She turned in a circle, hands held out as she sunk past her knees in the fresh snow. The snow clouds had drifted lower, but up here on the mountain, the sun was shining brightly, the blue azure sky almost an overload to her senses. Two feet of fresh snow. Amazing.
"It doesn't get any better than this, girls."
The two Siberian Huskies, with their intelligent blue eyes as striking as the Colorado sky, burrowed in the snow around her. She laughed as Kia lunged at Sierra, only to sink to her belly as Sierra jumped safely out of the way. She paused to watch them frolic, a smile fixed to her face. When Nico had died, she'd decided not to get another. It was heartbreaking to lose him, even though he'd only been with her six years. But as much as she relished the recluse tag that still clung to her, she missed the companionship. A rescue shelter in Denver found her these two, both under a year old. They were a handful at first, so full of energy and child-like joy to be up here in the mountains. Now that their second winter together was underway, she'd adjusted to them. And they to her.
She glanced up the mountain toward Cooper's Peak. It looked heavy with snow, but she'd not lived here long enough to know the mountain yet. After almost six years in Aspen, holed up in a remodeled mining shack outside of town, she'd felt the need to get even farther away from crowds. Especially after running into her brother, of all people, when he brought his entourage up to party and ski.
Hinsdale County—the least populated in all of Colorado—seemed perfect for her. A trip to the tiny town of Lake City confirmed it, and she purchased her property four years ago. Building the cabin proved to be a two-year effort, but she didn't have to rely on anyone up here. Her solar panels and water well gave her all the comforts she needed.
She'd made the mistake of taking too many trips into Lake City, however. Burgers at Sloan's Bar had become a treat, and she'd actually made friends, something she hadn't done in ten years. Reese Daniels, the local sheriff and her partner Morgan, head of the forest service's regional office here. They were a few years older than she was, but had become her closest friends and were slowly dragging her out of her hermit ways. She shook her head. She even had a satellite dish and Internet now. What kind of a hermit was that?
The test came when she told them who she really was. She'd agonized over it for weeks. Would they treat her differently when they found out her family name? Would they be full of questions? After all, all of that happened ten years ago. But Morgan had drawn her out of her shell, and Reese was like the big sister she never had. So one warm sunny afternoon last summer, over grilled steaks on their back deck, she told them.
"Who?" Reese had asked.
Morgan had nearly spit her beer out. "Are you kidding me?"
"Who?" Reese asked again.
Ryan smiled, then laughed out loud. Both dogs turned to look at her curiously, but she waved them away as she trudged after them. Morgan had remembered the tabloid stories. In fact, she'd read her book. Reese, on the other hand, simply said, "I don't care who you are. I refuse to call you Catherine." Ryan didn't offer that her childhood nickname was Cat; she despised the name.
But that was that. Morgan had become her instant therapist, and Reese became the best buddy she never had before. For the first time in her life, she had friends. Not friends brought about by the Ryan-Barrett name but real friends. And they helped her heal. And she was finally writing again, something she'd been afraid to even attempt after all the scrutiny of her first novel. So yeah, that reclusive woman who lived on the mountain was becoming anything but a recluse. She was starting to open up again.
Except this winter. This winter she wanted to immerse herself in her writing. Nothing as deep as Dancing on the Moon. Written when she was ten years younger, it still had taken a lot out of her. No, the one she'd been toying with the last few months was much lighter. And as soon as Cooper's Peak dropped its load of snow—and after this latest storm, it could be any day now—she'd be stuck on the mountain until the spring thaw. Not that she wasn't already stuck. It was a three-hour hike through deep snow just to get to the lower part of the road. But once the avalanche ran, it would bury the forest road until spring. Last winter, she'd gone to the tropics, staying until her brother showed up. While they got along well enough, two weeks of his partying and never-ending string of women drove her back to the mountains. She stayed with Reese and Morgan until the roads were plowed high enough for her and the dogs to hike back up the mountain to her cabin. This year, though, she was writing. And being stuck up here for a few months, longer if she wanted to wait to get her Jeep out, was going to give her the time to finish the manuscript, she hoped. But after her first book, with the thrill of the Pulitzer Prize—and then the controversy afterward—she wasn't sure she wanted to publish it. Right now, just the fact that she was writing was enough. For now.
