Jaime Hutchinson stared at her captain, raising one eyebrow. Surely, she misunderstood.
Captain Morris sighed. "I'm fairly certain you heard me."
"You want me to . . . to baby-sit some woman?"
"I did not say baby-sit. I said keep an eye on her. Big difference." He shoved a file across his desk and pointed. "Everything you need is there."
She flicked her glance at the file, then back to him. "She's the daughter of a senator and she's had a death threat. Doesn't this fall to the FBI?"
"They claim they don't have a female agent in the area who is an accomplished backpacker and certainly none that knows the backcountry as well as you do. It's as simple as that."
She narrowed her eyes. "Give me a break."
He shrugged. "They said it was important."
She stood quickly, pacing in front of his desk. "Look, Captain, I've got cases pending. I don't have time to goddamn baby-sit some senator's daughter, for Christ's sake!"
"Sit down, Hutchinson ."
She pierced him with dark eyes. "I'm serious."
"So am I. Jesus, you'd think you'd love this assignment. You get to go out to the woods and you don't even have to take vacation time."
"That's not funny."
"Jaime, sit down. Please?" He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, wishing for once she'd just accept an assignment and be on her way. But no. Always had a thousand questions. If it wasn't for the fact that she was so damn likable, he'd have suspended her a hundred times by now. But the ever-present smile was absent. "Look, Senator Michaels has received threats against him and his family—Sara Michaels in particular—ever since he announced his run for the presidency. Special Agent Ramsey says Sara Michaels has refused protection, for whatever reason. She's a private citizen. They can't exactly force her into protective custody, now can they?" He pointed at the file. "From what I've gathered, she and her father are estranged. The FBI thinks it's just some bullshit political ploy—the threats. But of course, they have to check them out." He watched as she finally picked up the file. "Read the file. Then you're to meet with Ramsey in the morning. He'll go over the particulars. You might also want to do a little background on her. I don't think the file covers much."
"So basically, it's a nothing case that's going nowhere and they don't want to waste one of their agents in this baby-sitting gig?"
He nodded. "Afraid so. Like I said, think of it as a vacation."
Jaime reluctantly opened the file and found herself staring back at a beautiful blond woman whose bluish-green eyes reached out and captured her. She raised an eyebrow and lifted one corner of her mouth in a grin. Looking up, she met her captain's eyes and laughed.
"Yeah, thought you'd like that part."
"Well, gotta find your perks where you can." She got up to go, but he called her back.
"Look, Jaime, one more thing. This assignment is undercover, okay? The Feds want it that way. It's just between you and me."
"Not even Simon."
"How am I going to keep this from my partner?"
"Tell him you're going on vacation."
"Vacation?" Russ Simon rubbed his two-day stubble, then shook his head. "No, Jaime, you can't take vacation now. We've got three cases pending. You know that. The Captain's never going to go for vacation."
"Sorry, man. An . . . an opportunity just came up. He's already approved it." She hated lying to Russ. They were damn near best friends. But she would obey her Captain's orders. Especially since he appeared to be watching them right now.
He leaned forward. "Jaime? There's something you're not telling me. I can see it in your eyes. Hell, you never could lie worth a damn."
She gave him a forced smile. "Vacation." Then she glanced towards the Captain's office. "I'll explain later," she whispered.
"I see." He, too, looked the Captain's way. "So, when does this vacation start?"
"I'll know tomorrow."
He frowned. "You're not in any trouble, are you?"
"No. Not yet, anyway." She stood and grabbed her backpack, shoving a few personal items inside, then the file.
He nodded. "You're leaving already?"
"Yeah. I've got some things to take care of. I'll be in early, if you want to get in a workout."
"Sure. I'll blame you when Amanda wants to know why I'm leaving her bed early," he said as he leaned back in his chair.
"As if. I happen to know that Amanda is not a morning person and she'll most likely thank me, big guy, for saving her from your advances."
"Very funny, Hutchinson . She likes my advances."
"Yeah, yeah." She walked away, then tossed over her shoulder, "See you in the morning."
It was unusually warm for early September. And dry. Denver hadn't seen a rain shower in more days than she could remember. At least it would be cooler up in the mountains. And thankfully, the Collegiate Peaks area had rain recently. The burn ban was lifted above eight thousand feet. At least they could have a campfire at night. She didn't think these women could make the trip without one. Sara slowed her pace, waiting for the others to catch up with her. She had been pushing them harder the last week, trying to get them into good enough shape to handle their two-week trek on hiking trails. And she thought they'd be fine. All but Sandra. They would have to keep an eye on Sandra.
"It's hot, Sarge," Abby panted as she pulled alongside Sara on the jogging trail. "I haven't sweated this much since I went on a walking tour of Atlanta one July."
"Ms. Michaels? Maybe a break?"
Sara stopped and allowed everyone to catch their breath. Sandra was several yards behind them, still struggling to keep up.
"How you doing, Sandra?"
Sandra Kellum was the oldest of the group and the most out of shape. But in the ten weeks they'd been training, she'd made progress, shedding nearly twenty pounds. Unfortunately, she could stand to shed another thirty.
"You'll be fine, Sandra. We'll take it nice and slow on the trails."
"You keep saying that," she panted as she bent over at the waist.
"Don't worry, Sandra. We'll all help," Abby said.
Sara stared at the group of ten women, all of varying ages and backgrounds, all with anticipation on their faces. They wanted to change their lives. In the three years she'd been doing the program, she always felt a sense of accomplishment in the tenth week, knowing that the counseling sessions were over and their two-week sojourn into the mountains would mark a rebirth for them. But for some reason, this time, she felt uneasy. The group was not unlike the one before them, and most likely no different than the next one would be. They all came because of the same circumstances. They were overweight, or they were unhappy in their life, unhappy in their job, unhappy in their marriage, or they had zero self-esteem and confidence, or they simply wanted a new outlook. And in only ten weeks, they changed from timid, unhappy, overweight individuals to confident, independent women, ready to face the rest of their lives. But this time . . .this time something wasn't right.
She shook off the feeling, telling herself it was just the recent visit she'd had from the FBI. Well, she was used to threats. Mostly from her father, but still, she was used to it. She would not be intimidated. She was accomplishing too much to stop now.
"Okay, ladies, one more mile, and then we're done." Her announcement was followed by a chorus of groans and she headed down the trail in a fast jog, knowing they would follow.
"The Feds requested you?"
"Will you keep it down?" Jaime hissed. She lowered the dumbbells on the floor and walked over to the stationary bike.
"But that's good, right?"
"Russ, it's a chicken-shit assignment that they didn't want themselves. Didn't have a female agent that backpacked? Give me a break. They're trained to do all kinds of shit."
"It might be true."
She gave him a wry glance, then started peddling. She read the file last night. It was brief. Too brief. She'd read FBI files before, and they were thorough and detailed, nothing like the crap in this file. And she didn't like it. It just didn't make any sense. A senator running for president gets death threats and the FBI requests a lowly Denver detective to guard the daughter? They obviously knew it was a dead-end.
"Look, this is supposed to be some big secret, okay? I promised the captain I wouldn't say anything to you. As far as you know, I'm on vacation."
"No problem. I guess I'll have to handle the gang killing by myself," he said dramatically.
Jaime rolled her eyes.
"And the old woman who was mugged."
"Gonna miss me, huh?"
"I'll request Susie to work with me," he said with a grin.
"Sure you will. Amanda will have you sleeping on the sofa. Besides, I don't think you're really Susie's type."
"What do you mean by that?"
She grinned and peddled faster.
"No. She's not? Please God, say she's not."
"Sorry, big guy, she is."
"What is this world coming to? How the hell are we supposed to tell you apart if someone like her is gay? She's model material."
Jaime shrugged. "You're married, remember? It shouldn't matter to you."
"Great. Now you've just killed about five fantasies of mine." Then he grinned. "But you may have added a couple new ones."
One of the uniformed officers knocked on a locker not far from Jaime's. She pulled her T-shirt over her head, then looked up.
