Sam would be proud.”

Pete managed a tight, grim smile and headed outside.

He caught Jess in the barn, checking her supply pack and getting water. Pete had passed Ty outside adding his gear to the truck; Gage was in the yard, checking supplies in the medical van.

Pete picked up a radio and a vest. Glanced at Jess.

Her mouth was a tight bud of concentration.

“Jess—”

“We’ll talk when we get back.”

“That’s not what I was going to say.”

She looked at him then, and he startled at the unfamiliar, skittish expression in her eyes.

He took a step toward her. Touched her cheek. “I was just going to say watch out for bears.”

The wariness evaporated, leaving behind only her smile, and it reached in, chased away the chill, put him back together a little.

“You don’t want me snuggling up with Ty?” she said, tease back in her beautiful eyes.

Pete cut his voice low. “I’d have to murder him, and figuring out where to hide the body might be a challenge with this crew.”

He couldn’t help it. Despite the yelling in his head, the fact he might be breaking promises to God, and all because she was still smiling up at him, he leaned down and kissed her. Sweetly, his fingers just barely touching her face.

She kissed him back, softness in her touch, as if, yes, everything would be fine.

He lifted his head, met her eyes. “Please be careful out there.”

She nodded, and he watched her walk out to Ty.

“You’re just out for yourself—always good-timin’ Pete, right?”

Not anymore. And he planned on proving it.

“Okay, bro, I’m coming to find you.”

divider

“Am I seeing things, or is there some hanky-panky going on with you and Pete?”

Ty sat in the truck, one arm propped over the steering wheel, wearing a wool cap, a blue PEAK fleece, a pair of cargo pants, and hiking boots—not at all his standard ranch wear. He hadn’t shaved maybe for a few days, and his dark beard set off those piercing green eyes. Flash his cowboy smile, and he could reduce the average woman to a puddle. In fact, during their high school years when she’d spent spring break out west skiing with him and his family, he had that exact effect on Jess.

That was then. Now, she glanced at him, her entire body strung tight as she hung on to her seat belt. “No. Yes. I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Jess. Are you in trouble here?” His low baritone had a softness to it, that layer of understanding that he so loyally kept from everyone else.

She closed her eyes, then looked away to the forest, at the mist rising from the valleys, the low clouds that tufted the mountaintops. The sun had just begun to peek over the ridges, the sky a glorious striated gold and umber. She took another sip of her coffee, needing the bracing heat.

Especially after the way Pete had kissed her. Impossibly tender. Pete was all fun and passion, but the gentleness in him could undo her. And, the fact that he could turn her world silent with one look in his blue eyes scared her a little.

She just might be in over her head.

“I said something stupid,” she said. “He mentioned something about Willow, and I responded with the fact that people keep secrets.”

“What? Jess!”

“I know—I don’t know what I was thinking. It just came out, and then he turned all curious on me and told me that he wanted to know me, about my life, and that after we found Sam, how he was planning to show up on my doorstep. That he wanted . . . more.”

Pete said that?”

“He even said that he wanted to meet my family.”

Ty’s eyebrows went up. “Oh. Bummer.”

She pressed her hand to her forehead. “I should have seen this coming. I don’t know how I got so stupid. I just thought—well, it’s Pete. And he’s not necessarily known for, I don’t know, being a guy who wants a relationship.”

“Right,” Ty said. “But you’re not one of Pete’s normal girls, right? I mean, you’re not just interested in—”

“No, of course not. I’m not that kind of girl. Really—”

Ty’s hand on her arm stopped her. “Calm down, Jess. I know, okay?”

She took a breath, let the knot in her chest uncoil. “Okay.”

“So, what are you going to do? Tell him about your dad, and New York, and the trial—”

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I thought I left that behind two years ago. I mean, if you weren’t here, no one would even know, right?”

“Not unless they went digging. No one would expect you to be hiding out in a small town in Montana.”

“A few people—the right people—might.”

He confirmed with his silence.

“If I haven’t said so before, thank you. I’m not sure what I would have done had you not rescued me.”

“I hardly rescued you, Jess. You would have been fine on your own. For the record, I’m glad you called. It’s the least I could do. By the way, I still have your back. If Pete does you wrong, you let me know, okay?”

