Except something about the way she peered downward made him want to look too. Was this another trick? He firmed his hold on her wrists. Warily, he tracked her gaze to the patch of slushy earth beside his boot.
A dead face stared back at him through the ice.
Horror raked up her throat as dead eyes peered at her through a thin sheet of ice and snow. Not just any eyes. Madison’s eyes. The woman she’d escorted through the pass just yesterday.
She clasped her throat, right where the gash gaped across Madison’s severed carotid. The dead woman’s blonde hair fanned around her. The fatal wound was outlined in crystallized drops of frozen blood, as if rusty red tears wept from her neck.
The screams kept coming and she couldn’t make them stop even as each panicked wheeze froze in her lungs. Wade clamped a hand over her mouth just as he’d covered her lips with his moments ago in that unwise, out-of-control kiss.
Oh God, they’d been kissing beside a dead body. Nausea gagged her.
“Careful,” he said softly, urgently. “Too much noise could cause an avalanche.”
His whispered warning launched hysteria at the possibility of being buried alive—with Madison.
What had happened? Where was Ted? And the sheriff’s deputy? Questions dog-piled inside her, shredding through her already raw emotions with vicious teeth.
Her brain went into hyperdrive. Ted and Madison must have been caught in the storm too. Although very clearly she’d been murdered. By whom? A squatter? And where were Ted and the deputy?
God, if she’d thought to look for Ted and Madison the minute the storm started, maybe she would have found her before this.
Or she could be right there under the ice, waxy and dead just like her friend.
Hysteria bubbled until her cries gurgled, much like Madison must have choked on her own blood.
“Sunny? It’s okay,” he continued softly, sliding his arm around her shoulders. “It’s all right. I know the first time you see a dead body it’s scary as hell. I wish I could say it gets better, but it doesn’t. You just learn to hold back the reaction until the crisis passes. And we need to do that now. We need to function so we can get out of here.”
She forced herself to take slow, even breaths, to push cold oxygen and reason to her stunned brain. “Okay. I hear you.”
“Good, now we have to get out of here and make our way to a better pickup zone so my team can bring us in. Then we can notify the authorities about this person so they can work on an ID and notifying the family.”
He didn’t realize she knew Madison. Her secret was safe for a while longer… Except she needed to know about Ted and the deputy, no matter the cost. “What if there’s someone with her? Shouldn’t we look around?”
“On the off chance? Even though a rescue team could get us out of here, it’s a volatile place to hang out.” He looked at the frozen face, then around the narrow crevasse about twenty feet from the edge above. “She was probably with the original group we rescued. They were so disoriented when we rescued them we never could get a solid count as to whether it was four climbers and a guide, or four people total.”
He squinted up toward the horizon, his face alert. “And if that’s the case, then we need to be careful, because there’s a murderer out there somewhere.”
Her teeth started to chatter from the cold and fear. The fall too, maybe. But her body was definitely going into shock.
He squeezed her shoulder. For comfort? More likely to make sure she couldn’t get away. “Come on. She’s not going anywhere, and we need to think smart.”
She couldn’t hide or play word games anymore. Not with Ted’s life at stake. “I know her. She’s not with the other team, and she must have been murdered recently. Sometime after yesterday morning.” She swallowed hard. “I do guide work and I was out helping her meet up with another, uh, guide today. She had a partner, Ted.”
Her voice cracked with emotion. Damn it, she was stronger than this. But the exhaustion, the horror of seeing Madison, thinking of her friend’s dream to attend college, remembering how she’d always made homemade granola for the whole community at Christmas… It was all too much.
Wade stared into her eyes for four toe-numbing seconds—deciding if she was a party to this horror?—before shaking his head. “Right. You’re good at making crap up, but I’m not letting you run again. If there’s someone else out there, then my team can track him.”
“But what about Ted? The deputy?”
“My first priority is to get you out of here alive. Now let’s go.” He pulled a knife from his boot and began carving a toehold out of the ice.
“I’m not a child.”
“I noticed,” he said, then continued without missing a beat. “We need to haul our asses back up out of this gorge. Are you going to help me dig out some handholds or not?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” She pulled out her survival knife.
His curse stopped her. “What?”
He slapped a hand against the ice, his shoulders braced in resignation as he looked down, giving her only a scant second’s warning before he said, “I think I just found Ted.”
Misty sat cross-legged in front of the computer screen at Sunny’s place, wondering how long it would be before she could email with Madison or Ted. The computer booted up—God love the hydropower from the volcanic hot springs that generated electricity whenever the solar panels were drained due to longer nights.
Internet access wasn’t widespread around here. Satellite connections could be iffy, depending on the weather. But thanks to a deal Sunny had cut with the sheriff’s office, they had Internet at her business and at the library that also served as the school. On the rare occasion when there was some kind of hookup or membership fee or info required, Deputy Smith helped them out. He was a good guy that way.