"Hey, Sal. What's up?"
"Captain wants to see you."
Jaime checked her watch. "It's not even eight."
"He's got some suit in with him."
Jaime nodded. "Okay. Be right there." Apparently, the FBI was punctual.
After tossing her backpack on her desk and punching Russ playfully in the arm, she knocked on Captain Morris's door.
" Hutchinson , good. Come in."
Jaime nodded and took a seat next to an impeccably dressed man in his mid-forties, she guessed. With thinning hair and a slight film of perspiration on his brow, he didn't seem the least bit intimidating. Standard black suit, blue tie, shiny black shoes. She looked at her own jeans and boots, thankful she'd decided to add the light-weight blazer over her T-shirt. She looked somewhat more presentable that way. After all, it was the FBI.
"Special Agent Ramsey, this is Detective Hutchinson."
Their eyes met and Jaime childishly waited until he extended his hand before offering her own. His handshake was brief.
"Sorry about the short notice, Detective," he said. "Sometimes things move quickly."
"Sure." She kept the sarcastic comments that were threatening to spill out silent, instead crossing her arms and glaring at her Captain.
"I trust you read the file?"
"I did. Although it was extremely brief. Not a lot there."
He patted another file in his lap. "This is a little more in-depth. Until we were certain you were on our team, we didn't want to divulge too much."
"Sara Michaels is owner of The New You. She's sort of a self-help guru, if you will. You may have seen her on Oprah when she was pushing her book." At Jaime's blank stare, he continued. "She is Senator Michaels's only child. If we didn't feel these threats were legitimate, we wouldn't be so concerned with getting someone on the inside. As it is—"
"Wait. On the inside? What do you mean?"
"Her program caters to women only. Her clientele consists mostly of middle-aged women with . . . with issues," he said with a wave of his hand. "She does group sessions, not one-on-one. Ten weeks of counseling mingled with some sort of exercise program. That's followed with a two-week backpacking trip."
"The New You," he said sarcastically. "The book was a best seller, not to mention the video. But we're not really concerned with all that. However, two weeks in the mountains leaves her very vulnerable."
"And you want me to . . . to get into one of her classes?"
"That's not possible. She's in week ten already. They head out on Sunday for the two-week trip."
"Okay. So what? You want me to crash their backpacking trip?" She looked at Captain Morris with raised eyebrows. He simply shrugged.
"Detective, how you do it is up to you. Surely, you can find a way. Your job is to protect her."
"Well, surely the FBI has powers beyond our comprehension here," she said, letting a little of the sarcasm get through. "Surely, you have a way to get me inside?"
"I see. Because if you did, you'd have your own agent on this, right?"
"Captain Morris, you assured me that she would not be difficult," Special Agent Ramsey said with a pointed look at him.
"Difficult?" Jaime asked. "This is not being difficult. You want me to protect some woman who you can't get close to and you expect me to get close to her?"
"Detective, we have already approached her and she refused. I talked to her personally, in fact, and she was adamant that she was in no danger." He shrugged. "She's a private citizen. She and her father do not speak. The threats that have been received have not been made public. We intend to keep it that way. In fact, only a handful of people in the Senator's inner circle know. The Secret Service will protect the Senator when he's out on the campaign trail, of course. But the Senator expects protection for his daughter, so . . . you're it."
"Unbelievable," she murmured.
"My suggestion would be to intercept her somewhere on the trail. That seems to be the only way to stay close."
"Have you determined who has made the threats?" she asked.
"I'm sorry. I'm not at liberty to say."
Jaime stared at him, then flicked her gaze to her Captain. "You're what? You're not at liberty to say? I'm just supposed to traipse into the mountains without a clue as to who might be trying to kill her?"
"We don't have a concrete suspect, no. Several groups, perhaps, but nothing that should concern you. Your job, Detective Hutchinson, is to simply watch her. And make sure she doesn't get killed, of course."
Jaime stood, leaning on the chair that she shoved close to Captain Morris's desk. "Well, this is just great, Special Agent Ramsey. You've been a wealth of information. I'm sure I won't have any problem keeping Sara Michaels safe from unknown assailants. In fact, it'll be just like a fucking vacation!"
"Detective, we don't expect miracles. We know you're not . . . FBI," he said with a smirk.
Jaime clenched her fists and Captain Morris stood quickly, spreading his hands across his desk. "We're all on the same team here."
"Of course we are," Jaime murmured.
"Detective, in all likelihood, any assailants that may be targeting Ms. Michaels won't be able to accomplish anything while she's in the mountains. This is simply precautionary. Most likely, you'll make the trip without any problems."
Jaime stared at him. "You guys are unbelievable."
Ramsey lowered his eyes. "The best thing she's got going for her is that she rarely takes the same route twice. In fact, the planned route is kept a secret. As far as anyone knows, her destination is up in the air. Any professional hit man would be able to take her out while she's going about her daily activities, if that was his desire. I doubt seriously anyone would go to this much trouble to track her into the mountains."
"So, this is just precautionary?"
Jaime walked to the door then stopped. "There's just one thing. If she winds up dead, I'm not like . . . going to get a demotion or anything, right?"
"Of course not, Hutchinson . You're on loan to the FBI. This case has no bearing on your record here."
"Well, thanks, Captain. That makes me feel so much better."
Ramsey exited the police station and flipped open his cell phone while jogging down the steps. At the bottom, he paused, waiting.
"She's a go."
"She bought it?"
"Good, Ramsey. Good job. I'll notify him."
Ramsey nodded and closed his phone, walking more slowly to the black sedan parked along the street.
Sara looked up, smiling wearily at her secretary. "Yes?"
"It's almost six."
"Six? Then what are you still doing here?"
"I wanted to get all the notices out, reminding everyone that you'd be gone."
"Good. Now go home."
But instead, Tracy walked into the office, plopping down in the visitor's chair. "If I go home, there'll be no one here to remind you to go home and you'll end up staying until midnight ."
Sara sighed. "There's just so much to do."
"And it'll be here when you get back. Just like always." Tracy stretched out her feet. "What's wrong? Is it the FBI thing?"
Sara put down her pen and ran both hands through her hair, finally resting her elbows on her desk and meeting her secretary's eyes.
"I . . . I don't know what's wrong. I feel restless." She waved her hand. "And the FBI thing, no. If my father has had a death threat, it doesn't involve me. We've not spoken in years."
"What about your mother?"
"I spoke with her a few weeks ago. I did try calling her yesterday, but she's not returned my call."
"Well, you look really tired. More tired than I can remember."
"That goes without saying. I've been averaging about four hours a night sleep for the last couple of weeks." Sara, too, relaxed, pushing her chair back far enough to rest her feet on her desk. Her once pressed slacks were wrinkled and her feet were bare, having shed her shoes an hour earlier.
"Then this trip is coming at a good time, right?"
"Are you worried about it? I know you said Sandra may have a hard time."
"I think she'll be okay. She's really excited about it. No, I'm not really worried. And if things go bad and she can't make it, we can always turn around and head back down. There are always options."
"Well then what's wrong?"
Sara smiled. Tracy had been with her since she'd opened her business, and probably knew her better than anyone. And in the last year, Tracy had become one of her closest confidants.
"I'm just in a rut, I guess," Sara finally admitted with a heavy sigh. "I'm tired. I feel like I've lost my spark. I spend so much time here—"
"Ah. No personal life."
"No personal life, no nothing. I've put so much effort into this business, time just got away. I feel like I'm on a merry-go-round sometimes."
"Well, then maybe it's time you slowed down. I mean, you've got a two-year waiting list for your classes. You've hired three counselors to help. Book sales and videos are through the roof." Tracy grinned. "And you've been on Oprah, for God's sake!"
"That doesn't mean things are going to change. The women I get introduced to simply bore me to tears."
"Maybe you just need to stop allowing yourself to get set up with these women who everyone thinks would be perfect for you. I mean, just because your father is a senator, why do they always insist on setting you up with someone who has political aspirations?"
