Book 1: Adrenaline Search & Rescue Series
Grand Teton, Wyoming
Thick fog enveloped her, fading the brilliant green needles of the nearby spruce to a nondescript grey. Becki adjusted her grasp on the climbing rope, reset her feet. Worked to steady the rolling in her gut.
“You ready? Sometime today would be great.” Dane’s teasing tones removed the sting from his words.
“Bastard,” Becki muttered as she peered over her shoulder in yet another futile attempt to find a safe path off the mountainside. What she needed was for the dense cloud cover that had rolled in out of season and out of nowhere to vanish.
“I heard that.”
She snorted in spite of the fear tangoing in her veins. “Bastard with Superman hearing. Good for you.” She squinted, then opened her eyes as wide as possible. It was no use. “Dane, I can’t see a bloody thing. I could be on route, or hanging over a thousand-foot free fall for all I know.”
“You want me to go first?”
Now he offered. “You couldn’t have said something fifteen minutes ago? Jerk.”
He laughed. The familiar sound warmed her in spite of the tension there’d been between them the entire weekend. She and Dane had been climbing partners and lovers for long enough to forgive a few strained conversations.
“Yeah, but I’m your jerk, right?”
Becki sighed. Even with his moments of childishness, and the peculiar way he’d been acting the past couple of weeks, she did care for him as much as she cared for anyone. “Yes, Dane, you’re my jerk.”
“Bec? Love you.”
She leaned back, staring up the hillside. Maybe a glimpse of his face would explain the uncharacteristic quiver in his voice. “Dane?”
All hell broke loose.
The rock wall to her left gave way, an entire slab of granite dropping in one chunk. A splash of red flashed past as Dane shrieked. Becki’s heart pounded, the echo of her own scream loud in her ears. Then her rope harness jerked, dragging her upward, slamming her against the mountainside as she lost her footing.
As Dane fell, the rope connection between them dragged her in the opposite direction toward their safety anchor. She twisted, tucking in her legs, using her elbows and upper arms to attempt to belay their motion. Scrambling for a firm hold, palms ripping against small rocks.
As quickly as it began, Becki jolted to a stop.
Knuckles throbbing with pain, breath ragged, she grabbed blindly for where the rope attached to her climbing belt. She slid her aching hands upward, following the thick cord to discover the coarse bark of a stump, the twisted fibers tangled around the jagged protrusion.
She hauled herself higher using small footholds, clinging to the mountain until she could add additional loops to make the accidental anchor more secure.
She screamed into the misty abyss. “Dane.”
Becki alternated between glancing down for a sign of her partner and peering upward, trying to calculate how far from the top she was.
The eerie silence from below caused her hands to shake. Her limbs jerked as she climbed, adjusting ropes, anchoring herself and keeping Dane’s lifeline in control.
A soft breeze pushed the clouds against her, soaking her to the skin, but increasing her hopes. If the wind picked up and blew away the mist, she’d be able to see Dane easier.
Still no answer as she scrambled to set additional anchors.
Another moment passed before she managed to pull herself over the lip, now farther to the right than she’d been when they first reached the edge to rappel down. The sight of the raw new surface where the mountain had given way made bile rise. She shoved away the fear—she’d have time to freak out after her partner was safe.
“Dane. Answer me, dammit. Whistle.”
The rope was heavy with his weight, so she had to assume he was unconscious. Becki calmed her breathing and centered herself, methodically grabbing the equipment she needed to belay him.
The wind increased as she worked, flapping the edges of her hood as if ghostly fingers were playing with her. Visibility improved as she maneuvered into position, each move careful yet as rapid as possible.
“I got you, Dane. Hang in there, okay? Everything’s going to be fine.”
She wrapped her fingers around the cord to haul him to safety.
The mountain shifted again.
The secondary rope she’d anchored to a sturdy tree snagged tight before she’d fallen more than a couple of meters. The backup system locked her in position as the main rope, the one leading to Dane, jerked erratically. Becki skidded on the moving rocks, scrambling to find a place to stand. She twisted, planting her feet into a wide stance to stop from spinning. It worked enough to put her facing the wall, a shower of stones descending from above and crashing into her shoulders. Instinctively she ensured the safety lock on Dane’s lifeline was engaged, her fingers moving rapidly even as something heavy struck her helmet, and the world went black.