Since her older sister was running behind, their brother had opened today, and he would rather work out than play on the Internet. Which left Misty free to use one of the two computers tucked by the snack counter that served muffins and granola.
The bright gym full of windows was just coming to life with the early-morning crowd. The metal grate was still rolled down in front of the juice bar, but the Everett twins—Flynn and Ryker—lumbered out of the locker room without speaking, ready to pump iron after their early start running snowplows.
Over on the small stage, Lindsay, the substitute aerobics instructor, toyed with the sound system, increasing the bass reverb until the floor buzzed under Misty’s feet. Lindsay—a former classmate—was also a first-year art teacher at the village school who taught first grade all the way through to twelfth. And as if that wasn’t enough, she was four months pregnant with her first baby by the younger Everett twin. Lindsay’s life was moving forward, while Misty’s stagnated.
She spun her seat back toward the computer, away from Lindsay’s growing tummy.
Still no messages on the computer. Bummed, she tugged at her purple hemp sweater, wrapping it closer around her in the chilly gym. It was probably too early to expect anything from Madison, but Misty couldn’t help watching, wondering, hungry for anything about how someone from here would adapt to the world outside. A world she would be joining soon.
Madison had promised to update her, even send photos of their new place once they got settled. When community members left, they always sent messages at first, but the notes faded away over time as they got wrapped up in their busy new lives.
She wouldn’t be that way, though, once she left. Even if she couldn’t come back, she had to hear about her family’s lives and she hoped they would want to know about hers. She would never stop praying that they would join her.
Or at least understand her reasons for leaving.
The cursor blinked on the computer screen. Still no new messages in her mailbox. It would probably be a while before they got their place set up, but they’d promised she could stay with them. Ted’s family had money. They would be so happy to have him back in the family fold, they would probably do anything he asked.
She resisted the urge to cross her fingers under the table. She was an adult now, for crying out loud. Twenty-two years old last week. Able to go out on her own.
It was rare to have community members leave twice in a week. For the most part, people were happy here. Decisions to live off-the-grid didn’t come lightly. There was a lot of preparation to do ahead of time, things to learn. Although in her case, she’d been a kid.
So there was a whole other aspect of facing the unknown beyond their mountain valley.
Would it be like on television? With so many satellite channels to choose from, she felt like she had a solid image of the outside world—they weren’t hermits here. Just insular. She’d soaked up reruns of everything from Sex in the City to Law & Order to True Blood.
Everything moved so fast, so bright. She couldn’t wait to be a part of it all. She couldn’t wait to meet him, Brett, face-to-face. She tapped in the Web address for the online dating site… and oh God, he was online, waiting for her just like he’d promised.
The instant message icon blinked. Her heartbeat sped up a notch.
Brett: Morning, beautiful.
Misty: Less than a week til we meet in person.
Brett: Reservations r made.
Her shadowy reflection on the screen grinned back at her. He’d promised to take her to Prince William Sound for a day cruise where they could see orcas, porpoises, eagles, otters, and puffers together. Next February, he would take her to the Fur Rondy in Anchorage, billed as the largest festival in North America. In March, they could watch the Iditarod dogsled race finish.
The way he talked about being together nearly a year from now gave her hope she hadn’t dared store up in a long time. Together they would experience the adventures she’d been craving since her illness.
Misty: Just want to see you in person rather than pictures.
Although his profile photos showed a megahot thirty-nine-year-old guy. Photos of Brett standing beside a Cessna. Brett holding up a string of fish with his parka open to reveal a broad chest. Brett in a suit, holding his niece during her baptism.
The images came together for an athletic, sensitive man with a sexy groomed beard. She couldn’t believe she’d found him online. He said he worked long hours as an airplane mechanic. Couple that with the higher male-to-female ratio in Alaska, and he’d decided to give online dating at try.
Brett: Feels like I know you already. Can’t wait to hear your voice.
Her hand flew to her throat, a nervous habit she’d picked up around four years ago. She chewed her bottom lip, deciding what to say next.
Misty: Sorry it’s taken me so long. Can’t be helped. Leaving my hometown is… complicated.
Brett: Alaska is a big state. We’ll work it out.
No kidding. Alaska had a landmass the size of Texas, California, and Montana combined. Sometimes she felt absorbed by the vastness of it all.
As much as she wished to be from somewhere else, she’d been up-front with Brett about living in America’s last frontier, telling him their remote town had post office box numbers for emergencies. This wasn’t a cult with freaky rituals, just a group of people committed to living off the land as much as possible.
Actually, she looked forward to carrying a lot of that knowledge and mind-set with her out into the world. Not that she was rejecting her hometown, merely embracing a new one because there were limitations to living here. She forced her hand away from her neck and back to the keyboard.
Misty: What if you’re disappointed by me?
Brett: Not possible.
Misty: You don’t know all the problems that come with being with someone like me.
The cursor blink, blink, blinked so long, her heart sped faster. A message popped up.