Wild Montana Skies | Chapter 8 of 26

Author: Susan May Warren | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 3032 Views | Add a Review

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As much as she wanted to throttle Willow—and Audrey, for that matter—Kacey didn’t have a thought beyond trying to decipher if Ben might actually be asphyxiating.

He had his mouth open, his eyes widening, his breath hitching—maybe not about to perish, but as his mouth closed, he looked very much like he’d had the wind knocked out of him.

“My . . . daughter?” He cast a look at Willow, then back to Kacey.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you serious right now? That you didn’t know, for the past thirteen years, that you had a daughter? Wait, don’t tell me. Did you miss the fact that I was pregnant? Don’t tell me you have selective amnesia right now, because I remember every detail, from the pickles to the ice cream runs.” She had other details she remembered too, but she wouldn’t bring them up in front of a group of within-earshot teenagers.

“Yeah, I remember, thanks,” he said, his voice sharp. “And yes, I know you had a baby.” He cleared his throat, cut his voice low. “Know we had a baby, but—”

“What did you think happened, Ben? That she vanished?”

And that was when he caught her around the elbow and, before she could recover from her shock, dragged her outside.

He pulled the door shut behind him.

“What?”

“Are you kidding me? If we were in cell phone range, those kids would be tweeting right now.”

“Tweeting—that’s what you’re worried about?” And now she would have to dismember him. “You have a daughter.”

“Stop talking.” He held up his hand. “Just give me a second here.”

And then he bent and grabbed his knees, as if his head might be spinning.

Seriously? “Ben, what is going on? You didn’t know about Audrey? At all?”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” He walked away from her, running his hands through his hair.

Seriously?

Her mouth opened, even as he whirled around.

She had no response for his stripped, incredulous expression.

“I called,” he said on a wisp of voice. “I called and called and—”

“You didn’t show up for her birth! You were sitting in jail, drunk! I know, because my father told me.”

He sucked in a breath. “That’s not the whole story.” And he wore such a broken expression she had to turn away.

She refused to feel any sympathy for him. Instead, she blew out a breath, hands on her hips. A low-pressure system gathered in the west, evidenced by the low-hanging thunderclouds. She didn’t like it.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s over, and now we have to find Audrey,” he said, as if reading her mind.

“Agreed.” She stepped back inside the cabin, her entire body trembling.

Thankfully, it seemed that despite an outburst that felt like shouting to Kacey, the youth group had been oblivious to the revelation. Small mercies.

Willow, however, had turned ashen. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that Ben didn’t know.”

She could hardly blame the sister of Audrey’s godmother. After all, for all Sierra knew, Ben had walked out on them the night Audrey was born.

So much for the abandonment story. Although, until this very moment, it had been true.

“It’s okay,” she said to Willow. “But I don’t understand—what is Audrey doing with the Mercy Falls youth group? She attends church in Whitefish with my parents.”

Willow’s mouth made a silent O. “Well, that probably has something to do with Nate.”

“Nate.”

“Oh, they are so cute. Nate’s had a thing for her since—”

“Willow! Who is Nate?”

“Sorry. They play in a band together at their middle school, and since she doesn’t have a youth group at her church in Whitefish, she started playing for us and attending some of our extracurricular events. Like this hike.”

“Perfect. Where did they go?”

The door had opened, and Ben stepped in behind her. She felt his presence, solid, a wall of anger and not a little frustration, and it raised the little hairs on her neck.

But she’d spent twelve years in the military, in hot spots around the globe, and a little ire from Ben wasn’t going to faze her.

Her biggest concern, right after locating Audrey and Nate, was keeping Ben quiet.

The last thing her confused thirteen-year-old daughter needed was her absent, superstar father rising from nowhere to complicate her life. And what would Kacey do if Ben sang her daughter a song, made her fall for him, then walked out of her life the millisecond she actually needed him?

Nope. Audrey already had a semi-absent mom. She couldn’t be saddled with a disappearing father.

“I don’t know. It was supposed to be a three-day trip. We hiked the trail up here two days ago, and when we went to leave yesterday, we realized the trail had been washed out. With the rain on the mountain, Jared suggested we lay low in the chalet for another day. He was thinking we’d hike out today via the Loop Trail. They must have sneaked out yesterday afternoon—we didn’t notice them missing until last night, and we went looking, but it got dark so fast, and we didn’t know what to do—”

“You don’t leave two kids out in the elements overnight!” Ben snapped. “It snowed in the park last night.”

“I know. We walked down the Highline Trail as far as we could and didn’t see them. We weren’t equipped to search in the dark and had no way to contact anyone. That’s why Jared hiked out today—to get help.” And now Willow looked like she might be unraveling, her eyes shiny. “Listen, we didn’t know what to do. Nate’s dad is a forest ranger, so hopefully he has some sense about him.”

“It’s Audrey who has the sense,” Kacey said. “She’s been backpacking with me numerous times—she probably found them a place to hunker down.” She noticed that Jess had joined their conversation. “Can you pack me a survival first aid kit—water, food, blanket, simple splints? If they haven’t returned, it might be because one of them is injured.”

“Want me to go with you?” Jess asked. “The kids are good here—mostly just dehydrated.”

“No. Stay here, on coms. If we find them and need to pack them out, we’ll need you to go back to the chopper, meet us with gear.”

Jess nodded and turned to repack her bag.

Kacey glanced at Ben. “I don’t suppose I can talk you into—”

“I know where they are.”

She stared at him, words dropping away. His mouth tightened, and he raised an eyebrow.

Oh.

He raised a shoulder. “Why not, right? If his dad is a park ranger, he’s heard of the place. And if you’ve told your daughter—our daughter—anything about—”

“No. I haven’t.”

And that clearly hurt him, because he flinched. Then, “Right. Well, it’s worth a shot.”

Willow was staring at them, and now, as Jess returned with the pack, asked, “Where?”

“The fire lookout tower,” Kacey said. She grabbed the pack, pulled on the straps. “Stay on the radio, Jess.”