Banff National Park
“I’d like to fire their asses. Every damn one of them.” Marcus stared out his office window at the clouds wafting past Mount Rundle. The peaceful serenity of the Banff panorama didn’t match his internal turmoil.
“You’d regret it when you get a call and need a full crew to go save a Boy Scout troop in trouble.” David gestured for him to sit. “Stop pacing. Your team made a mistake. They screwed up. Look on the good side. It was a training exercise, and no one died.”
If they’d still been teens, Marcus would have thrown a fist in David’s direction. “Look on the good side? Since when did you become Suzy fucking Sunshine? You ripped the ears off one of your first-year students last month for messing up. I hold my team to a higher standard than a bunch of rescue wannabes.”
“My student? Oh, come on. That’s different.” David snapped his mouth shut, probably annoyed that his rare outburst had been carried on the grapevine.
Marcus dropped into his desk chair, pleased to witness his brother’s guilty expression. Being fuming mad didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy taking a dig or two. He was glad they didn’t work together, though. Years ago David had taken his backcountry skills in a different direction, choosing to pass on his expertise to the next generation. He’d established one of the highest-ranked training centres in North America. Graduates from David’s institute were currently employed across the United States and Canada, hauling people out of life-and-death situations in the mountains and rivers of national parks and other wilderness settings.
Teaching had never been on Marcus’s agenda. Instead, he’d been busy saving the bloody world. Using his abilities in one or another of the hot zones where getting caught was less a matter of apologizing and offering restitution, and more about picking up as many pieces as you could find and shoving them into a bag to take home.
Now, years later, Banff had become a safe place where when things got tough, there was someone who cared unconditionally. Because he was the first to admit there were times he was less than easy to get along with.
David nabbed a magazine off the side table and shook it at him. “This conversation isn’t about my school, or my students. If your squad blew it, deal with it. They need a bit of boot camp. They’re spoiled. Being named ‘the best of the best’ has gone to their heads. Plus, they’re spending more time in the bar enjoying people fawning over them than they are training—it adds up, bro. Mistakes were bound to happen.”
Excuses weren’t acceptable. Marcus shook his head. “Not on my watch. That’s not what getting selected to work for Lifeline is about. I expect them to be on all the time, David.”
“I know, I know. When you organized your squad, you said you were going to keep it tight and make it special. Three years—God, I can’t believe it’s been such a short time. You’ve done amazing things with them, but maybe you need to regroup.”
Marcus dragged his hand through his hair and consciously released a slow breath. Regrouping was what he was doing, but pouring a tall glass of something strong and forgetting everything for a while was tempting.
Three years didn’t seem like long enough to have changed his entire direction in life. Globe-trotting and working undercover—he hadn’t expected the secretive recovery operations he’d been involved with to last forever, but he’d never thought his career would vanish with one bad decision.
On someone else’s part.
He glanced involuntarily at the stump of his left arm. On a side table just beyond his line of sight lay his modified prosthetic, the one he wore only when absolutely necessary. Physically he’d healed and moved on. Mentally—there were still days when cursing wasn’t enough.
Still, returning to Banff after he’d been discharged from the hospital had been a no-brainer. Setting up a private rescue company had always been the fallback plan for when he decided to get out of working for others. He’d recruited the best, trained them hard, and now they were the go-to squad called in for high-risk and impossible rescues.
The sight of one of that elite team Z-clipping during a routine training exercise and potentially killing more than the rescue attempt flashed into his brain again, and he growled in frustration. “If this is what becoming famous does, I’m keeping my squad in the dark from here on. I should have told that reporter to take his damn camera and shove it up his ass.”
“Don’t blame Nathan for writing the article. Blame Sports Illustrated for publishing it and making the theme for the entire magazine a salute to your ‘death-defying gods and goddesses of the wilderness.’”
“Stow it. We’ve established what caused the problem. My team has gotten fat and lazy sitting on their laurels.”
“So, increase their regular training. We’re between skiing and hiking season. With the school on semester break until June first, you’re welcome to access any of the equipment. Perfect time for some intense workouts to get their act together.” David sneered. “Maybe you should consider joining them instead of teaching from the sidelines.”