"Because they think we would have that in common."
"Well, you hate politics. If they don't realize that by now, then your friends don't know you very well." Tracy leaned forward. "I wish you could just meet someone that's more like you. You have so many outdoor interests. You jog, you work out. You love to hike. Why don't you ever date anyone like that?"
"Have you seen some of the women at the gym? They scare me. Besides, it's not like I have time. Maybe in a year or so." Sara swung her legs to the floor and shoved her chair closer to her desk, waving her hand dismissively. "This will pass, Tracy . It always does."
"Sure. It always does." Tracy stood. "How long are you planning on staying tonight?"
"I've got a few letters I need to write. I'll e-mail them to you. I'll also work up our itinerary and e-mail that to you as well."
"Okay. Leave anything else you need and I'll do it. I mean, I'll have two weeks." She walked around the desk. "Now, give me a hug."
Sara complied, then went to work on the stack of papers that littered her desk. She really was tired, but there was little time to relax. She'd not yet packed and they were leaving for Buena Vista tomorrow.
"Senator Michaels? A moment of your time, please?"
Peter Michaels smiled one last time and waved to the crowd, then turned to one of his entourage. "Who is he?"
He straightened his tie, then offered his hand to the stranger. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm Special Agent Erickson, Senator. I'm involved with the task force that's looking into the threats, sir."
"I see. And what have you found out?"
"Unfortunately, not much. Your daughter has refused protection so that's made it a little difficult. We're going to, of course, try to persuade her. But I wanted to discuss your wife's planned fundraising dinner tomorrow night. It's at a public hotel. I'm wondering if perhaps we might change venues. Your home, for instance? It would be much easier to monitor the guests that way."
Senator Michaels gave his best political smile and shook his head. "Special Agent Erickson, I assure you, we won't be intimidated. My wife feels the same way. Do what you must, but we won't change our plans."
"Of course," he said politely. "Could we then at least have the list of guests? We'll need to do background checks."
"Certainly. Get with Daniel. He'll get you anything you need."
"Thank you, Senator."
Peter Michaels watched him walk away, then motioned for his campaign manager.
"Arthur, call Mr. Dodds, please. I need to have a word with him."
Sara stood at the trailhead and surveyed her surroundings, deeply inhaling the sweet air of the mountains. She was thirty minutes early but that was okay. It would give her some alone time, time she doubted she would have for the next two weeks. They had all met for dinner last night at a small restaurant in Buena Vista and the women were very excited about their upcoming trip to the backcountry. Sara was excited too. It was her first trip to the Collegiate Peaks . From what she'd heard, the trails were moderate, except where they ventured up to capture the fourteeners—mountain peaks above fourteen thousand feet—trails that Sara would not venture with this group. They would climb up to Cottonwood Pass , then hike south along the Collegiate Peaks toward Monarch Pass. They should have plenty of time to explore the old mining town of St. Elmo along the way, and perhaps some hot springs , if they were lucky. It would be a good trip, one she'd been planning since last spring. She'd almost taken this route during the summer but had instead taken the Colorado Trail to the north, ending up in Rocky Mountain National Park and spending a week exploring there. It had been a pleasant trip, not strenuous at all, and they had made it back to Denver without mishap.
It was an easy trip. Maybe she should have taken that trail again. No doubt Sandra could have managed the hike without problems. But this? Who knew? They could stick to moderate trails but then again, moderate was damn close to difficult. She shook her head. If they ended up going slower because of Sandra, so be it. But she would not push. And if it took them a few days longer, all the better. Who was she to complain about a few more days in the mountains?
Again, she had a sense of unease about her and she tried to shake it off. She normally trusted her intuition but she couldn't simply call off this trip because something was nagging at her. Resting her backpack against a boulder, she walked off into the woods, listening to the birds that called. She glanced into the trees, trying to spot one of the mountain chickadees that were darting between the two pines. She shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans and kicked absently at a rock with her boot, wondering at the apprehension she felt. Surely, once they were out on the trail, the peacefulness she normally felt would settle in. Surely. If not—
"It'll be a hell of a long trip," she murmured.
She was pulled from her thoughts by the sounds of vans approaching and she walked back to the trail, waiting. Soon, familiar voices filled the air and she smiled. They were so looking forward to this trip. Even Sandra. Ten long weeks. They had hashed over their lives until each of them knew the others' stories by heart. But they were done. Now, two weeks of solitude, away from family and friends, TV and radio. Two weeks to absorb nature at its best. And two weeks of not talking about their past lives. As she'd told them yesterday, they were done with it. It was in the past and it was time to embark on a new life. They would leave these mountains new women with new confidences, unafraid to face their futures. The New You.
"Ms. Michaels? Sara?"
"Over here," she called. She walked to her backpack and waited. Soon, all ten women appeared, each carrying nearly identical backpacks. The anticipation on their faces practically made her laugh. She wondered if any of them knew how much they'd changed in ten short weeks. Self-confidence showed on almost every face. The eagerness with which they approached the last two weeks of their group sessions was reward enough for Sara, but looking at them now, all standing tall and proud, ready to face the world—and this two-week trek up the mountain—made all those long nights and weeks worthwhile.
Abby was the first in line, as usual. A young mother, she had suffered constantly at the hands of her abusive husband, only escaping when he had finally put both her and her two-year-old in the hospital. She had been beaten but her spirit did not break. Next to her stood Lou Ann, an attractive grad student in her thirties who had been on the verge of alcoholism when she'd joined the program. Then Megan and Ashley, the youngest two of the group, both slightly overweight and lonely—they'd blossomed the most. Their energy inspired most of the others during the hardest sessions. Behind them stood the others, all looking at Sara with expectant faces. The biggest smile came from Sandra, standing at her usual spot at the back of the line.
"What are we waiting for, Sarge?" Sandra asked. "Daylight's wasting. Let's start this trek you've been talking about."
Sara laughed. "You're right. Okay, everyone filled up water bottles, yes?"
"Yes," they answered.
"And we've got meals to last a month?"
"Nobody forgot a sleeping bag?"
"Okay then. I checked with the weather service this morning. You'll be happy to know that there is no chance of an early season snow storm, so we won't have that to worry about."
"Then let's hit the trail!"
Sara laughed, her earlier unease fading at the exuberance of the ten women around her. She grabbed her backpack and slipped it over her shoulders, starting out on the trail at an even pace, listening to the chatter behind her with a satisfied smile. This moment made all the hard work worthwhile. They'd cried more times than she could count, but over the last few weeks the tears had turned to smiles. They all knew the significance of this trip. It was a new beginning for each of them. And hopefully, they would each emerge back into the world as more confident women, not focusing on the past, but looking forward to the future.
Jaime tightened the straps on her backpack then checked the trail map one more time. She'd been to the Collegiate Peaks before, many times in fact, but had never been on this trail. She'd always started near Cottonwood Pass , not the trails near Buena Vista . But hell, none of that would matter if Michaels had decided on a different route at the last minute.
"No. She wouldn't do that."
Not planning a trip for ten women, you don't change plans at the last minute. And Andy at the downtown sporting goods store, not far from Sara Michaels's office, had talked non-stop about how he caters to The New You clinic. In fact, he's been supplying new backpacks to them since the beginning. And yeah, Sara Michaels may have mentioned the Collegiate Peaks a time or two in the last week. That, and she'd purchased a new topo map for the area. Yes, good old Andy could put two and two together. He'd even suggested which trail they might start out on. But Jaime had done her own research for that. The New You clinic had rented two vans with drivers. Destination, Buena Vista .
Jaime shook her head. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that no one in his right mind would hike into the backcountry to assassinate the daughter of a senator. Especially if they couldn't be assured of which trail to take. And of course there would be ten potential witnesses. As Special Agent Ramsey had said, it'd be much simpler to just whack her as she left her office one day.
"Then what the hell am I doing here?" she murmured. Then she smiled. "Oh yeah. Vacation."