Ben had already pushed through the door.

She had to run to catch up to his long strides carrying him away from the chalet. He strode with purpose, a darkness in his expression.

Now was probably not the time to . . . “Ben, can we talk?”

“About what? Or rather, where do we start? Maybe with the fact that you told me you were going to put the baby up for adoption?”

Ho-kay. She slowed her breathing. If he wanted to run all the way to the tower—wait. “Adoption? Why would I—”

“You know why. Because of your mother.”

And that hurt, a blow right to her solar plexus. She fought the urge to press her hand there, ward off the ache. “I only suggested it once. And I didn’t mean it.”

“It sounded like you meant it. And when your dad showed up and told me—”

“What do you mean, when my dad showed up?”

The sky had turned a greenish black, the wind carrying an edge as it slid through her jacket. When Ben stopped, rounding on her, she could have sworn he carried the change of weather in his expression. “I called him, hoping he’d get me out of jail. And by the way, I wasn’t drunk. I’d been fighting.”

Something in his expression contained a dare. Always did, in a way. She could never ignore it.

“Who were you fighting, Ben?”

He shook his head slowly. Took a breath. Met her eyes.

His blue-eyed gaze always had the power to sweep her breath away, to make her heart stop, to still the world around her and center it on just him.

The wind shrilled, whipping between them.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he finally said. “But your dad came down to the jail and told me that you never wanted to see me again. That you were going to put the baby up for adoption and that I should leave.”

He turned back up the trail, striding hard. “He said I had nothing to give you and that I should make something out of my life and let you do the same. And, if I didn’t leave town, he’d make sure I ended up in prison.”

She ran up next to him. “My dad would never do that.”

He lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Ask him.” He topped the ridge, stopped, and pointed to a building a mile ahead. “There’s the lookout.”

Not an impressive building, save for its view overlooking the Swiftcurrent Basin all the way to Grinnell Glacier to the southeast and Iceberg Lake to the north. But with windows on each side, the fire lookout could spot smoke for hundreds of miles into East Glacier.

The perfect place for a teenage boy to take a girl if he wanted to impress her.

Kacey’s mouth tightened.

Ask him.

“I don’t care what my dad said to you. You shouldn’t have left.”

“I’m thinking that very thing right now,” he said quietly as he moved up the trail. “But I was seventeen, scared, hurt, and frankly you weren’t taking my calls.”

“I’d just had the most traumatic experience of my life—giving birth—without the father of my child. I was angry. But then you left . . . you just . . . left.”

He said nothing as he climbed over another ridge, set down the trail.

“I hated you,” she said, a sort of confession that took the edge off her anger.

“I guessed that.”

“I told her you’d abandoned us.”

She’d caught up to him and now saw his jaw had tightened.

“I suppose there’s truth in that.” His voice was tight, calm.

It only sparked her ire. “What is your deal?”

He rounded again on her so fast she slammed right into him. He caught her by the arms, and she realized how much he’d grown, taller by at least a couple inches, and he had a fierceness to his features she hadn’t seen before. His beard had filled out, and his eyes nearly glowed with something unnamed. She stepped back, a little unnerved.

His voice was whisper-low, steel-edged. “I’m so angry at you right now, I can’t breathe, okay? I can’t believe that you didn’t write to me, didn’t take my calls, and didn’t even think that I would want to know that I had a daughter. I can’t believe that after all these years you never once let me into her life. Frankly, I’m trying to keep myself from throwing you off this mountain.”

She stared at him, trying not to be undone, rattled.

Then he turned and headed again up the trail.

Shoot.

“Ben!”

But he didn’t stop.

“Ben, listen, here’s the thing. I know you’re angry—okay, I get that. You’re right, I should have contacted you. But you left—”

“We’ll just go round and round on that, Kacey. It’s not going to help.”

“Fine. But I had to go on. To do something. So I got a job.”

“You joined the army.” He caught his breath then, glanced over his shoulder. “Which effectively means you abandoned her. Our daughter. What kind of mom does that?”

She recoiled, his words a slap. “The kind who is serving her country.”

“Your country shouldn’t come before your family.”

“Tell that to the over 1.3 million active-duty soldiers out there protecting your freedom!”

His voice turned lethal. “Tell that to your daughter, who is lost out there, cold, maybe hypothermic—”

She didn’t think, her arm moving nearly on its own as she reached out to slap him.

As if on reflex, he caught her wrist, jerked back.

But the movement shocked them both as he recoiled. He clenched his jaw, his chest rising and falling.

She swallowed, jerked her arm from his grip, shaking. “Sorry, but—”

“No. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure she’s fine.”

She looked away, her eyes blurring.

Then, quietly, “You could have called me. I would have come home, taken care of her—”

“And sacrificed your brilliant, amazing, star-studded country music career?” Oh, she didn’t mean for all the derision to fill her voice. Really. “Don’t tell me you would have given up your dreams to come home and babysit.” She turned back to him, didn’t mask the accusing expression.

His eyes narrowed, but maybe she’d finally landed a blow in truth. He turned away, striding again down the path.

She stalked after him. “I know what you said, but let’s just get really honest here. Admit it—the idea of a child and a wife depending on you probably scared the stuffing out of you. You didn’t want the responsibility, the burden of providing for a family. You wanted your freedom and were all too happy to let my dad give it to you.”

And that was when he whirled around again, his expression black.

His fists balled at his sides, released, tightened again. “I loved you. I wanted you. And yeah, I might have been scared, but I meant it when I asked you to marry me.”

Oh.

His gaze held hers. And, shoot, if her eyes didn’t start to burn. Stupid wind, whipping over the tundra, cutting through the rocks.

“Ben.” Her voice trembled, so she schooled it, tried again. “I have to ask you not to tell her.”

He blinked then, the fury on his face dissipating to what she guessed was disbelief.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” He turned away. “Not on your life.”

“Ben!” She put a hand to his arm, tugged, and with something that sounded like a stifled curse, he relented.

“What?”