"Great," Jen murmured. "Just great." She stopped the rented SUV, glancing out the windows in all directions, seeing nothing but snow, snow and more snow. Surely this wasn't the road to the lodge. She reached for the map, printed only as an afterthought. The directions seemed rather simple, and she thought even she couldn't get lost. Of course, not knowing where she was, the map was useless. "Writer's workshop. In February. In the mountains." Sure, sounded good on paper. She checked her phone again. Still no signal.
She got out, her boots sinking past her ankles into the fresh snow. She saw a road sign, its face covered in snow. She headed for it, then sunk nearly to her thighs; she was obviously off the road, the sign still five feet from her. She turned and struggled back to the SUV, then stomped her boots, knocking the snow off. Looking around, she realized she had only one option. And turning around wasn't it. She blew out a frosty breath, then got back inside, thankful she'd at least had the foresight to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle.
She drove on carefully, slowly, realizing too late that she had no idea where the road was. Minutes later, the front tires sunk like a rock.
"Oh no. Seriously?" She threw the car in reverse, only to have the rear tires spin uselessly.
Ryan frowned as the sun reflected off of glass. She reached in the side pocket of her backpack and pulled out the compact binoculars she always carried.
"What the hell?" she murmured. A black SUV was buried up to the front bumper in snow. "What idiot tried to drive up here?"
The dogs whined beside her, ready to continue on with their hike. She reached down, petting them both absently, her eyes scanning the white landscape. She was torn. Someone could need help. But with the fresh snow from the other day, even using the snowshoes, it'd be a hard forty-five minute hike to reach the SUV. Not to mention the forest road was right in the path of Cooper's Peak's avalanche chute. She'd been taking this route daily for the last week, hoping to witness the run, but she didn't want that close a view.
She figured they must have followed the snowmobile route up the mountain. Morgan had told her they'd closed the road in early January to vehicle traffic after they'd ceased plowing it. She scanned the area again, not seeing any movement. She was about to go on, assuming whoever was crazy enough to drive up the mountain in the first place had hiked back down on the same route, when a flash of blue caught her eye. She brought the binoculars up again, focusing well past the SUV.
"Hey," she yelled, waving her arms. "Hey! Get the hell out of there!" The person stopped, looking around for the sound of her voice. "Here," she yelled, waving her arms again. The idiot finally spotted her and waved back. Ryan lowered her binoculars with a shake of her head. "Damn tourist," she murmured. "Come on, girls."
The dogs ran ahead of her, and she hoped she wasn't putting all their lives in danger. She walked as fast as her snowshoes would allow, continuing to wave the person in her direction and away from the avalanche path. She glanced up the mountain, finding herself much too close to the edge of the chute. The mountain was swollen with snow and the warmer temperature today, coupled with the wind, made conditions ripe. It might have been her imagination, but she thought she felt a slight tremor under her feet; her heart thundered nervously in response.
"Come on," she yelled. "This way. Hurry!"
Ryan shook her head. A woman. That figures. She was close now. Fifty feet at least, but Ryan didn't want to chance going down the crest any further. She saw the woman struggling to walk in the snow, sinking each time above her knees. When she paused to rest, Ryan took another couple of steps in her direction.
"Come on," she said loudly.
The woman put her hands on her hips. "What's the rush?"
"You're in the goddamn path of an avalanche, that's the rush," she yelled back.
The woman's eyes widened, then, after a quick glance behind her, she hurried up the hill toward Ryan, using her hands to balance herself in the snow. Both dogs ran to meet her, barking their greeting. Ryan went down another few feet, holding out her hand to the woman. She took it, and Ryan nearly dragged her up the hill and over the crest.
"Walk in my tracks," she said quickly. "We've got to get the hell out of here."
All she heard was ragged breathing and the crunch of snow as she retraced her steps. She stopped suddenly, feeling a definite tremor, then another. "Oh fuck," she whispered. "Run! Now!"
The dogs seemed to know that danger was imminent as they both barked frantically, running back and forth toward Ryan, then away.
"I know, I know," she said. She was tempted to take off the snowshoes, but each second was precious. Her thighs burned as she concentrated on each step. Her shoes were caked with snow now, but she didn't pause to clean them. "Come on," she yelled behind her. "No time to waste."
"I can't," the woman cried. "My legs are cramping."