She shoved the trail map into her back pocket and walked down the hill to wait. If her guess was right, they'd be upon her within the hour. Then, it was just a matter of her joining their group. At the stream, she took off her backpack and leaned against a rock. It was warm and she shed the flannel shirt she'd worn over her T-shirt that morning. Folding it neatly, she tucked it into her pack, then took off one boot. A sprained ankle was as good an excuse as any. She pulled out an Ace bandage and wrapped it around her ankle, and waited.
And waited. And waited. Jesus, how long could it take them? She frowned. What if her guess was wrong? What if they hadn't taken this trail at all?
She picked up a rock and tossed it into the stream, wondering how long she should wait for them. It was quiet and peaceful. Normally, she would relish this time. Usually twice each summer she escaped for an extended trip, saving her vacation time during the year to allow at least a weeklong trip each time. She normally went alone but on occasion, had joined others. But she always enjoyed her solitary trips the most. And truthfully, she'd never been out two weeks straight. She'd done a ten-day hike once between Aspen and Crested Butte and had thoroughly enjoyed the time alone but had welcomed the company when she'd reached the old mining town of Crested Butte . She'd spent two whole days in the bar, she recalled, with a redhead named Gretta.
Finally, nearly an hour and a half later, she heard voices. Female voices. She shifted her position, sticking out her supposedly injured leg and waited. She felt like an idiot and she very nearly started laughing. Why would she assume Michaels would stop for her and even then, ask her to join their group? She couldn't very well tag along uninvited.
Sara saw the woman sitting by the rock and slowed her steps. Of course, it was not uncommon to come upon other hikers but still, she was wary.
"She looks like she's hurt," Abby said.
"Uh-huh," Sara murmured.
"Can we rest?" Sandra called from the back.
Sara smiled. They'd only been on the trail a little more than an hour and most of that had been level, only rising slightly in the last fifteen minutes.
The woman raised her hand in greeting and Sara did the same, stopping a few feet away.
"Are you okay?"
"Oh, just twisted my ankle a bit. Nothing too serious."
Sara took off her pack and the others did the same. She squatted down beside the woman.
"I can take a look if you want."
"Thanks, but I've wrapped it. It should be okay."
Sara surveyed the woman, noting worn jeans and scuffed hiking boots. Her light brown hair was cut short and brushed away from her face, a face that was marred only by a smattering of freckles on each cheek. Sara glanced at the woman's pack, noticing that it had seen a trip or two, and she relaxed. This woman obviously meant them no harm. She offered her hand.
"I'm Sara." Her hand was captured in a warm grip and she squeezed back.
"Jaime. Nice to meet you."
The woman's eyes were dark but friendly. "Where you headed?"
Jaime smiled. It was just too easy. "Taking the trail along the Collegiate Peaks . Just starting out, actually." She raised her foot. "This might set me back a day or so."
"We're heading the same way," Abby said. She knelt down beside Sara. "Are you alone?"
"Yeah. I enjoy the solitude. Gives you time to think."
"I can't imagine coming out here all alone."
"Well, you get used to it."
"I was going to say you could join us," Abby said, motioning with her arm to the others. "But this isn't exactly being alone."
Sara stood quickly. "I doubt she'd want to tag along with us, Abby."
Jaime looked up and smiled. "Well, I might not mind the company for a day or so," she said. "If you guys don't."
"What's one more?" Abby asked.
Sara cleared her throat. "Actually, I don't want to be rude . . . well, I will be rude. You can't join us."
Jaime raised her eyebrows. "Oh?"
"We're . . . a group. It's kind of a . . . a therapy hike."
"Therapy hike?" Jaime grinned. "I see. All women. You're either doing a male-bashing session or you're all lesbians. Which is it?"
"I'll fit into either, I assure you."
Abby and Lou Ann laughed. "Come on, Sarge, she's injured. We can't leave her here alone."
She turned and looked at the expectant faces around her. She'd been taking these trips three times a year for the last three years and never once had they happened upon a stranded hiker. Was it just a coincidence or was her earlier uneasiness getting the best of her? The woman looked harmless enough. She was obviously a seasoned backpacker, judging by her worn pack and hiking boots. And no doubt, once her ankle was healed, she would be leaving the group. She shrugged. What could it hurt for a day or so?
"Okay. You can tag along with us for the day."
Jaime smiled. "I appreciate it. I hope I don't slow you down."
"No, no. You can hang back here with me," Sandra offered.
Abby reached down to shake her hand. "I'm Abby." She turned to the woman beside her. "This is Lou Ann. I won't bother you with everyone's name, you'll never remember them. But that's Sandra at the back. She'll talk your ear off."
"Great," Jaime said with a smile. She turned and met the blue-green eyes of Sara Michaels. Suspicious blue-green eyes, she noted. Well, that's good. At least she wasn't so trusting as to allow just anyone to get close. Jaime assumed she'd have her work cut out for her as Michaels took off down the trail, leaving the women to follow. She quickly put her boot back on and laced it, looking up as a plump older woman with god-awful bleached hair stared back at her. Then the woman offered her hand she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
"What's your name?"
"Well, nice to meet you, Jaime. You just limp all you need to and I'll stick right beside you. They won't leave me behind."
"Thanks." Jaime took a step, reminding herself to go slow. "It actually feels better already."
"Can't be too careful. I had a broken foot once. Had it run over by a motorcycle, cast up to here," she pointed to her knee. "Was on crutches for five weeks. My arms were so sore . . ."
Jaime rolled her eyes as she let Sandra's monologue drift away. Up ahead, the others walked, most in single file, with Sara Michaels leading the way. She was certainly different than Jaime imagined. The woman in the picture had been in a business suit, not faded jeans and a denim shirt. And the blond hair had been styled, not the short, windblown look she sported today. She was sexy as hell. Jaime grinned. Yes, you have to get your perks wherever you could.
Jaime nodded at the appropriate times during Sandra's non-stop talking, trying to listen to conversations up ahead. The others, mostly in groups of two or three, talked quietly among themselves. Except for Sara Michaels. She walked alone, a few feet ahead of the others.
Sara kept an even pace, ignoring the desire to go faster to test their tagalong hiker. She glanced back occasionally, seeing the woman nodding at something Sandra was telling her. She only hoped Sandra wasn't revealing who they were or why they were up here. The last thing they needed was some outsider asking a hundred questions. Everything they'd learned in the last ten weeks should be embedded by now. There was no need to talk about it. Once the last session ended, that was it. Even among themselves, these last two weeks hiking was to be among friends. They weren't to discuss the sessions.
But now, they had an outsider. And it would be too easy to undo all the weeks of hard work they'd been through, with just a few innocent questions. No, she couldn't allow it. Tonight, she would speak to this Jaime person. She would tell her about their group and ask her to use discretion when talking to the others. If not, she would just refuse to allow her to join them.
"Right," she whispered. And how do you propose to do that? She grinned. Tie her to a tree?
"Sandra and Jaime are lagging behind," Abby said.
"Of course they are," Sara murmured. She stopped, allowing the others to catch up. Sandra and a slightly limping Jaime brought up the rear. "How are we doing back there?"
"Just . . . peachy," Jaime said, forcing a smile to her face. Sandra had not stopped talking the entire time.
"Oh, this isn't hard at all, Ms. Michaels. Just trying to keep a slow pace for Jaime," Sandra said as she labored to catch her breath.
"How about we stop for a little lunch?"
"Now that's a good idea," Sandra said, shrugging off her pack.
They all crowded under the shade of a ponderosa pine and rummaged into their packs, pulling out apples and cheese. All but Sandra. She pulled out a slightly smashed sandwich.
"How many of those you got in there?" Jaime asked.
"A couple. Ms. Michaels said to pack light. This tuna sandwich weighs less than an apple."
Jaime laughed. "And tastes better, too."
"What you got in there?"
"Bananas and apples."
"Rabbit food. I swear, I'm going to lose twenty pounds on this trip," Sandra said, then patted her ample stomach. "Not that I couldn't stand to do that, mind you. But I figured, at least the first day, I could eat something other than fruit."