Bastard. David was the only one brave enough to taunt him. “You implying I’m out of shape?”
“If the tire fits—”
Marcus threw a pen across the room, his brother deflecting it easily. “I’ve been coordinating, not flying rescues. Plus dealing with office work. I’m still in shape—I’m not too weak to beat your ass.”
“Fine, you’re in decent physical shape, but you’re nowhere near as technically qualified as before.” David lifted his chin in challenge. “And don’t give me the excuse you only have one arm, because you told me from day one you’d never let that hold you back.”
“Goddammit, you are a son of a bitch sometimes, aren’t you?”
His brother grinned. “I know very well that you were the inspiration behind a lot of those kids wanting to sign on with Lifeline. If the legend can let himself go soft . . . Think about it.”
He had been. Marcus pulled out a file folder and tossed it across his desk. “Fine. You win. ASAP the team is back in basic training.”
It only took a few minutes for David to flip through the pages, swearing softly. He dropped the file to the floor, one page clutched in his hand. “You tricky bastard, you already had a plan organized even while you were bitching at me. When did you get this in place?”
Pulling a fast one on his brother felt damn good. “Your school secretary has been amazing. I’m thinking of stealing her away.”
“You can’t afford her.” The single page David had pulled was shaken in his direction. “You don’t have anyone listed for rope training.”
Marcus shook his head. “Your lead instructor said he’s got plans for the semester break. You have any other ideas?”
A grin broke across David’s face so quickly it was frightening. “It’s funny you ask. I just brought in an expert to plan some specialized classes. She’s going to join the school next semester as a general instructor and overseer.”
His brother said her name so casually. As if she weren’t the one woman everyone in the mountain community knew. David must have been itching to share his good fortune in nabbing her for a job.
A shot of adrenaline flared through Marcus’s body in direct opposition to what David was probably expecting. Holy shit. Holy fucking shit.
He determinedly copied David’s nonchalance. “She’s going into teaching?”
David nodded slowly. “Her contract with the U.S. Parks Department in Yellowstone was up anyway, and she said she wanted to take a little time off, so I issued an invitation.”
For one brief second a kind of panic hit as Marcus wondered if this was a setup, if his brother had arranged this to jerk him out of his gloom. The sensation faded as rapidly as it arrived. As far as he knew, the long-ago sexual escapade between him and Becki was still a complete secret. The chances that David would remember he’d visited the school while she was a student were slim. If he was going to keep it that way, he needed his alarm to remain hidden.
“You have a funny idea of time off if you asked her to come teach. Wasn’t it you who suggested I go somewhere like a deserted island for my next holiday so I didn’t feel the need to keep rescuing people?”
“Face it, bro, you’re just a big old Saint Bernard.”
Right. “Tell that to the team who fucked up their rope climb yesterday. I doubt they were calling me a Saint Bernard last night. Pit bull, asshole, scary son of a bitch—those were more likely the names crossing their lips.”
David grinned. “Gee, I wonder why . . .”
Marcus stopped for a moment and considered. He might have an ulterior motive in asking the question, but it was a legitimate one. “Is Rebecca any good as a teacher? I mean, we got the media reports last September, and that’s it. She may have been involved in a high-profile rescue, but fieldwork isn’t teaching. You know that.”
“One of the best. She trained here, you know.”
“Really? Why didn’t you mention that sooner?” This conversation was going nowhere fast. David seemed pleased to have scored such a high-ranked instructor.
Marcus changed mental tracks. Would having her around be an issue? So what if he and Becki had a slight sexual history?
Although calling it slight turned it into the biggest bullshit of the day yet.
“She’s a BSR grad, and she’s in town?”
David nodded. “Staying in the school dorms. I offered her a hotel room until the teachers’ apartments are done being renovated, but she said she was happy to use a student space while the kids are on break for the next three weeks. Why don’t you go see her? Take her out for lunch.”
A sneaky suspicion stole over Marcus. “Why?”
David blinked. “What do you mean? So you can ask her to train your squad.”
“Maybe we should let her settle in. Enjoy the break before semester begins.”
“Look, if you don’t want the best for your team, that’s fine. I’m not telling you to fuck her. Just be nice to her. Make her feel welcome.”