"Jesus," Ryan hissed. She turned, again grabbing the woman's hand and yanking her up. "Suck it up or we're both going to die," she said, her gaze meeting the woman's directly for the first time. She looked into eyes as blue as the mountain sky, eyes shrouded in fear. "Now come on."
The woman nodded, her gloved hand gripping tighter to Ryan's. They got no more than ten feet further when she heard a low rumble. She stopped, her glance going to the top of Cooper's Peak. She could literally see the mountain move. They were nearing tree line, a scattering of spruce and firs dotting the landscape. She hoped the trees signaled that they were out of the path of the impending avalanche. Another two steps and she sunk past her thighs, her snowshoes scraping the side of a buried boulder. She pulled the woman past her, motioning to the spruce tree in front of them.
"Get behind it," she instructed, though she knew the tree would offer them little protection if the avalanche swept their way.
The whole mountain began to shake, the low rumble turning into an angry roar. Their hands were still gripped tightly together, but Ryan's eyes were glued to the show. The dogs whimpered beside her, and with her free hand she pulled them close to her. She watched in awe as the snow gave way, rushing down the chute at an amazing speed, covering everything in its path for hundreds of feet. A whoosh of cold air hit them as the snow sped past.
As quickly as it started, it was over. An eerie silence followed. She was aware of the absence of chattering jays and nutcrackers. Even the chickadees which constantly flitted among the trees were nowhere to be found.
Ryan turned, finding the woman's gaze still lingering on the mass of snow that now filled the crevice of the mountain, a space they had been scrambling out of only minutes earlier. A part of her was glad that there'd been someone here to share this moment with, someone other than the dogs. But the reality of the situation hit her. She pulled away from the woman, her eyebrows drawn together.
"Are you insane?"
The woman blinked several times as if considering the question literally. "Apparently." She moved from behind the tree, pausing to pet a dancing Sierra before wiping at the snow clinging to her pants. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"What? Crossing the barricade blocking the road? Driving on a closed road in the first place?"
The woman frowned. "What are you talking about? Aren't you from the lodge?"
It was Ryan's turn to frown. "The lodge? Patterson's Lodge?"
"Yes. I'm booked there for a workshop."
Ryan shook her head. Unbelievable. "Across the mountains there," she said, pointing, "you're about eight miles away. By car, you're about fifteen miles or so." She shrugged. "Or six or eight weeks, give or take."
Ryan began the slow hike up the mountain, whistling for the dogs to follow. She heard the woman scrambling after her.
"Wait a minute. What do you mean, six or eight weeks?"
Ryan turned around, angry now. She pointed down to where the woman's car had been. Where it still was. Only now it was buried by a ton of snow. "What are you going to do? Drive out of here?" Ryan continued on. "You're stuck here," she tossed over her shoulder.
"Yeah, stuck. Stranded. Snowed in."
"Will you wait a minute? Please?"
Jesus. All Ryan could think about was that her plans for solitude had been shattered. Because some idiot woman got lost. So she stopped, waiting for the woman to catch up to her. Her anger faded, however, when she saw those sky-blue eyes filled with fear.
"I'm sorry, but where are we exactly? And . . . and who are you?"
It was only then that Ryan noticed the backpack slung over one shoulder and what appeared to be a laptop case strapped around her neck. She took the backpack from her, surprised at the heaviness of it. At least the woman had thought to get something from her car.
"That's Cooper's Peak," she said, motioning to the mountain behind them. "My cabin is on the next ridge. We're about fifteen miles south of Lake City. My name is . . . Ryan."
"I'm Jennifer Kincaid," she said. "Everyone calls me Jen." She tilted her head. "Ryan? Is that your last name?"
Ryan lifted a corner of her mouth quickly, then began walking. "It's just Ryan," she said.
Jen stopped short, watching the inviting wisp of smoke circling above the cabin. She wasn't sure what she was expecting. Well, yes, she was. She was expecting a simple, weekend-type, one-room cabin. Nothing this elaborate.
Ryan turned back around, motioning to the door which was protected by a sharp, A-frame roof. Snow was piled around it four feet high.
"You coming in?"
Jen hesitated. "This is . . . this is where you live?"
"Well, with the girls," she said, glancing at the two dogs who waited patiently at the door.
Jen looked around, seeing nothing but white. Even the trees were still covered in glistening snow. "I don't see a road," she said.