"Yeah. By the end of the trip, you're going to hate freeze-dried meals."
"Sandra, what the hell are you eating?" Abby demanded.
Sandra looked up sheepishly as she chewed. "Tuna sandwich," she said around a mouthful.
"Tuna?" Abby waved her apple. "Tuna? Did you pack a steak for dinner, too?"
"I would have, if I didn't think I'd have to share it ten ways."
Sara shook her head. If anyone bucked the fruit and cheese rule, it would be Sandra. She watched as Jaime peeled a banana and took a bite, then looked away as brown eyes tried to capture her own. She bit into her apple, instead looking up the trail. It would be their first real climb. Soon, they would leave the scrub oaks and pines behind and climb higher into the mountains, spruce and fir trees replacing the ponderosas that dominated the lower elevations. And they would pass through stands of aspens, the colors just now changing to the golden hues that made them famous. She hoped the women would enjoy the colors of the mountains as much as she did. Autumn was her favorite time of year. The days still warm enough to enjoy and the nights had a crisp, invigorating feel to them. And, if the trail maps didn't lie, they would pass hot springs along the way. She'd instructed them all to bring swimsuits so they might enjoy a soak. She preferred to soak in the nude but she thought in a group such as this, they might all feel more comfortable in suits.
Then she looked at the stranger. The woman was sitting cross-legged next to Sandra, quietly eating her banana. Wonder what she brought to soak in? Sara let her eyes travel over the woman, the T-shirt tight against her skin, sleeves rolled up to reveal well-muscled arms. She was tan and looked fit. No doubt, the woman would feel quite at home walking completely nude into one of the springs.
"Whatever," she murmured. There was just something about the woman that bothered her.
Sara frowned. "Nothing. Sorry." She stirred. "Everyone about ready? We've got a pretty good climb coming up."
"When do we stop for the night?"
Sara laughed. "In about four hours."
Jaime looked at the women around her, thinking there was no way they'd make it another four hours. But they all stood up, eagerly putting on their packs, even Sandra. Well, it was the first day. She couldn't imagine this group being this eager for two weeks straight. Of course, once they were out there, it wasn't like they could call a bus to come pick them up.
She stood, too, easily slipping on her pack and joining Sandra on the trail. The older woman, for once, seemed to be at a loss for words as the trail headed straight up hill. Jaime slowed her pace, not wanting to get too far ahead of Sandra but they were lagging behind the others. Sandra labored for breath and several times Jaime took her hand as the older woman slipped on a rock.
"They tell me the view will be worth it," Sandra gasped.
Jaime smiled. "It'll be out of this world. Up on top, you can almost see forever."
"You been up here before?"
"Yeah. A few times."
"I hope I live to see it," she gasped, finally stopping and bending over at the waist. "You're not limping any more."
"It's still a little sore."
"Uh-huh. Not hanging back here just to make sure I'm okay?"
Jaime grinned. "If I said my ankle was okay, your boss up there might kick me out of the group."
Sandra laughed. "That she might. Don't take it personally. We've been through a lot with her. This trip is sort of a . . . a celebration. She's afraid you might set us back."
"Yeah? Well, whatever you've got going on here, I don't want to get in the way."
"No, you won't. We've all got our own demons we're trying to shed. Maybe it's good you're here. You can keep Ms. Michaels occupied so she won't be so worried about all of us."
"What's she worried about?"
"Ladies? You okay?" Sara yelled.
"Yeah. Coming," Jaime called. She nudged Sandra. "Ready?"
"Yeah. Let's go." Sandra fell into step beside Jaime. "She's worried we're going to revert back to our old selves," she finally said. "But not me. Not any of them, I think. And I don't know why she's worried. I mean, she gets paid whether this works for us or not."
"If what works?"
"I'm really not supposed to talk about it." Sandra glanced quickly up ahead. "Secret group therapy," she said with a grin.
"Okay. I understand."
They climbed on, still several feet below the ridge that the others had already disappeared below. Jaime grabbed Sandra's hand and pulled her up, resting at the top for a moment.
Sandra lifted her head, her eyes opening wide.
"Yes. Beautiful, isn't it?"
Beyond the ridge rose the Collegiate Peaks mountain range, stretching for miles and miles in every direction.
"We're going up there?"
"Yep. Well, not to the top, no. The trail travels along the sides of the mountains and if I remember, to the back side of Mount Princeton ."
"Wow. It's . . . breathtaking."
"That it is. Makes you feel good to be alive, doesn't it?"
"Yeah. Yeah, it does. No wonder she wanted us to come out here."
"What do you mean?"
"A lot of us weren't really living, you know."
Jaime frowned. "I don't understand."
"We've all got our own issues to overcome. Like I said, I'm not supposed to talk about it. Especially with an outsider." She paused. "But me, I lived my whole life with parents who abused me." She shrugged. "I didn't know any better. So when I got married and my husband turned out to be an asshole, I thought it was just more of the same."
Jaime nodded. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, I got away from him. Divorce is a lovely word," Sandra said with a laugh. "But I was down in the dumps. I was on my third different anti-depressant drug when I saw Sara Michaels on Oprah one day. She was just so positive, and full of energy. I learned a lot from her book, but I wanted to experience the real thing, you know. I was on a waiting list for over a year."
"Yeah. And it cost a tiny fortune, but I feel better about myself now than I have in my whole life. She's so wonderful."
Jaime nudged Sandra as Sara Michaels was making her way towards them. "Better look alive. Sarge is coming.
"You two okay?"
"Great, Ms. Michaels. Isn't this view something?" Sandra asked.
"Yes, it is. Do you need to rest for a bit, Sandra?"
"No, no. I'm okay. Jaime, with her hurt ankle and all, is kinda slowing the pace."
Sara met the amused eyes of the stranger and let a small smile touch her face.
"I see. Well, we've got another couple of hours to go. Do you think Jaime can make it?"
"I'm sure she can manage," Sandra said. "Can't you?"
"I'll try my best."
Jaime shed her pack along with the others, leaning it against a tree as she rubbed her shoulders. She was winded after the climb, no doubt they all were. Sandra had said very little in the last hour, but she was a trouper and had only requested to rest a few times. Jaime had stayed with her. For some reason, she liked the woman. Perhaps it was because of the courage she saw Sandra muster up each time they crested a ridge, only to have another in front of them.
"Okay, ladies. Let's call it a day, shall we?"
"Shall we?" Abby mimicked. "Gee, let's hike for another couple of hours, Sarge."
"You're all doing great. Getting into the mountains is the hardest part. Now that we're here, the trail will be more level," she promised.
"You said that two hours ago."
"Can we have a camp fire?" Lou Ann asked.
"Sure can. The fire ban has been lifted up here." Sara unhooked her tent from her pack and found a level spot a few yards away from the group. "I'd suggest setting up your tents first. Once we eat, most of you will want to crawl into bed and sleep."
"Why bother with eating," Abby murmured. "I could fall into bed right now."
Jaime surveyed the area, wondering how they were going to fit eleven, no twelve tents there under the trees. She nudged Sandra. "Where's your tent?"
"Oh, I'm sharing with Celia. Two to a tent."
Jaime nodded. Made sense. Less weight, too. Soon, six tents—blues, greens and one bright yellow—dotted the trees. She took her own a little ways from the group, thinking she'd give them some privacy. Maybe Sara Michaels had some sort of session planned for later. Although judging by their conditions, most would be asleep as soon as the meal was done, campfire or not. She pulled over a flat rock and brought out her tiny propane burner. She soon had water heating and sorted through her freeze-dried meals, trying to find one that seemed appetizing. Spaghetti? Why had she bought spaghetti? She hated freeze-dried spaghetti.
Leaning back, she took a long drink of water and watched the others. The dark-haired Abby was hanging on Sara Michaels's every word as she showed them how to light their stoves. Buddy system again. She counted only five stoves.
"Need some help?" Jaime finally called as only one stove was burning.
