Authors: R.C. Ryan
Keeping the camera dangling around her neck, Sierra adjusted her backpack. “Okay. I’m ready to move on.”
He led the way, pausing often to make certain that every step of the trail was safe and secure before allowing her to follow. The last thing she needed, with all that extra weight, was to take a nasty fall that resulted in an injury.
Each time Josh paused, Sierra used the moment to snap off yet more pictures of the fiery autumn foliage that lined the trail.
Sierra trailed slowly behind Josh, grateful that he was being so thorough. The weighty pack was affecting her balance, though only minimally. If forced to move faster, she knew she could do it. She was an accomplished hiker and in excellent physical shape. Still, she was more than willing to make a slow, methodical descent. Though she told herself it was all about safety, the truth was she was in no hurry to reach the ranger station and get back to reality.
Reality. The thought was jarring. Especially after the past week.
She’d loved her time on the mountain. Appreciated the pristine beauty, the silence, the aloneness of the place. There, in her little cocoon of ice and snow, she’d felt completely insulated from the real world.
She had intended to remain for at least another week. Possibly more, if her supplies held out. The only thing she hadn’t counted on was being discovered. And so, here she was, descending the mountain a week or more ahead of her timetable.
Not that it mattered. As she trailed Josh, she was convinced that the time she’d spent on the mountain had been
enough to get the pictures she’d wanted, and to let the dizzying pace of her life prior to arriving here slip away.
It was too mild a term. Her life the past few months had been chaos. But there was no looking back now. She refused to think about the fact that she had left everything familiar behind. This was her clean slate. A whole new world that she was about to explore, to see whether or not it suited her.
At Josh’s words she put aside the disquieting thoughts and forced her mind back to the task at hand.
She adjusted her heavy pack and stepped up her pace. “I’m keeping up. Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“Yes, you are.” He surprised her by waiting until she was beside him. “I have to admit, when I first saw the size and weight of your backpack, I was pretty sure I’d be recruited to carry it before we were halfway down.”
She shot him an offended look. “Oh, please. You’re not going to pull that Me-Tarzan-you-Jane nonsense, are you?”
He pretended to take an arrow to his heart. “Ouch. Great aim. You just shot me down.”
She grinned at his humor. “I’ll have you know I’ve carried packs heavier than this, and I’ve never resorted to asking a guy for help.”
“Uh-huh. I get it. I am woman, hear me roar?”
That had her laughing out loud. “Now you’re getting the message.”
“Loud and clear.”
As they rounded a bend in the trail he pointed. “The ranger station is down that path. We should be there in half an hour.” He shot her a sideways glance. “If you think you can hold out for that long.”
“Careful, Conway. I might dare you to a race.”
He threw back his head and roared. “I’m thinking with your attitude you just might beat me.”
“Count on it.”
She moved past him and, to prove her point, led the way for the rest of the trek.
itch Carver looked Sierra up and down as she and Josh stepped inside his office. “Well, Miss Moore. You don’t look any the worse for your time in the storm.”
“I’m sorry I caused so much concern. I never felt that I was in any trouble.”
“That’s good. We like our guests to feel safe, and stay safe on the mountain. But when you didn’t check in, we got nervous. Especially since you were climbing alone, you weren’t where you said you’d be, and my rangers couldn’t locate you anywhere in that area. When those things happen, Josh Conway is our go-to guy. He’s even been known to find needles in haystacks.” The ranger glanced at Josh. “You made good time.”
“Sierra’s a good hiker.”
She flushed. “Thanks. I was determined not to take up any more of your time than I already have.” She unhooked her backpack and realized what a relief it was to be free
of it. Then she flexed her neck and shoulders. “After all this, I think a good soak in a hot tub will be just what the doctor ordered.”
“Sounds like a good prescription, Miss Moore.” Mitch Carver steepled his fingers on the desktop. “Are you staying at a nearby dude ranch?”
“I wish I’d thought about making reservations. But I plan on driving to Casper before catching a flight.”
“Casper? That’s a killer drive from here. Why not just drive to Jackson Hole?”
She evaded his look. “I’m not in any hurry. I thought I’d see some more of the state before I have to leave. The autumn color is fabulous, and I want to capture as many photos as possible.”
“I see.” Mitch Carver glanced at his watch. “The day’s half over. You might want to think about staying some place nearby, and heading out tomorrow.”
Josh nodded. “I agree with Mitch. You’d be wise to take the rest of the day to bunk somewhere and start out in the morning when you’re fresh. If you’d like, you could follow me to my ranch. We’ve got plenty of room.”
Mitch turned to her. “I can vouch for the Conways. They’re good people, and they’ll make you feel like one of the family.”
“Thanks.” Sierra shrugged. “I don’t mind long drives. I’m feeling really energized. I’ll just drive until I’m tired, and find a place to crash for the night. Besides, a good, long drive will make that soak in the hot tub even more wonderful when I finally get to enjoy it.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll warn you, though. You’re going to drive through a lot of desolate land, with very few places to stay. The scenery may be breathtaking, but the solitude
could be a problem.” Mitch glanced at a notation on his desk. “I almost forgot. Somebody phoned here asking about you.”
Her head came up sharply, her eyes narrowed. “When?”
“Did you—” she paused to take in a quick breath “—get a name or a message?”
“Neither. I told him you were up on the mountain somewhere shooting pictures, and planned on hiking down today.”
Sierra’s smile was forced. “Thanks, Ranger Carver.”
She turned away and heaved into the straps of her backpack, sagging under the extreme weight of it.