“She’s going through puberty. And she’s . . . well, clearly she’s not thinking straight because why else would she run away with this boy?”

He raised an eyebrow. Then bit the inside of his mouth, considering her. “Huh.”

“You know what I mean. It’ll just confuse her. And I haven’t even seen her yet—”

“Doesn’t she know you’re coming home?”

She made a face, and he rolled his eyes, looked away. “Nice. Wow, Kacey. So, the first time she’s seen you in, how long . . . ?”

“Six months—”

“And you’re tracking her down while she’s on a romantic escape with her boyfriend.”

“He’s not her boyfriend, and by the way, you might consider being a little protective here. She is your daughter, after all.”

His eyes widened. “Make up your mind. Is she or isn’t she?”

She licked her lips, then caught her bottom one between her teeth. “I—”

“Geez, Kacey. What do you want from me? Do I get to be her dad or not?”

“I don’t know, okay? I never thought this day would come.”

“You thought I wouldn’t ever find out? Sheesh. I live in Mercy Falls too. Which is weird. Why did my dad not—wait, does he know?” A hand went up around the back of his neck. “Oh my gosh—”

“I don’t know, Ben. My parents moved to Whitefish right after Audrey was born. I always thought your folks knew and didn’t care but . . . maybe not.”

The look he gave her could have turned her to ash. “My mother died without knowing she had a granddaughter.”

Kacey winced. “I’m sorry.”

“Mmmhmm.”

“Please, Ben. I know you’re angry, but this isn’t about you. It’s about Audrey. If you tell her, she’ll just get attached, and then when you leave, go back to your life in Nashville, it’ll destroy her.”

She didn’t know how to interpret his grim look, the tightening around his eyes.

And that’s when she heard it, a voice, light and crisp, hanging on the wind. “Mom? Mom!”

She searched for it, and there—thirty feet below, on an outcropping of rock—Audrey stood waving, jumping up and down, then yelling as she scrambled up toward the trail.

Kacey headed down to her, over tundra and rock, trampling wildflowers and climbing over boulders as Audrey worked her way up to her.

An ugly scrape reddened her chin, her chestnut hair lay in tangles, and she’d been crying, evidenced by the swelling around her beautiful blue eyes. “I knew you’d come—I knew it. I know it was crazy, but I prayed and asked God to send you and he did.” She flung herself into Kacey’s arms.

Kacey didn’t know what she’d done to curry God’s favor, but she agreed her beautiful daughter deserved all the breaks she could get. She pulled the girl to herself, tucking her head over her daughter’s, trying not to cry, failing.

Audrey looked up at her, ran a hand under her runny nose. “We were walking back from the lookout in the dark, and it started to rain and snow, and then Nate fell—”

“Fell?” Ben, of course. “How far?”

“He’s down below the ledge. I think he broke something. He’s in so much pain, I was afraid to leave him. And then . . .” Her gaze had turned to Ben, and she frowned, blinking.

“Do I—wait. Do I know you?”

Kacey froze, looked at Ben, her eyes wide.

Ben seemed unable to respond because his mouth opened, closed.

Kacey silently begged him. Please.

“Wait, I do know you.”

Audrey stepped out of Kacey’s embrace, her hand over her mouth.

Oh no, no. “Honey, I can explain—”

“Oh, Mom. I can’t believe it!” Audrey’s hand trembled as she grabbed Kacey’s arm. “This is, this is . . . Benjamin King!”

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Ben had experienced awkward fan moments in his life, but nothing compared to having his own daughter list her favorite songs off his albums, rattle on about the concert she’d attended last summer at Countryfest in Kalispell, and ask to take a picture with him once they got Nate off the mountain.

Nate, too, seemed to recover a smidgen when Ben scrambled down behind Audrey to his resting place. He’d fallen some forty feet from the ridgeline—not a straight drop but steep enough for him to tumble hard, until he finally landed on an outcropping about ten feet wide.

Beyond his perch, the mountain dropped fast another two hundred feet or so to another hilly descent of razor-sharp ledge rock, spires of black pine, and tangles of blueberry brier.

Ben hated to think what might have happened had Nate’s ankle not caught on the rocks. It was broken, but it had saved his life.

Apparently, Audrey had chased him down the hill, tried to make him comfortable. “Then the sun set and it started to snow, and I couldn’t leave him,” she said. “This morning, he didn’t want me to leave, but I finally decided that I had to if I wanted to save us both.”

Audrey had led them to their bunker, where she’d managed to pile rocks around them for a windbreak. She’d also scraped up tundra and spread it out for a bed and warmth and ripped up scrub branches for a meager ceiling.

By huddling together in the shelter, they’d survived the chilly night.

Now, Nate sat with his back to the hillside, his ankle grotesquely swollen, his face ashen. But he managed a smile, a flash of interest when Audrey announced that country music star Benjamin King had shown up to rescue him.

Not exactly, but the facts still fit.

Ben noticed that Kacey watched it all with a wary, gimlet expression. He still couldn’t believe she’d nearly slapped him. Her impulsive violence had probably shaken her as much as him, given her expression.

It had also, for a second, jerked him back to reality. To his stinging words. “What kind of mom does that?”

He might have deserved a slap.

But she gave back in kind. “You wanted your freedom and were all too happy to let my dad give it to you.”

He refused to let those words rattle around his brain, unseat his anger.

For thirteen years, she hadn’t reached out to him. He’d missed seeing his child take her first steps, lose her first tooth, read her first book, and call him Daddy.

“I have to ask you not to tell her.”

No. It wasn’t fair—and she knew it.

Kacey hunkered down next to Nate, probing his ankle after cutting open his pants leg. “I’m not an EMT, but I think you did more than sprain this. It clearly looks broken.” She tugged off his sock, and Nate let out a moan, but even Ben could see the gray, mottled skin. Bruised, and perhaps a lack of blood supply.

Ben reached out to touch the ankle, hearkening back to his first-responder training that SAR summer three years ago, and found the appendage icy cold.