"No. They need to learn," Sara said, turning her back to Jaime and watching the women.
"I see." She shrugged. Apparently Michaels was still not too thrilled by her presence here. Well, she wasn't exactly having the time of her life either. If she was alone, she would still be hiking. There was at least another hour of daylight. Then she'd set up camp, eat and maybe read a little. Camping was the only occasion that she took time out to read. Her busy days left little time for such pleasures.
Conversation was sparse as everyone settled down to eat and Jaime kept her distance, allowing them their time. Even Sandra seemed completely exhausted as she quietly ate, sitting by herself on a downed tree, a little ways from the small campfire. She'll never make two weeks, Jaime guessed. What in the hell was Sara Michaels thinking?
"I know what you're thinking," Sara told the group. "You'll never make it two weeks."
Jaime looked up. Could the damn woman read her mind?
"But you will. The first day is always the hardest. Tomorrow will be a short day. We'll camp by some hot springs . You can soak for hours, if you like. We're going to take it nice and slow. I know the hike up today was hard. I only saw Abby pull out her camera, although I know you all brought one. But trust me, in the days to come, you'll want to stop and take pictures and just enjoy the scenery. And before you know it, we'll be walking up Monarch Pass and you'll wonder where the time went."
Jaime wondered if this was a pep talk she had to relay to each new group when they started out. But, she'd been doing it for three years. Apparently, she knew what she was doing.
"How high up are we?" Celia asked. "It's already starting to get cool."
"Eighty-five hundred, maybe nine thousand feet."
Jaime fingered her watch, then pushed one of the side buttons, reading the digital altimeter. 8,794. She shrugged. The Sarge was pretty good.
"Well, ah . . . anyone need a pee break?" Lou Ann asked. "I'm going."
Jaime smiled as four women got up. Just like at a bar, there was safety in numbers. Well, she'd take her own break in private, thank you very much.
She was just wiping clean her dinner pot when Sara Michaels walked over. Jaime met her eyes for a moment, then went back to her cleaning.
"May I . . . may I have a word with you?" Sara asked.
"Sure. It's your party."
Sara nodded. She sat down cross-legged opposite Jaime and waited until the woman looked up again.
"I need to apologize. About earlier. And also, I wanted to thank you."
"For being such a good sport about Sandra," Sara said quietly.
"Ah, hell. I like the woman. She's got spunk."
Sara nodded. "Yes, she does." Sara hesitated, wondering how to approach this woman. She took a deep breath. "Look, I wanted to tell you a little about our group. Let you know why we're up here."
"Well, you've got quite an assortment, that's for sure."
"I'm their counselor. Sort of a therapist."
Jaime grinned. "I know what the word means."
"We have a clinic in Denver . The New You," she said. "You may have heard of it."
Sara shrugged. "Well, we're not really mainstream. For most, they can only afford the book and video. But at the clinic, we offer hands-on counseling and group sessions, for ten weeks."
"The New You? What is it? Fat farm?"
Sara bristled. "Not a fat farm. What gave you that idea?"
Jaime shrugged. "Some in your group aren't your typical backpackers."
"A lot of people with weight issues do come to us. But most of the weight problems are simply symptoms of greater evils. Self-esteem issues, no self-confidence, difficulty relating to others, any number of things."
"We go through ten weeks, kind of a crash course. They all live at the clinic and we provide nutritional meals. There is of course counseling and lessons. And I incorporate workouts in our sessions, from light weights to walking to eventually jogging. It gives them a sense of purpose, a goal. They all know that at the end of our ten weeks, we take a two-week trip, away from society, away from our discussions."
"Two weeks is a long time, especially for women not accustomed to it," Jaime said.
"Yes, it is. But we go as slow as we need to. Our sessions are over with. There's to be no talk about it up here. I imagine most of them privately reflect on their past, but after a few days on the trails, they forget. It's hard to keep that pain with you up here, where you're away from it, away from reminders. You find that you can do things you never thought you could. And when they get back home, they'll have the confidence to go on with their lives."
Jaime nodded. "You must be good."
"I'm only telling you this so that you won't ask questions of them. Especially Sandra. She's probably the most vulnerable of the group, also the oldest. She will find it the hardest to get on with her life. But her self-confidence has grown each week. I just don't want you to say something or ask something that will set her back."
"So I shouldn't tell you that Sandra's already told me some of this?"
Sara's eyes widened. "What did you say to her?" she demanded.
"Whoa, Sarge. I didn't say anything. I just asked—"
"You asked? You asked what?" Sara's eyes flashed and she leaned forward, pointing her finger at Jaime. "This is exactly why I didn't want you to join us. Especially the first few days. They're still . . . raw."
"Give me a break. You underestimate her. She's very strong-willed. Hell, I thought she was going to pass out on that climb but she kept going. And you know why? Because it was expected of her. She didn't want to let you down. So lighten up."
Sara stood quickly to her feet. "Do not presume you know anything about this. We've worked too hard for you to . . . to disrupt this."
"Yes, disrupt. And I think perhaps in the morning, you should just be on your way."
Jaime watched the angry woman walk away. Hell, she should be the one upset. She'd gotten jumped on for absolutely no reason.
"Way to go, Jaime. Got kicked out of camp on the first day," she murmured. But damn, Sara Michaels was some kind of cute when she got angry. There was not a hint of blue in the green eyes that flashed at her. Jaime shrugged. Well, the Sarge was just going to have to get over it. She wasn't going anywhere.
Sara stretched inside her sleeping bag, finally opening her eyes. It was still dark. And quiet. Her favorite time of the morning, that hour or so before daybreak. Leaning up on her elbows, she listened. Something had woken her. Then she heard it. Rustling on the rocks. She cocked her head. Perhaps someone needed an early morning bathroom break. But no, it wasn't footsteps.
"Shit." She sat up and tossed the sleeping bag off. Probably a bear. Had she told everyone to wash up after dinner? Did they leave food out? In the darkness, she found the small flashlight in a side pocket of her pack and quickly unzipped her tent, flashing her light in the direction of the noise.
She caught her breath when yellow eyes glowed in the beam of the light. Then she smiled and lowered the flashlight. Only a fox. It scampered off up the hill and she relaxed, making a mental note to remind everyone about leaving food out. A fox was no problem, but it wouldn't do to have a bear come visit.
She looked at her watch, the illuminating hands reading only four-thirty. Crawling back inside her sleeping bag to chase off the cold, she closed her eyes, hoping to grab another hour of sleep, but she was wide-awake. She hardly felt rested. Last night, she'd lain awake for hours it seemed, going over her conversation with Jaime. She knew she'd probably gone overboard with the woman. Sandra seemed to have taken a liking to her and vice versa. She doubted the woman would say or do anything to upset Sandra. Not intentionally, at least. But sometimes, the most innocent of statements could be taken the wrong way.
Well, it didn't matter. She'd asked the woman to leave. And if she had any trail etiquette whatsoever, she'd be gone before everyone was up and about.
Sara sighed and rolled over. There was just something about the woman that she couldn't put her finger on. She seemed nice enough, Sara supposed. Not that she'd bothered to have a normal conversation with her, but still, she seemed friendly. She doubted there were very many strangers who would willingly hang back with Sandra as she labored up the trail. And Sara hadn't missed the few times that Jaime had offered her hand to Sandra when she'd slipped.
"Hell, you're an ass," she whispered to herself out loud. The woman had done nothing wrong and all Sara had done was yell at her and demand she leave. Okay, so if she was still around at daybreak, Sara would apologize again, and ask her to stay. If she wanted to, that is. Then Sara shook her head. Why would she stay? She'd come backpacking alone, she liked the solitude, she said. Why in the world would she want to hook up with a group of eleven women?
Sara sat up again. What if she had something to do with the threats? What if the FBI was right? What if she was a target and this woman was . . . what? The assassin?
"That's just crazy," she murmured. But she rolled over and faced the zippered door, eyes wide open.