"No." Ryan shrugged. "Well, there's the little Jeep road I use to get to the forest road, but that's covered with packed snow. Until at least May."
"So . . ." she said.
"So what does that mean? May?" She could tell Ryan was quickly losing patience with her, but she didn't know this woman. She could be an ax murderer or something.
"May is when I can get my Jeep out and drive to the forest road. You know, the one you were on. The one that was closed. The one that had a barricade across it. So that idiots don't drive up here this time of year and get stuck. That's what I mean. So are you coming in or not? I'm cold and it's starting to snow again."
Okay, so the "idiot" word was meant for her. She took a deep breath and nodded. She didn't really have a choice. Darkness was nearly upon them. She looked up, watching the thickening snow falling around her. She mimicked Ryan, pausing to stomp her boots, knocking the snow off. The snowshoes Ryan had worn earlier were hanging on a hook beside the door, the poles shoved in a corner. Ryan silently handed her backpack to her, then closed the door behind them.
It was blissfully warm inside. Jen followed the dogs to the heat source—a black cast iron stove tucked into one corner. She dropped her backpack on the floor and tore her gloves off, holding out her hands to warm them. She hadn't realized how cold she was until she was inside.
Ryan joined her, pausing to remove her wool cap. Her dark hair was shaggy and unruly, but all she did was run her fingers through it a few times. Jen stared, just now noticing how attractive she was. Jen, too, took off her cap, knocking off clinging snow that fell to the stove with a sizzle.
Ryan watched her, her gaze sliding from the top of her head to her face. Jen followed with her hand, trying to put some semblance of order to her hair.
"I'm sorry," Ryan said. "I shouldn't have called you an idiot."
Jen smiled. "Well, I suppose it's the truth. I suck with maps, directions. I was just so sure I was on the right road."
"Technically, you were. During the summer, the forest road crosses the mountain and skirts Cooper's Peak. It's a nice shortcut for me when I go into town. But the lodge is not too far off of the highway, so you'd want to keep going up near Slumgullion Pass. On the paved road."
"So you . . . you do go into town then?"
Ryan simply raised her eyebrows.
"I mean, living out here like this, I assumed you were . . . like a . . . hermit," Jen said shyly.
Ryan gave a quick chuckle. "I prefer the term 'recluse.' Hermit sounds too much like an old crazy woman."
"Okay, but essentially the same thing," Jen said.
"And your point?"
Jen looked away from her dark gaze. "Just curious as to why," she said.
"I don't like people."
Jen took a step away from her. "I see," she said quietly.
Ryan held up her hands. "I'm harmless. Promise."
Jen eyed her suspiciously. "And I'm really stuck here?"
"Afraid so. Cooper's Peak drops its load every year. That's why they close the road."
"There was a metal bar across the road, yes. But tracks went around it and it looked well used," she explained. Of course, at the time, she should have paid more attention. She was just too focused on not getting lost.
"Snowmobilers use it since it's closed to vehicles," Ryan said. "But the avalanche buries the road—like it did your SUV—and they won't bother plowing the lower road until spring."
"Okay, I'm sorry, but all of that means what? Besides the fact that I'm an idiot," she said.
"Barring a helicopter rescue, that means you're stuck here until the lower road is cleared. You'll still have to hike down to that. Like I said, the road up here this high won't be clear until May. But I'd think by mid-April, the lower road will be passable."
April? "Two . . . two months?"
"Afraid so." Ryan moved away from the stove, motioning to the kitchen area. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Actually, I really need to pee," Jen admitted, looking around and wondering if the cabin boasted modern facilities. The kitchen appeared to be fully functional.
"This way," Ryan said. Jen followed her down a short hallway with two doors. Ryan pushed open one, revealing a very large contemporary bathroom. Jen assumed the other was the bedroom. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it for a moment. The reality of her situation hit her full force, and she felt panic grip her. If Ryan hadn't come along, she would have most likely been caught in the avalanche and killed. And, if she'd survived it, then what? With temperatures well below freezing, she probably wouldn't have made it through the night.
But here she was, in a warm cabin about to use a flush toilet, in the middle of the proverbial nowhere. Miles from civilization. Sharing space with a "recluse." And two dogs. For six weeks. Possibly eight.
She met her reflection in the mirror, uncertainty and panic giving way to dread. Could she survive being stuck here for two months?