Sweet. But . . . “What if I do him wrong? I mean, I can’t keep him in the dark forever, right? He could so easily look it up on the internet. Google me.”

“Aside from the fact that Pete can barely use his cell phone, what’s he going to do? He doesn’t know your full name, and it’s not like you have any connection to your life back in New York City. You’re a different person now, Jess. Even I can see that.”

Oh, she hoped so.

“But,” he added, “if you want your life here to stay hidden and intact, you have to stay under the radar.” He slowed as they passed the turnoff for Quartz Lake. “And that means the fewer people to keep your secret, the better. By the way, keep your eyes out for the van. Maybe it slid off the road.”

She sighed, took another sip of coffee. “I can’t lie to Pete. It’s one thing to keep my past in the dark, it’s another to invent something.” Her gaze scanned the ditch, looking for skid marks. Here, forest edged the road, but as they ascended, it would drop away into valleys and harrowing cliffs.

She’d been up here once, with Willow, visiting her mother at her commune.

Ty had his eyes on the road. “So, what happens if you tell him?”

She stiffened. “I don’t want him to see me like that—the woman who ratted out her father to save herself.”

“Only you see it that way. Others see a woman who was trying to do the right thing.” Ty slowed as he went around a curve, and shot her a look.

She didn’t take her eyes off the shoulder. “It doesn’t feel like the right thing. Not when I think of my father sitting in jail. And the fact I put him there.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It’s exactly that simple, Ty. And, Pete’s already been betrayed by his brother. Imagine how he would feel about me if he knew I betrayed my entire family.”

Clearly she’d made her point because Ty grew silent beside her.

“The problem is, I never planned on telling anyone. I was perfectly happy just being one of the team, living my life, fixing my house. I didn’t plan on—”

“Falling in love?”

They’d reached Polebridge, and now Ty paused at a stop sign.

“I’m not in love with Pete.”

Ty gave her a look, then took a right, toward Bowman Lake.

“You’ve been in love with Pete Brooks since he walked into your life wearing a New York Giants T-shirt.”

“That helped.” She smiled at the sweet memory, the image of Pete, his blond hair tied back, his shoulders outlined in that royal blue shirt, wearing a pair of faded jeans and tossing a football to Ty.

Yeah, one look at those mesmerizing blue eyes and her heart had stopped cold.

It restarted with his delicious smile.

Oh. No. She couldn’t be in love with Pete Brooks. He was supposed to be safe. A teammate. The exact wrong person for her to fall for.

“Like I said, you’re in trouble, aren’t you?”

She gave a sad nod.

“What’s that?” She pointed to skid marks in the pavement, a churn of grass and brush along the side of the road.

Ty pulled into the ditch and had barely slowed before Jess hopped out.

She stood up and traced the path of debris left by a fast-moving vehicle as it careened off the highway and down the side of the mountain—bushes decimated, a tree splintered, another broken and bent over the path.

Ty came around, holding his pack and hers. She took it, clipped it on. “C’mon.”

She picked her way down the slope, her heart lodged in her throat at the sight of scattered red taillight glass, the scrape of white paint across bark, and, just twenty feet from the edge of a cliff, a cell phone.

She picked it up, tried it. “No juice.”

Ty stood at the edge of the cliff. “Oh no.”

Jess had been in enough emergency situations with Ty for his tone of voice to turn her cold. She joined him. “Is that . . .”

“It looks like the church van.”

Crushed, upside down, about sixty feet down. It looked like it had careened off the cliff, bounced off a ledge just below them, and slammed top down in the ravine below. Glass shattered out of the windows, but she didn’t see any bodies.

“We gotta get down there,” she said.

“I’ll call it in,” Ty said and moved away from the edge to get HQ on his radio.

She set up a rappel system to a nearby sturdy pine, climbed into her harness, and by the time Ty returned, had the descender attached.

She ignored the crazy urge to rap jump. She wasn’t that brave, especially without Pete. She pulled on her gloves, put on her helmet. Looked up at Ty.

“Pete’s on his way, and Miles is diverting the chopper this direction. Be careful. I’ll be right behind you.”

She nodded and stepped over the edge.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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