Josh and Mitch exchanged handshakes.
“Thanks again, Josh.”
“Anytime, Mitch. I’ll see you around.”
Josh followed Sierra out to the public parking area, where a few employees’ cars were scattered here and there.
She paused at the shiny silver SUV. “This rental is mine.”
When Sierra stopped, Josh halted beside her. “Why don’t I give you a hand with this gear?”
He opened the back hatch and, with a great deal of effort, managed to shove the enormous backpack inside the storage section.
When he’d finished, she offered her hand. “Thanks again, Josh, for everything. I’m really sorry to have caused you so much time away from your work.” Without warning, she stood on tiptoe to brush a quick kiss on his cheek.
It had been meant merely as a friendly gesture, the sort
of thing she’d often done with friends in Paris. But the moment she was touching him, she felt a rush of heat that left her sweating, and a quick, sexual jolt that raced all the way to her toes.
She pulled back as quickly as she had stepped forward.
She saw his eyes narrow fractionally on her, and she wondered if he’d felt it, too. Or was he merely annoyed at such intimacy?
“No apology needed, ma’am. The pleasure was all mine. If you change your mind, feel free to take me up on my offer of a room for the night.”
His lips curved into that sexy smile that had her heart doing somersaults, before he turned away.
He was heading toward his truck when he heard a cry of alarm.
He turned. The driver’s door of Sierra’s vehicle was open. She was standing outside the car, holding a slip of paper, her eyes wide with emotion, all the color drained from her face.
He hurried to her side. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
She fisted her hand at her side, crushing the paper into a ball and stowing it in her pocket.
Her action wasn’t lost on Josh, who watched in silence.
It took her several seconds before she found her voice. “If you don’t mind, I… I believe I’ll take you up on your generous offer of a room for the night.”
He studied her face, so pale, her eyes looking too big and much too bright. “Sure thing. Would you like to follow me?”
She gave a quick shake of her head. “I believe I’ll just leave my rental car here and have the agency pick it up. Maybe they could deliver something a bit smaller to your ranch.”
He arched a brow. “I’m sure they’ll do it, as long as they have your credit card on file. But it’ll cost you an arm and a leg for the extra service.”
“I don’t mind. I’d prefer something smaller and less… showy, anyhow.”
“Well then…” He nodded toward her vehicle. “Let’s unload your gear. I have plenty of room in the back of my truck.”
She walked to the rear of the SUV and removed everything. With Josh’s help, she loaded it into his truck before climbing into the passenger side.
As they drove away, she watched in silence as her rental car receded in the side-view mirror.
Leaving it behind was definitely safer.
She dropped her head back and pressed a hand over her eyes. And prayed that the rest of her troubles were as easy to dispose of as the rental vehicle.
From his vantage point on a snow-covered hill, the man lowered his high-powered binoculars and gave a chilling smile. So, she thought to throw him off her trail by begging a ride with one of the hikers. He noted the license plate, committing the numbers to memory. In a place as sparsely populated as this, it would be no trouble to find out who the driver was and where he’d taken her.
He’d seen her reaction to his note. Had watched through narrowed eyes as she’d crumpled that paper and stuffed it into her pocket. A clear sign that she’d been caught by surprise.
Good. Let her stew awhile and think about what she’d done to him. Hadn’t he offered to use his family connections to nurture her career? Hadn’t he taken her under his wing,
introducing her to all the right people in Paris? He’d had every right to expect some gratitude on her part. She couldn’t possibly be naive enough to think he had done all of this out of the goodness of his heart, without expecting payback.
She had not only refused him but had run off like a thief in the night, without a word, thinking she could hide away on some mountain top.
He was a generous man. He would forgive her. But only after she apologized and recognized him for what he truly was. Without him, she was nothing. And one day soon, she would come to her senses.
Until then he would watch and wait. For he was not only generous but patient. Especially when the object of his obsession was so tantalizingly near.
Josh drove in silence as they followed the long highway leading away from the mountains. Though he craved answers to all the questions playing through his mind, he knew this wasn’t the time.
From the little he knew of her, Sierra Moore appeared to be a series of contradictions. Open as a book about her career, but more than a little secretive about her private life. Completely independent but willing to take him up on the offer of a place to sleep. Or to hide.
She’d had a scare. Of that he was certain. And though she’d been quick to pocket something, he’d have bet good money that whatever she’d found in her car had her running like a rabbit.
An old debt? An old enemy?
The fact that she’d agreed to let him drive her and leave her rental car behind meant that she was feeling more than a little overwhelmed.
She would talk when she was ready. Until then, he’d give her what she needed. Time to sort through whatever was going on in her life and figure out how to deal with it.
They drove for hours in silence through some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. Despite whatever was weighing on her mind, the beauty of the countryside in all its autumn glory didn’t seem to be lost on Josh’s passenger, who was watching with avid interest.
When they reached the town, Josh slowed his pace and turned to Sierra. “Welcome to Paintbrush, Wyoming.”
She lifted her head and glanced around the sleepy little place. “Do you live here?”
“My ranch is about a hundred miles from here. But this is the closest town, and the closest thing to civilization in these parts.”
He watched her reaction as they drove down the main street, past the row of old buildings that housed the courthouse and jail, with the police chief’s office in front, and beyond that Thibalt Baxter’s Paint and Hardware. A newer cluster of buildings announced Dr. April Walton’s Family Practice and the medical clinic next door, which shared office space with a dental clinic, and next door to that a barber and beauty shop. The last building in the row was the rainbow-colored Odds N Ends Shop.