Jaime unzipped her tent and stretched her arms over her head, listening with satisfaction as her back popped. It was barely light enough for her to see the other tents and she assumed no one else was awake yet. Slipping a sweatshirt on over her T-shirt, she fired up her stove and put water on to boil before taking a discreet trip behind the trees. Hopefully, she could have a cup of coffee in solitude before the others were up and about. And maybe it would give her some time to think of what she was going to say to Sara Michaels. Hell, she could always just tell her the truth.
"Bet that would go over well," she murmured to herself.
While her water heated, she brushed her teeth and ran wet hands through her hair. It was cold but not nearly as cold as it would be if they intended on camping above ten thousand feet. She squatted down beside her small stove, warming her hands over the boiling water. Normally, she hated instant coffee, but up here, coffee was coffee and she couldn't start her day without it. She filled her cup to the brim with hot water, then walked up the hill and found a rock to sit on to watch the sun creep over the ridge. She'd seen a lot of sunrises over the years and more often than not, she'd seen them alone. But now, right at this moment as the pink rays reflected off of the distant peaks, the tall spruce in front of her silhouetted against them, she wished someone was there to share it with her. Someone to admire the grandeur of it, the simplicity of it.
Sara leaned against the tree, looking past Jaime to the sunrise as the mountains reflected the colors, then casually moved her eyes back to the woman. She looked so peaceful, sitting cross-legged on the rock, staring intently to the mountains. Sara couldn't help the smile that appeared. Apparently Jaime was a kindred spirit. Watching the sunrise had become a ritual for Sara on these camping trips and she never had to worry about company before. This morning was no different. Her group of ten was still sound asleep. This stranger, however, had beaten her to it.
Sara was about to turn and go back when Jaime spoke to her. The woman hadn't turned around and Sara was surprised that Jaime even knew she was there.
"You could have shared my rock, Ms. Michaels. I wouldn't have minded."
"Sunrises are . . . private. I wasn't sure you'd want company."
Jaime turned and tossed out the rest of her coffee. She flashed Sara a smile. "Well, it might be the only chance we get, seeing as how you're kicking me out of camp and all."
Sara finally walked closer, allowing a smile to touch her face. "Yeah, about that." She shrugged. "Seems all I do is apologize to you. But I am sorry for jumping on you like I did."
"Are we about to get into another argument?"
Sara stared at her. "Why are you here?"
"You obviously came up here to go hiking alone, for whatever reason. Why would you want to tag along with the eleven of us?"
"I always like meeting new people. Don't you?"
Sara sighed. "What's your name?"
Jaime frowned. "Er, it's Jaime. Don't you remember?"
"Are you intentionally trying to piss me off? You have a last name, don't you?"
"Oh, I see. In case you want to look me up after we leave here? Tell you what, Sarge, I'll even write down my address and phone number. Hell, I'll throw in my e-mail address too."
"Look, is it too much to ask to know a little something about you? I mean, for all I know, you could be a . . . a serial killer or something. I just think, if you're going to travel with us, it wouldn't hurt to share a little about your life, and why the hell are you smiling?" Sara demanded.
"A serial killer?"
"You know what I mean."
"Okay, so if I tell you something about me, how do you know I'm not just making it up to pacify you? Then tonight, perhaps, I'll sneak into your tent when you're asleep and—"
"Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Oh, very much. Don't you want to know what I plan to do when I'm inside your tent?" Jaime asked quietly.
Their eyes met, and even though Sara could see the amusement in Jaime's, she still had a nearly uncontrollable desire to knock the smirk off her face. "I teach a self-defense class. Don't try it."
"A woman after my own heart."
"Don't flatter yourself. You're not my type," Sara said as she turned and walked quickly away.
"Oh yeah? So who's your type?" Jaime called.
Sara couldn't resist. She turned and stopped. "At this moment? Anyone but you."
She walked back to the tents with Jaime's laughter following after her.
"I may very well push her over the next cliff we come to," she muttered to herself.
"Who are you talking to?"
Sara gasped and jumped back as Abby materialized from behind a tree, discreetly holding toilet paper in one hand.
"Don't litter," Sara said as she zipped up her tent. She wanted to throw something. Actually, she wanted to scream. She didn't know why, but the damn woman got on her nerves. And it made no sense. They'd hardly spoken. It was just that whenever they did . . . the woman drove her nuts.
Sara was still perturbed an hour later when they finally broke camp and headed out. The ladies were chatterboxes this morning and more of them than not were hanging back, listening to a story Jaime was telling them about a previous camping trip. Their laughter rang out on more than one occasion, and Sara resisted the urge to double-time it down the trail, knowing that would at least shut them up.
But she was being childish. Geez, was she ever being childish. She was a professional, for God's sakes. These were her people. And apparently they'd all taken a liking to this Jaime what's-her-name. Sara should be thankful. And in all honesty, having another person on the trip who was an accomplished backpacker gave her some sense of relief. Should something happen, should something go wrong, at least Sara wouldn't be forced to face it alone. She rolled her eyes. Who was she kidding? She knew absolutely nothing about this woman, other than she was an attractive, apparently likeable woman that the others had flocked to.
Attractive? No. She was nothing but a flirt. As if Sara would be interested in looking her up after this was over with. Please.
While they walked, Jaime pulled out a small note pad from a side pocket on her pack and began writing, nodding occasionally at what Sandra was saying. She nearly started laughing as she finished the note. She didn't know why, but she got extreme pleasure out of teasing Sara Michaels. She suspected the woman was much more at home here on the trails than back in the city, yet she hadn't seemed to relax a bit. For her group's sake, Jaime assumed she was trying to hold on to the "I'm the counselor, I'm in charge" attitude. And that was just it. These were not her friends with whom she was enjoying a relaxing hike with. These were her paying charges. She was responsible for them. And she was trying to lump Jaime in with them.
Well, that won't work. She folded the note in half and reached out and poked Celia.
"Pass this up to the Sarge, would you?"
Jaime grinned as she watched the note being handed from one woman to the next, finally reaching Abby's hands who hurried to catch up with Michaels. She tapped her on the shoulder then silently handed her the note.
What the hell? Sara kept walking, unfolding the note slowly, wondering what idiot . . .
Jaime Hutchinson. Age 34.
Oh. That idiot. Sara's eyes narrowed at the information that followed, including Jaime's address, home phone number, work number, cell number and e-mail address. Slashed below that: Call me sometime, we'll get together! I guarantee a good time!
Sara wadded the note into a ball and tossed it on the trail.
"Hey, don't litter," Abby reminded her. She picked up the crumpled piece of paper and handed it back to Sara. "Dispose of your trash properly."
Sara squeezed the paper in her fist, trying to ignore the rather loud chuckle coming from the back of the group.
"What was that?" Celia whispered. "I've never seen her face get that red before."
Jaime grinned. "I asked her out."
"Does Ms. Michaels . . . well, does she do that sort of thing?" Sandra asked.
"Well, date women?"
Jaime shrugged. "I'm hoping. That's why I asked."
"Well, judging by her reaction, I'd say no."
Jaime only smiled, keeping her eyes fixed on the back of Sara Michaels. Well, it'd be a damn shame. Then she mentally shook herself. She was supposed to be protecting her, not . . . playing with her. Jesus, have some decorum, she told herself. She should at least pretend to be working. With that, she glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was following them. Nope. They were alone.
So she fell back into step beside Sandra, her eyes scanning the horizon, not looking for would-be assassins but instead, enjoying the splendor of the fall colors of the Collegiate Peaks mountain range. She nudged Sandra with her elbow.
"Take a look at that," she said, pointing to their left. "The mountainside looks like it was dipped in gold."
"Yes. Aspens, right?"
"Where are you from, Jaime? You've never said."
" Denver . You?"
"Originally from Michigan — Grand Rapids . But after my divorce, I moved to Chicago ."
Jaime nodded but didn't ask anything else. She didn't want to totally piss off Sara Michaels by asking questions. And really, she didn't understand all this need for secrecy.