“We’re going to need a stretcher,” he said, and got up. They’d already tried to contact Jess, but the mountains had turned their coms to static. “I’ll take Audrey back to the chalet, get the litter from the chopper, and be back as soon as I can.” He glanced at the gathering clouds and saw the gunmetal sheen of rain over the far western mountains.

Kacey seemed to read his mind. “Hopefully it’ll head south, but if we don’t move fast, we could get trapped here.”

Ben handed her his water bottle, glanced at Audrey. “Ready for a hike?”

For the first time, her fan glow faded and she glanced at her mother. “I want to stay with you.”

He knew the debate on Kacey’s face had nothing to do with her daughter’s pleading tone. No, as she flashed Ben a tight-mouthed glance, he knew she heard his words: “What do you want from me? Do I get to be her dad or not?”

He met her gaze, and then, despite the roar inside, gave her a quick shake of his head.

Okay. Fine. I won’t tell her. For now.

She turned back to Audrey, took her hand. “It’s okay, honey. I promise to take good care of Nate. You go back to the cabin with Ben and let us focus on rescuing Nate.”

Audrey nodded despite the tears edging her eyes. Smart girl.

Ben had the crazy urge to pull her close, to hold her and tell her everything would be okay.

That Daddy would take care of her.

He shook that thought away before it bubbled out.

Instead, he held out his hand. “C’mon. Let’s get going before we lose the sun.”

She took his grip, and he closed his hand around hers, so small and delicate in his. He pulled her up the hill, then put her in front of him as they hiked back to the chalet.

He made contact with Jess halfway there, and she was waiting for them, pacing outside as he came down the trail, the sun at his back, a sweat under his jacket. Willow came out to enclose Audrey in a hug, then draw her inside the chalet, listening to the story.

Ben updated Jess on Nate.

“Nate isn’t the only one who needs medical attention. I have one of the girls here who is insulin dependent. She just used her last shot. She’d packed extras, just in case, but that what-if is here, and she won’t last until tomorrow. We need to get her out tonight.”

But with the ceiling falling and the sun fading . . .

Jess had already assembled her first aid pack and hiked/ran to the chopper with Willow to retrieve the litter. Together, they climbed back to the pass, and he and Jess hiked to Kacey and injured Nate.

Kacey had already splinted his ankle, applied body warmers to his core, and cleared the area for the litter. He and Kacey lifted Nate into the basket, then covered him in blankets. Jess took his blood pressure, gave him a quick assessment.

“Okay, we’re ready.”

Ben didn’t like the pallor on the kid’s face. He grabbed the back of the litter. “I’ll try and keep him as level as possible—you just keep climbing.”

Kacey and Jess took the head and they worked their way up the hill, silent, breathing hard as Nate groaned and cried out as they jostled him.

By the time they reached the chalet, the wind had turned Ben’s fingers numb as flurries pecked at his cheeks and neck.

A fire blazed in the stove of the chalet dining area, the room cozy and safe from the elements. Still, the aura of fatigue and not a little fear bullied the mood as they set Nate on the floor.

Audrey and the rest of the youth group gathered around him as Ben drew Kacey and Jess aside.

“I’m not sure it’s safe to fly out of here.”

“The ceiling is dropping, but I don’t see what choice we have,” Kacey said. “I can fly us out, but not if we wait much longer. His ankle is bad. It has a scant blood supply, but he could lose his foot.”

“Then I think you and Jess should fly out with Nate and the diabetic girl. I’ll stay the night with the kids and we’ll hike down the Loop Trail in the morning.”

Kacey frowned at him. “I’m not leaving without Audrey.”

“She’s fine, Kacey,” Jess said. “A little banged up, but I checked her out. She’s not hypothermic, and she’s safe here with the kids. There’s really no room for her in the chopper.”

Kacey’s mouth formed a bud of disagreement.

“I promise, she’ll be fine, Kacey.” Ben didn’t exactly know how else to say it without giving her away. No, Kacey, I won’t tell our daughter, who seems to think I hung the moon, that I’m her father.

“We’re running out of daylight,” Jess said quietly.

Kacey shook her head. “I don’t like it.”

“I promise,” Ben said again quietly.

The words seemed to register, and Kacey finally nodded. She stepped away from him. “Audrey, c’mere, honey.”

Whatever she said to her daughter as she pulled her away from the group had Audrey shaking her head, throwing her arms around her mother. Hanging on.

And the sight of it did crazy, unbidden things inside him. He couldn’t place the emotions that churned up. Jealousy? Compassion? Frustration?

Then, Kacey looked his direction and back to Audrey, and Audrey’s eyes widened.

His breath caught. Kacey didn’t . . .

Kacey stood up and walked over to him, her arm around Audrey. “I told her that you might be willing to sing her a couple of your hits,” she said, offering a small smile. “I didn’t realize she was such a big fan.”

A concession, he knew it. But he couldn’t place the odd rush of relief. Didn’t he want her to know?

“Be glad to,” he said to Audrey.

Audrey grinned at him, and right then, his world stopped. Sure, he recognized Kacey in the shape of her face, oval with strong cheekbones, and those freckles on her nose. Her chestnut hair seemed the right blend of Kacey’s auburn and his dark brown. And she had Kacey’s body, just a hint of curves at this age. In fact, if he stepped back, he could easily make out the girl he’d once known when he’d run off to show her the view from Swiftcurrent Lookout.

But for all that, the girl before him had his eyes. Blue and shiny, so much hope in them.

He recognized a dreamer’s expression.

He dredged up his own smile. “We’ll have a regular sing-along if that helps keep us warm.”

He turned to Kacey. “Let’s get you loaded up.”

They hiked with Nate and Jess’s diabetic patient to the chopper, and he secured Nate in, then stepped back to watch as Kacey lifted them off the hillside. The storm had moved south, but night crept up around them to meet the pewter sky. The chopper dropped away from the mountain pass, then soared across the basin before gaining altitude and disappearing into the clouds.

Ben stood alone on the mountain, the wind in his jacket, listening to the whump-whump of blades calling him a fool.