Marcus choked on hearing fuck her.
David must have thought his reaction meant something else. He glared across the room. “Goddamn, Marcus. If Sports Illustrated had heard about her before Lifeline, they’d have forgotten you completely.”
“Fine. What room is she in?”
David flipped him off. “So glad you’re willing to make the sacrifice. Three-oh-five. I know she arrived this morning, but I can’t guarantee she’s there. And she said she needed to pick up a new cell phone today rather than use her U.S. one, so I don’t even have a number for you to call.”
Marcus waved it off. “Details. I can track her down.”
“Hey.” David gave him a dirty look, and suddenly it was twenty years earlier, and Marcus was being warned by his more cautious sibling. “Don’t be an ass to her. I want her to stay, and I don’t need you mucking around.”
Oh, Jesus. Mucking around was totally off the agenda for so damn many reasons. “When am I an ass?”
“Lately? Most of the time.” David reassembled the file and returned it to the desk. “You are the best at what you do. I mean it, Marcus. But you’ve also gotten cold over the past year. Try to lighten up, okay? I know we’re in a tough business, and there are moments we’ve got to be serious, but you’re not the same guy you used to be. I kind of miss him.”
Marcus thumped his brother on the back and walked him to the door. “Hopefully he’s still around. Maybe I’ll find him as I polish up my technical skills.”
And maybe pigs would fly.
He didn’t need to be all light and sparkly to be good at what he did, but there was no reason to argue that point right now. And walking back into Becki’s life after seven years—hell of a way to try to lighten up.
Becki closed the closet, a sense of déjà vu hitting as her clothing vanished behind the familiar wooden doors. Even though the fabric on the other side of the door was a lot more expensive than when she’d first walked into the school, the garments were pretty much the same. Comfortable, easy to wear. Except for the single fancy dress she’d brought along on a whim, Mountain Equipment Co-op was still her designer of choice.
She strolled to the window to reacquaint herself with the surroundings. Set on the hillside, the dorms had the most spectacular view of Mount Rundle, its distinctive jagged top cutting an angled line against the pastel-blue Alberta sky. Small, pale-green buds trembled in the light breeze. The trees were slower to leaf out here than in nearby Calgary, the higher elevation and cooler nights of the mountains holding back the spring.
The window was already open. Fresh air flooded the room and swirled over the queen-size bed. Beyond the increased size of sleeping arrangements, not much else had changed from when she’d been a student. A desk. A bulletin board on the wall with a single motivating quote painted across the top: I am the captain of my soul.
It was like going back in time, and a shiver raced up her spine.
She’d agreed quickly enough when David Landers asked her to accept a teaching position, then gotten to ponder the why of her rapid decision at leisure the entire trip from Jackson, Wyoming, to Banff. She wasn’t twenty-three anymore. She wasn’t the headstrong, dynamic leader admired and hated in turns by her classmates.
Only she wasn’t really sure who she was instead. Somewhere along the way, she’d lost track.
And when you got lost, you went back to the beginning and started again.
On an impulse, Becki slid open the desk drawer. She pulled out the set of coloured markers she suspected she’d find there. A sheet of paper joined the markers on the desktop, and without any further consideration she wrote in block letters.
. . . BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP
She tacked the bold statement in the middle of the bulletin board before stepping away to examine it. As a motivation, that was all she needed. She didn’t have to solve all the problems of who she was right now, who she’d be in the future. One step at a time, she’d find out.
The sunshine beckoned, so she exchanged her travel clothes for running pants, adding a water bottle holder. She was debating gloves or no gloves—temperatures were still nippy—when there was a knock on the door.
She peered out the security peephole and nearly died.
His face had matured. She’d thought him handsome before, all those years ago, but at thirty he’d still been young. Not babyish—that word would never have crossed anyone’s mind in describing Marcus—but more like unrealized potential. Now? His cheeks and jaw were firmer, his blue eyes just as alert. Small character lines extended from the corners, and she wanted to touch them. To smooth away the crease marks between his brows.
His shoulders were as wide as she remembered, his open jacket stretched over a firm chest. Her mouth went dry recalling exactly how firm his body had been. Was.
He knocked again and she jerked into action, even as memories tumbled in her brain.