It was a short time later that they came to a stream and Jaime saw the tell-tale sign of hot springs as steam rose out of the cold water not thirty yards upstream from where they stood.
She watched as Sara turned and faced the group.
"Everyone had enough for the day?"
"Already? We're stopping?"
"Well, I thought you might like to spend the afternoon soaking in the hot springs ."
"Oh, God. We're here?" Abby dumped her pack where she stood. "Thank you. I could easily spend the next four hours perched in the water."
"Thought you would." Sara took off her own pack. "The rest of the afternoon is yours, ladies. Soak, take a nap, explore around a bit. Whatever you like. We'll camp here."
"Now this is my kind of camping trip," Jaime said. She walked underneath a large spruce and tossed down her pack. They'd only been on the trail three hours and had not yet stopped for lunch. As she expected, Sandra pulled out another smashed sandwich. She turned up her nose. "Please say that's not tuna."
"Ham and cheese."
Jaime sat down and pulled out an apple, pausing to shine it on her shirt before taking a bite. She watched as most of the others unfolded tents and started putting them up. All but Abby. She was fishing inside her pack, finally pulling out a swimsuit and waving it over her head. Suits? They were going to soak in suits? What was the fun in that?
Sara sat inside her tent, holding the rather conservative one-piece swimsuit she'd packed. For some reason, she was hesitant to change, even when she heard the excited laughter of the others as they prepared for their first soak in natural hot springs .
And it wasn't as if she was ashamed of her body. The hours and hours she spent at the gym and on the jogging trails made sure of that. But still.
Oh, hell. She was being silly. Just because Jaime Hutchinson was here, there was no need to alter her plans. She'd been looking forward to the hot springs as much as anyone. With that, she pulled off her boots and socks, and stripped the T-shirt over her head, then lay back to slide her jeans off. She heard the first splash and squeal of laughter, and smiled. Yes, this was good for them. She put thoughts of Jaime Hutchinson from her mind and slipped on the suit.
Once outside her tent, she walked purposefully to the springs, where all the others, minus Jaime, were already gathered. Even Sandra stood, completely unselfconscious in her swimsuit, anxiously watching the water.
"What do you think?" Sara asked Abby who was splashing about.
"This is glorious, Sarge. What the hell are you all waiting for? Hop in."
That was all it took as nine other women climbed over the rocks and submerged under the warm water.
"Oh my. I could sleep in here," Sandra said as she settled on a rock, the water rising up to her neck.
"What causes hot springs , Ms. Michaels?" Celia asked.
Sara smiled. "Sorry. Geology was not my strong suit. Maybe we should ask one of these two college students."
"Are you kidding? I was an English major," Megan said.
"Music," Ashley added. "What about you, Lou Ann?"
"Sorry. Business major."
"I bet Jaime knows," Sandra stated.
Of course she would, Sara thought sarcastically.
Jaime watched from a distance, her eyes glued to the buff body of Sara Michaels as she stepped over the rocks and into the water. Wow. She had runner's legs, long and muscular. She shook her head. It just wasn't fair, covering that magnificent body with a swimsuit. Then she grinned.
"Oh, hell. Might as well shake things up a bit."
With that, she pulled off her boots and walked barefoot to the springs, still clad in her jeans and shirt.
"Well, you look like you're having fun."
"We are," Celia said. "Aren't you going to join us?"
Jaime flashed a grin. "Of course I am."
She unbuttoned her jeans and let them slip down her legs, stepping out of them in one motion, then pulled her T-shirt over her head and tossed it on the ground. "Move over, Sandra honey, I'm coming in."
The older woman laughed as the very naked Jaime splashed down around her.
"Jesus Christ," Sara murmured, but her eyes refused to obey her command to turn away. She stared as Jaime dropped her jeans then nearly gasped as she tore her T-shirt off, revealing a tanned torso and two unbelievably perfect breasts unencumbered by a bra. Surely to God she's not going to . . . strip. But she did, purple panties joined the pile of clothes and a completely naked Jaime Hutchinson splashed into the hot springs full of straight women.
"Holy shit, but she's got some body," Lou Ann whispered.
Sara only nodded, still unable to take her eyes away from the lithe body that had disappeared under the water.
"Why are you all wearing suits?" Jaime asked as she emerged from the water, slicking her short hair back. "That's not allowed in hot springs . We're out here in nature," she said. "This is God's gift, intended to be enjoyed in the most natural way possible." She raised her arms up and grinned. "In the buff."
"I haven't been skinny dipping in thirty years," Sandra said.
"I've never been," Celia added.
Sara looked up to the sky. Surely they weren't buying this garbage? But, oh yes, they were. Before long, ten fairly conservative, heterosexual women were shedding their swimsuits and tossing them on the rocks, frolicking naked in the water like children, all at the beckoning of this . . . this stranger.
"Oh my God! This is fabulous," Judith shrieked.
Sara shook her head. Judith, always the quietest of the group, rose out of the water bare-chested and did a belly flop into the springs, splashing all those around her. Sara stared. She never would have believed this. They were . . . free, exuberant, happy. Laughter rang out as they all splashed and played as children. Even Sandra, not one bit shy, stood out of the water and raised her arms overhead, her ample breasts swaying, then crashed down into the water, splashing the others.
Sara finally laughed. She could do nothing but as these grown women were reduced to ten year-olds. She looked across the water, meeting the laughing eyes of Jaime Hutchinson. She nodded and smiled, sending a silent thank-you to the other woman.
"Sarge? What are you doing? Come join us," Abby insisted, grabbing Sara's hand and leading her deeper into the pool.
"No, no. I'm doing just fine," she said.
"Come on, take it off. It's so wonderful like this," Lou Ann said as she playfully splashed Sara.
"I can see that. But, actually, I'm pretty shy," she lied. She moved to another rock, sinking to her chest. Finally, she ducked under the water, wetting her hair. When she opened her eyes, dark brown ones were staring back at her. She pulled her eyes away, laughing as Sandra did another belly-flop into the water.
For the next hour, they splashed about, enjoying the sunshine and the warm water, content to laugh and play as they'd not done in years. She listened as Jaime explained how the springs were formed—most likely some made-up nonsense about thermal water being forced to the surface through cracks in the earth— and then had them engrossed in a story, telling about another trip she'd taken to these mountains and how she'd been chased from the springs, stark naked, by a bear.
"Climbed the first tree I came to, scared to death," she said. "I thought the bear wanted me for dinner and all he wanted was a drink."
"They don't really attack, do they?" Celia asked.
"Black bears? Not as a rule, no. But if you have food in the tent with you, I'm sure they might want to come in and check it out. You need to remember to put up all the food."
Sara nodded. "We actually had a fox in camp with us last night."
"A fox? Really?"
"Yeah. He woke me up about four-thirty. I was afraid it was a bear."
"Is that something we should worry about?" Beth asked.
"No. I'm sure eleven snoring women would scare him off," Jaime teased.
"I do not snore," Abby said. Then she turned to Lou Ann. "Do I?"
Lou Ann laughed. "How would I know? I passed out as soon as my head hit the ground."
Sara settled back as the conversation went on around her. It was turning out to be a very good trip. And grudgingly, she admitted Jaime had a lot to do with it. Perhaps it was good, having an outsider with them. It would help though if she didn't look like a damn model. Maybe that was what was bothering her. She was attractive. In fact, she was one of the cutest women Sara had met in a long, long time. And she was a flirt. And Sara felt a tug of attraction for the other woman. She rolled her eyes. God, did I just think that? But yes, she couldn't deny it as she watched Jaime rise from the water and perch on a rock, laying out flat and letting the sun dry her. She very nearly groaned as her eyes lighted on Jaime's breasts. She made herself move, dipping under the water again. She wasn't even sure she liked the woman. How could she possibly be attracted to her? She stood in the middle of the springs, her eyes again landing on the prone body of Jaime Hutchinson. How? Jesus, you'd have to be dead not to notice her. Well, dead or straight. And she was neither.