How did he expect to spend the next twenty-four hours with his daughter without telling her the truth?

Willow had fed the stove, turning the room toasty warm. He heard her in the kitchen area, humming, and when he took off his jacket and unzipped the neck on his jumpsuit, he followed the smell and found her stirring up a pot of beef ravioli procured from some opened MREs. “I found some dried oregano and garlic powder—that’ll liven it up,” Willow said as he bent over the pot and inhaled.

His stomach jumped to life, growled.

Willow grinned at him. Then, quietly, “Sorry about that, back there. I didn’t know that, well, you didn’t know.”

“I understand,” he said and fought to keep the derision from his voice. “Kacey thinks she has her reasons, but . . .” He lifted a shoulder. “She wants me to keep it to myself for now. Doesn’t want Audrey to know until—I don’t know. Maybe until she turns thirty-five?”

Willow gave him a look. “Or maybe until she can tell her? It isn’t like you’ve been around.”

“I’ve been back to Mercy Falls three times since Audrey was born. And I was here the entire summer Ian Shaw’s niece went missing. I promise, I’ve been around.”

“And that might be the problem. Because it’s not like you’re just some cowboy down on the ranch. You’re Benjamin King, chart topper, CMA host, and the lead singer of Montgomery-King. You have to admit that it couldn’t have been easy for Kacey to see you and Hollie Montgomery together.”

“We’re not together.”

“It sure looked like you two might be. And the tabloids—”

“Lied. Hollie and I flirted, sure, but she didn’t really want me. She wanted what I could give her—and frankly, the feeling was mutual.”

Okay, the smallest of lies—because early on, he’d thought they might be more. His manager, Goldie, had found him the perfect match for his husky, country tones with Hollie’s blonde, country sweet soprano. She was flirt to his ballads, flash to his cowboy persona. And he supposed she’d injected life into his nose-diving career.

Willow considered him as she stirred the ravioli. “Rumor has it that you two broke up.”

“This time, the press got it right. She’s going solo.”

“And you?”

Reeling. Regrouping.

“Helping my dad get back on his feet.”

Willow nodded. “Sierra keeps me updated. Said you moved in with him.”

“Just until I can get him to pack up and head back to Nashville with me.”

“Good luck with that. PEAK Rescue is his whole life.”

And that, thank you, he knew all too well.

He headed into the dining area and sat on one of the picnic table benches, listening to the chatter. Audrey sat cross-legged on the floor, her hands moving as she told the story of Nate’s fall and their treacherous night on the mountain.

She possessed a sort of energy, a charisma in her storytelling that had him hearkening back to his early days when he’d step up to an open mic and summon the courage to sing a song.

If not for Kacey, he might not have even opened his mouth. But she’d believed in his dreams, even if they seemed crazy and out of reach.

He’d held on to that belief despite the wounds, working the honky tonks and dives until he got his break. And even then, he’d spent most of those first five years on the road, touring, one venue after another to earn sales, fans.

Snapping pictures with mothers and daughters, not unlike Kacey and Audrey, signing autographs, and generally building a persona that paid the bills.

Making him a better man than the one he’d left behind.

Audrey finally finished talking, then looked over at Ben, grinning. “And then, all of a sudden, I realized that not only had Mom found me but she’d brought along Benjamin King!” She got up then, and walked over to him and sat down opposite him at the table. “And it’s been bugging me all day. How do you know my mom?”

Ten pairs of eyes on him, but he only saw Audrey’s—blue, piercing, shining—and he wondered if she was clinging to some idea that he and her mother might be . . . well, exactly what they were. Old sweethearts.

“My family lived in Mercy Falls, so I knew your mother growing up. We were . . . school friends.” True enough. “I came home to help my dad and got called in on the SAR team today. I didn’t know she flew helicopters.”

“Oh yeah,” Audrey said. “She got a medal a couple years ago for saving some guys in Afghanistan.”

Ben tried to wrap his head around that, and again regretted his words about Kacey serving as a soldier. Of course she was a hero.

“So you and my mom were friends, huh?” Audrey said. “Did you, like, hang out?”

Why not? He’d discovered from his press interviews that if he could give them something, they’d stop digging so deep. “Yeah. We even went hiking—this very pass. I took her up to the lookout.”

Oops. Audrey’s eyes widened, her mouth opened. “Really?”

And right then, he knew exactly what she’d been doing with Nate.

He stilled, rocked by the sudden flash of anger—something proprietary and dark.

But he couldn’t rightly reprimand her—not here, not now. But wow, it didn’t take him long to turn into a hovering father.

“Yeah. But we were just . . . well, we got lost too. So I guess—”

“You got lost?”

“Didn’t you say you wanted to hear a song?”

To his great relief, the other members of the youth group rose to his suggestion. One of them got up, found a guitar next to the bookcase, a troubadour’s offering, and handed it to him.

He set it over his knee, avoiding Audrey’s blue-eyed gaze on him. He could almost hear her questions forming.

“I recorded this song about ten years ago, on my first album. You were all probably too young to know it, but it’s a song about a kid just like you, who dreams of something big.”

“I know this one!” Audrey said. “It’s ‘Mountain Song,’ right?”

A swell of warmth rose through him, choked him, and he barely pushed out his voice. “Yep.”

He wished for a banjo, a violin, or even his drummer as he played the intro riff. To his surprise, Audrey began to beat the table, in time, the other hand hitting her leg in the offbeat.

The girl—his girl—had his rhythm.

He hummed a few bars, then opened up the song.

Early riser, gonna catch the sun

Gotta start ’er early, gonna get her done

Rounding up the herd, putting on the brand

Then I’ll kick off my spurs and head out with the band

By now, the kids were clapping, a few of them humming along. “C’mon, now, those who know it.”

I’ve got a Mountain Song

I’m cowboy strong

Working all day

It’s where I belong

But after the work’s done

I’m gonna sing my song

Waiting on a break, hoping on a star

Believin’ that the dreamin’s gonna get me far

I’ve got a Mountain Song

He glanced over at Audrey, and she was grinning, bobbing her head, singing along.