As the door opened, Marcus dragged on his best manners. See, David, I can be something better than an asshole when I want to be.
He pinned his smile in place as he spoke to the woman slowly coming into view. “Rebecca James? I don’t know if you remember me . . .”
A rock slide couldn’t have hit with more impact. Even knowing she was going to be there didn’t reduce the shock. The face before him wasn’t only pretty, it was familiar. Very familiar. He hadn’t seen it in real life for years, but he’d seen it plenty in his mind.
Her eyes lit for a split second before her smile faded, as if she weren’t sure what to do next.
He sure the hell didn’t.
“Hi, Marcus. Nice to see you again.” She straightened, clutching the front of her water bottle holder. “Are you visiting David?”
“I live here.”
“In Banff? Since when?”
“For the past four years.” He gestured into the room, still reeling from the shock. “And you’ve gone back to your student days.”
Suddenly that was the worst possible thing he could have said, because all he could picture was her naked and spread before him—on the bed, in the giant tub at the Banff Springs Hotel. Up against the wall, her skin slick with moisture as he pinned her in place and rocked his cock into her willing body again and again.
One wicked weekend. Taking him and breaking him apart with her sensuality.
He was staring—he knew he was. But her lips were still firm, that hint of mischief there as she smiled. While her dark brown hair was pulled back into a tidy ponytail, his mental images were of it tousled around her head as he held himself over her, intimately connected. The curves of her body were clearly visible under her tight running outfit, and he had the urge to strip her and see exactly how well his memories lined up with the new reality.
The door shifted position and Marcus snapped his gaze off her hips, where he’d been momentarily trapped.
Her smile had gotten bigger. “Seems you haven’t changed much.”
Her teasing tone saved his butt. She wasn’t pissed off; that was good. He leaned against the door frame, and this time it was his turn to have her touch him with her gaze, assessing, weighing.
He saw it on her face, the moment she spotted his arm. Or more accurately, where his arm wasn’t. The empty lower sleeve on his left was pinned up so it wouldn’t flap. It was a simple enough solution that at a glance left tourists in town completely oblivious.
“Oh, damn. Marcus? When . . . ? I’m so sorry.”
The sexual buzz died in a flash as he prepared to reassure her, and be all understanding and shit. The usual hassle he went through when dealing with someone about to freak over his missing limb.
He expected her to flee into her room in disgust, or stand frozen uncertain what to do—the two most common responses to his amputation. It shocked the hell out of him when she moved forward instead and planted her hand on his shoulder. He was the one rendered speechless as she lightly squeezed lower and lower until she found the end of the stump, just past his elbow.
She nodded briefly a second before deep crimson flushed her face. “Oh, dear. That was really, really rude. I’m sorry.”
He caught her with his right hand before she could step back. “No worries. Refreshing response, actually. It’s nice to see you’re not going to run screaming in terror.”
Her jaw dropped. “No. Way. You’re telling me that—no, later. First, how long ago?”
Understanding lit her eyes. “Way to be welcomed home. I am sorry. You mind talking about it?”
He released his grip on her upper arm, letting his fingers slip over the soft fabric of her running shirt like a caress. There was more to the woman now than when she’d been a hotshot rock star on the climbing wall. Getting her to help train his crew was no longer the only thing on his agenda.
“I don’t mind telling the story, but I’m interrupting your run. Shall I come back later? Can I take you out for lunch? I’d like to talk to you about a few things.”
More than a few things.
She didn’t hesitate. “You want to run with me? I can wait until you get changed.”
Oh God. He hadn’t lied to David when he said he’d been keeping in shape the best he could, but if Becki was anything now like she’d been years ago, he didn’t expect a run with her to be a light stroll through the park. Becki always had been all about the challenges.
What the hell. He’d never stepped back from a challenge before. “I have workout gear in the staff room. Meet me by the gym doors?”
Becki nodded as her thorough examination of him resumed. Marcus forced his thoughts to icebergs and math equations to keep his body from responding to the heat in her eyes. Running was going to be bad enough without his dick being hard.
She was finally done, the seductive smile that had first caught his attention so long ago firmly back in place. “Then I’ll finish getting ready and see you there.”
He was still staring at her ass when she closed the door.