This was how it should be. Father and daughter, singing together in tune.

“Okay, Audrey, the next verse is all you.”

Her eyes widened, and she shook her head.

“C’mon,” he said, waiting for her, humming.

“I can’t.”

“You can. Okay, let’s do it together.”

After the big game, the bonfire’s on

I got my pretty gal, doin’ nothing wrong

Wishing on stars, hoping in the night

Someday everything’s gonna work out right

Audrey mouthed the words, and he was almost there, Kacey tucked in his embrace as stars spilled into the night. His lips against her neck, the smell of autumn in her hair, the feeling that, yes, everything would be perfect.

The memory jolted him. Somehow he kept his smile. Caught up to the song.

As he finished the last verse, he looked to the darkness pressing against the window, seeing the girl he loved sitting on a high-top at the Gray Pony, her beautiful green eyes staring into his. “I believe in you, Ben. Someday, you’re going to make it.”

I find my tomorrow in the words of a song

All my dreamin’ is suddenly gone

I traded the mountain for Music Row

And everyone’s expecting me to put on a show

His voice grew soft, and the song turned into a ballad as he looked at his audience, now quiet, listening. He slowed, let the tenor that had won him two Grammies wind through them.

Somewhere back there, the mountain waits

Sorry, darlin’, but I’ll be home late

I’ve got a song to sing, the dream demands

C’mon, boys, let’s warm up the band

He let the chords nearly die out before he wound up with the final chorus.

The kids cheered as he ended with a hard, fast lick. The final notes hung in the air as he put the guitar away.

“Another one!” Audrey said, clapping.

And wow, he’d do just about anything to see that look on her face.

“It’s dinnertime,” Willow said from where she leaned on the doorframe. “I need helpers.”

A handful of teens rose to help her. Audrey got up, picked up the guitar, propped her leg on a bench, and set the guitar on her knee.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar.” She thumbed the strings, one at a time. “I keep trying to get Grandpa to let me take lessons, but . . .” She lifted her shoulder.

Grandpa. Aka, Judge Robert Fairing, the man who had lied to him, kept him from meeting his amazing daughter.

Ben barely kept himself from offering to come over, have a little face-to-face chat with Judge Fairing.

“Really?” Ben said instead. He came over, sat down on the bench next to her, and positioned her hand on the neck, her fingers on the fretboard. “That’s the G chord.”

She strummed, made a face.

“You’ll get it. Keep your strum loose, a down and up pattern for right now.”

She leaned over, catching her lower lip in her teeth.

Oh my—yes, she looked just like Kacey when she did that, and his heart nearly stopped beating.

Then, she looked up at him, her expression earnest. “Do you think . . . I mean, would you . . . could you teach me?”

And then his heart did stop. Because the yearning for it, the sudden yes that swelled inside him could crush him.

This so wasn’t fair.

“Yeah, sure.” He heard the words before he thought to stop them.

Shoot. She responded before he could pull the words back, temper them with something like, “I think we need to ask your mom.”

“Oh, that’s awesome!” She rushed into the kitchen. “I can’t believe it! Benjamin King is going to teach me how to play the guitar!”

Kacey was going to kill him.

As if reading his mind, Willow looked up from where she was serving ravioli, raised an eyebrow.

He got up, walked away. He didn’t have to answer to her. Didn’t have to answer to anyone. Audrey was his daughter, thank you.

He needed air.

Grabbing his coat, Ben headed toward the door, then stepped outside into the cool breath of night. It had stopped raining, but the air caught his breath, held it in a puff, and his nose burned with the frigid wind. Overhead, however, the clouds had parted, and stars winked from the dark, velvet vault.

He hummed the song, wondering if it was possible his dreams had gotten him too far.

Or maybe, in fact, they’d somehow inexplicably led him home.

He was standing there, the wind tucking around him, chilling him, pressing him to return inside, when he saw a light wink at the top of the trail leading down to the chalet.

More lost hikers? He waited, and another light, then a third appeared. Head lamps.

They came closer, and he made them out—one dressed in a lightweight green jacket, the other two in the heavier coats of PEAK Rescue.

“Ben King—no way. Is that you?”

This from the first guy, in the green jacket, who turned off his head lamp. Without the glare, Ben recognized his face, that too-confident smile. “Jared?” Ben held out his hand for the youth group leader. “Where did you come from?”

“I made it down to the foot of the Loop Trail and met up with some campers. They had a working radio, and we called in our position to the EMS. They sent up these two troublemakers.”

He gestured to the PEAK team members behind him, and only then did Ben recognize the wry smile of Pete Brooks and the chiseled, dark expression of team leader Miles Dafoe, both former classmates at Mercy High.

“Dude!” Pete thumped him on the back. “Sam didn’t mention you were back in town.”

He refrained from saying the same to Pete, who’d spent the last few summers working as a smokejumper out of nearby Ember, Montana.

“Just here for the fun,” Ben said.

Miles grinned, held out his hand. “Glad to have you back.” He motioned to the cabin. “Kids in there?”

“Yeah.”

Jared had already gone inside. Ben could hear the cheers of the youth group as he entered. Their hero, with more stories to keep them busy.

Probably a good thing. Ben wouldn’t survive another round of digging up memories and what-ifs. However, “Did you get an update on Kacey, by any chance?”

“Yeah, Chet updated us. She landed at Kalispell Regional Medical center about an hour ago.”

He hadn’t realized he’d been worried until a band released in his chest. “I was going to hike down with the kids in the morning.”

“We were already on our way—weren’t sure what we’d find. If the weather’s good, Kacey will chopper some of the campers out in the morning,” Miles said. “But we need to get back, and pronto.”

He frowned, especially at the way Pete’s smile vanished into a dark, grim line. “Why?”

“A body washed up in the flood. Probably caught in the Mercy River somewhere, and the flooding jostled it loose. It’s pretty decayed, but . . . well, Sam is afraid that it might be the body of Dante James, the boy who disappeared three years ago . . . with Esme Shaw.”

divider

Ian Shaw’s fresh start would begin tonight.

After three years of fruitless searching for a girl who clearly didn’t want to be found, meeting Kacey Fairing had woken him up to the hope of a new beginning.

Kacey Fairing, despite her initial cold shoulder, was exactly who Chet had portrayed. Level-headed, able to untangle chaos to do her job. When Ian had seen her beeline through the fight at the Pony to rescue the distraught girl in the corner, he knew it in his gut.

Time to let go of his grip on the past. To move on, begin anew, put the last three years behind him.

Which included releasing the reins of PEAK Rescue.

Which then made room for his brainchild of epic proportions—the one that solved his current problem of how to not say good-bye to his assistant, Sierra Rose.

Especially when she showed up this morning, bedraggled, sleep deprived from spending the night in the community center shelter—and despite it all, still looked as beautiful as she did every single day. He couldn’t believe her home had been flooded by the crest of the Mercy River.

Which meant maybe she needed a fresh start too.

He allowed himself a smile at her surprise this morning when he’d announced his plan to take her to New York with him for the Charity dinner and auction. He wasn’t sure why the idea hadn’t occurred to him earlier—Sierra, with her long black hair, her pretty hazel-green eyes, could easily fill in as the necessary plus one without making it awkward.

Without her suspecting ulterior motives. Or knowing that she could take his breath away. Something he’d had to get used to reining in over the past five years.

He glanced at Sierra standing in the back of the gala room under the sparkling chandeliers, looking, well, radiant, her paddle with his number at the ready. His secret weapon, armed with enough cash to disentangle him from any designs some random, albeit beautiful, woman might have on his company for the evening.

Just because he’d agreed to be sold off in the annual children’s charity bachelor date auction didn’t mean he couldn’t end up with the woman he really wanted to spend time with.

Ian sat on his chair sandwiched between Aaron Ellington, the CEO of some IT company, and former NFL pro Michael Stram, part of the lineup of eligible bachelors being auctioned off. Actually, not Ian, but a date-with-Ian, including a rooftop dinner—a five-course meal prepared by one of New York’s finest chefs—and an open carriage ride through Central Park.

On the stage bedazzled with bouquets of peonies, irises, and lilies, the announcer took the podium and introduced the fun for the gala event.

Ian handed his empty appetizer plate—he’d loved the savory cheese puffs—to a waiter and let his gaze drift back to Sierra. He’d booked her into a suite down the hall from his, arranged for a personal hairdresser, and called in her measurements during the five-hour flight. He could admit fearing he’d stepped over the line again as he donned his tuxedo, but when she’d appeared in a dazzling white strapless Givenchy gown with a beaded bodice and a chiffon skirt, her hair pulled back and flowing down her back, yeah, he wanted to give himself a high five.

Yes, best assistant ever.

No. Best friend ever. Even he wasn’t so stupid as to not notice just how much he relied on her, for more than filing and arranging his appointments.

She knew him. Had seen him at his worst—and stuck by him as he’d bloodhounded every lead that might help him uncover the cold, dead trail left by a girl who clearly didn’t want to be found.

Unless, of course, Esme hadn’t run off with boyfriend Dante James and had instead been lost forever somewhere in the wilds of Glacier National Park.

Ian couldn’t shake the idea that he knew Esme—knew she had plans to attend college, pursue a medical degree.

She might have loved Dante, but Ian thought she was too smart to sacrifice her future for him.

Sierra, however, was convinced that Dante and Esme had run off together, and because of that, she never let Ian go down that dark road of despair and grief.

Yes, so much more than an assistant.

Sierra was looking at him from across the room, gesturing with her head. She’d caught him daydreaming again, thinking back to those early days after Esme’s disappearance when he barely slept, ate whatever food appeared in his fridge, and generally ran himself ragged on the desperate hope that he hadn’t lost the niece entrusted to his care.

He glanced at the announcer on stage and smiled, apparently the right reflex because the emcee of the event smiled back, stepping back to clap.

Oh. They must have announced his yearly donation to the charity. He wished they wouldn’t do that—it always dragged up questions, digging by reporters, and inevitably the story of his wife, his child, and a rehashing of the tragedies of Katrina.

But he lifted his hand, acknowledging the crowd’s applause.

Met Sierra’s eye, and she nodded. Good boy.

Strange how her smile could stir in him an unexpected warmth. Then again, of course he’d have affection for the one person who never gave up on him, never thought him crazy.

He didn’t deserve her, he knew it.

And now, true to form, she was going to save him from his own stupidity by agreeing to “buy” his dinner date. Her expression contained humor, her eyes shone. She held a glass of champagne, and now sipped it.

He should have taken Sierra along on his many events earlier, more often. But he’d been afraid to ask without making her feel, well, that he might be stomping over that line of boss-employee.

Which he’d promised himself he’d never do again.

But he couldn’t imagine moving to Dallas without her. Which was step three in his recovery plan—a relocation of his headquarters to Dallas. Step one was handing over PEAK Rescue to the EMS control of Mercy Falls. Namely, deputy sheriff and EMS liaison Sam Brooks.

He’d jumped right over step two—asking Sierra to join him—because, well . . .

Because he was batting at two strikes when it came to women wanting to be in his life. First his deceased wife, and then, maybe even Esme.

If Sierra was right about her running away.

Next to him, Mr. Football popped up, his name on the block. Ian moved chairs, one over, and watched as his cohort stood on stage, not a little uncomfortable, listening to the bidding rise for his seafood dinner at Le Bernardin, then box seats to a Yankees game.

The woman who bought him, a shapely redhead, came right up to the stage to help her “date” off, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm, already possessive.

The emcee turned to Ian next and nodded at him to join her on stage. “We’re so excited for our next bachelor’s date. Ian Shaw is the founder of Shaw Oil and the head of Shaw Holdings. With holdings in petroleum, communication, and technology, Shaw Holdings is one of our biggest donors, and Ian Shaw serves on our board. We’re grateful Ian has agreed to join us on the platform tonight.”

Ian had the sense of standing naked before a room of gawkers. He wanted to bolt, and only Sierra’s firm gaze on him from the back of the room kept him planted.

The bids began. He waited for Sierra to add her bid, but she stood silent. He noticed a woman in her midforties, a little plump in her blue sequined dress, ardently driving the price up, fighting with a younger woman, probably the daughter of someone important. A third woman—oh shoot, he recognized her as the wife of Harry Waverly, a board member—began waving her paddle.

C’mon, Sierra, bid.

He looked at her, imploring, and she just smirked.

She wouldn’t.

“Okay, we’re at thirty thousand, from Mrs. Waverly.”

Thirty thousand?

Wait—weren’t the Waverlys in the middle of a divorce? His hands began to sweat.

Sierra!

“Okay, if there are no more bids—going once, twice—”

Sierra flicked her paddle. “Thirty-one!”

Finally. Sheesh.

“Thirty-two.” Waverly, shooting a glare at Sierra.

Sierra shrugged. “Forty.”

Forty? Forty thousand for—

“Forty-five.”

Had she lost her mind? He wanted to turn Waverly’s wife to ash, but he forced himself to smile.

Sierra was looking at him, an eyebrow raised. Apparently she could read his mind.

Except, wait, he’d told her not to go above forty, never dreaming the bidding could get over ten.

He gave her an imperceptible—maybe too imperceptible—nod.

“Going to—”

“Fifty thousand!” Sierra yelled.

He wanted to leap from the stage in joy as Sierra came forward, leveling an “I dare you” gaze at Mrs. Waverly. “I’m telling you, ma’am, I’ll keep outbidding you, because he’s mine.”

She had a little fire in her eyes, and he couldn’t help the strange quickening of his pulse.

Not that she meant anything by it, but—

“Sold! To . . . who are you, ma’am?”

She glanced at Ian, grinned. “I’m his date for the night.”

Right. He climbed off the stage as she came over and, just like the redhead, put her hand through his crooked arm.

He leaned down to her. “Way to make me sweat.”

She laughed, looked up at him, her eyes gleaming. “Oh, I could do worse than that if I wanted. But for now, I’m hungry.”

As if reading her mind, a waiter zipped by, and Ian snagged one last savory puff from the tray, this one different but just as tasty as the cheese version.

Sierra dropped her auction paddle off at the door, and he stopped by the cashier in the back, pulled out his card, wrote the amount on the back. “I’ll have my accountant send the money in on Monday.”

Then, before he got into any trouble, he led Sierra outside, to the lobby. “Dinner is at the Hotel Americana.”

“Oh, is it?” She looked at him, winked. “Right.”

Something about her seemed different. Delightful, almost giddy.

On the street, his driver got out and held open the door to the limousine. Ian took her hand, helped her in. She scooted to the far end of the couch. “There’s a moon roof!” She leaned up, moving the glass back. “Hello, New York!”

He got in, laughing.

She settled back, kicking off her shoes. “Oh, that was so much fun! I’ve never been to such a fancy event. Did you see the ice sculpture? In the shape of a unicorn?” She wrinkled her nose at him. “This is some shindig! And those appetizers—salmon puffs, and I don’t know what the other one was, but wow. I wanted to fill my dinky little purse with them.”

He laughed. She had pulled her legs up under her dress and now reached back as if to pull the pins out of her hair.

“What are you doing?” He caught her hand. “Don’t take your hair down.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Uh, why not?”

“Because the evening’s not done. We have dinner and . . . what?”

She was frowning then, moving very slowly as she pulled her hand away. “I don’t understand. I thought this was just for show. I didn’t think you really made reservations.”

Oh. His chest tightened. “I have something to ask you.”

He suddenly felt not so brilliant.

In fact, his words clogged, and for some reason he couldn’t push them out.

He leaned back in the seat, his hand on his suddenly tightening chest.

She sat up then, considering him. “You’re sweating. Are you okay, Ian?”

Come to think of it, he wasn’t. In fact, his chest continued to burn, his throat to tighten. He swallowed, found it harder to breathe.

“I’m going to touch your forehead. Oh, you’re burning up. Ian . . .” She reached for his bow tie, had it off in a second. “Are you having trouble breathing?”

He nodded now, and for the first time considered it wasn’t because of the words still lodged inside.

She turned in the seat, opened the door to the driver compartment. “We need a hospital, now!”

“I’m, fun . . .” Huh, his lips felt fat, hot.

“You’re not fun. Your lips are swelling, and I think you’re going into anaphylactic shock.”

“Huh?” That came out clearly. “I wah—”

“Stop talking. Just breathe.” She turned in her seat. “Hurry!”

She undid the buttons on his shirt, opened his collar. “I think I know what was in those cheese puffs—and it wasn’t just cheese.” She leaned down and pressed her head to his chest, listening.

He had the crazy urge to wrap his arms around her. The words, all of them formulated into three, and he pushed them out in a rasp. “Don . . . lef . . . meh.” Shoot. Don’t leave me.

She sat back up, his words lost to her. “Mushrooms. I sent them your allergy list. I can’t believe this!” She shook her head. “Don’t you die on me, Ian. That is not on our itinerary!”

He managed a feeble chortle, then began to cough.

“Where’s your epi pen?” She put her hands on his jacket, then searched his inner pockets.

“I don’t—”

“It’s probably back at the hotel—I shouldn’t have let all this fancy stuff distract me! Shh, stop talking. Breathe.”

It wasn’t fine. Not at all. Because it couldn’t end like this.

Not with him being such an idiot. “Don—” Leave me. Don’t—

Then his airway cut off. He gulped, trying for a breath, but nothing gave.

“Ian?” Her voice rose. “Ian!”

They’d pulled up to the hospital.

And then she was on her feet, screaming through the moon roof.

He grabbed her ankle, holding on to her, a lifeline, his only sure thing, fighting as the world closed in—shadows, then striations of light, and finally, black.

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

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