THE KILLING ROOM
Jake McCoy drove along the Taylor River , her Land Cruiser packed to the brim for a few weeks of unexpected solitude. She glanced in her side mirror, smiling as Cheyenne 's face came into view. The dog hung out the open window, anticipation on her face as she realized where they were headed.
Jake had owned the tiny cabin near Tin Cup for eleven years, fixing it up little by little. At first, when she lived in Gunnison , she could come out every weekend. But living in Denver for the past five years had put a damper on her visits—and her renovations. Not that she regretted the move. Her salary had nearly doubled. Four or five more years of padding her saving's account and she'd be ready to move back permanently.
As the thick stands of pine, spruce, and fir flew by, she felt the familiar peace settle over her. With her own window open, she hung her arm out, loving the feel of the cool mountain air as it rustled across her body, bringing a smile to her normally impassive face. She watched the water glisten in the afternoon sun as the river almost roared down the canyon, bouncing off boulders on its way to Gunnison and the Black Canyon . She climbed the winding canyon road, finally reaching the dam where Taylor Reservoir spread out beneath the shadows of the Collegiate Peaks mountain range, the blue, blue water splashing against the shoreline on its haste to tumble over the dam and down the canyon.
Watching the handful of anglers that lined the shore, she realized that late August, most of the tourists were gone. She turned right on the forest service road, bouncing along the dirt road as it made it's way deeper into the forest, crossing several streams and wooden bridges. They climbed slightly when they reached the tiny community of Tin Cup, and she slowed as she passed the old general store, waving at the locals. She'd like to think that most knew her by now, but she realized it was really Cheyenne they recognized. She usually brought her supplies with her and seldom ventured into the store. Just a mile outside of Tin Cup, the forest road turned into a 4-wheel drive road, and she downshifted, bouncing over the rocks that now lined the road. She drove past the cutoff that would take her over Cumberland Pass and continued on until she came to Mirror Lake , one of the most picturesque lakes she'd ever seen, the reflection of the mountain peak behind it shimmering clearly on the still water. Crossing over the dirt-packed dam, she headed around the canyon with Cumberland Pass hovering over to her right. She would top nine thousand feet before she reached her cabin. Even though the days remained warm and comfortable, the nights would drop into the thirties. She hoped there was enough firewood. She doubted she'd be able to cut any on this trip. Rubbing her injured leg gently she thought she might just give it a try. She'd been laid up so long already, she was starved for physical exercise.
She met her eyes in the mirror, frowning slightly. She'd promised her lieutenant she'd take it easy. That was why he'd agreed to let her spend the beginning of her "desk duty only" assignment up here. He knew she'd go completely insane being tied to a desk for a month, perhaps longer if her physical therapist had his way. Well, she was stronger than she looked and much too stubborn to let a bullet to the leg keep her out of commission for months. Two weeks in the hospital had nearly done her in, another full week in bed with that psycho therapist insisting on flexing her leg once an hour. Grudgingly, she knew it had helped. It just hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Last week, he'd finally had her walking, first using a walker that embarrassed her to no end, then finally a cane. At least with the cane, she could use it to threaten him when he pushed too hard. She let a small smile escape as she recalled how she'd whacked him across his shoulder two days ago with the cane. He had been adamant that she was not ready for this trip, that she could not possibly get around in the mountains by herself.
"Like hell I can't," she said out loud. Cheyenne moved from the window to the space between the seats, standing on the console and nudging Jake with her wet nose. "I know, girl. About there."
Most of the land along Cumberland Pass was public, but there were pockets here and there that were privately owned. Her own cabin sat on just two acres, but, it was surrounded by the national forest, and when she stood on the huge boulders and surveyed the mountains around her, she felt like she owned it all.
She downshifted into low as she made the last climb, finally stopping at the small wooden gate that marked her property. Cheyenne danced excitedly, urging her to hurry. Opening the door, she gritted her teeth, knowing that the last three hours of driving without a break would have taken their toll on her leg. Using the cane to support herself, she gingerly straightened up, putting more weight on her injured leg. She gasped as the pain shot through her, and she gripped the cane tightly. The pain passed as it always did. For probably the thousandth time, she wondered if she'd ever fully recover. If not, well, she could either accept desk duty for the rest of her career or take the disability package and retire. She looked around her, breathing deeply the fresh smell of the mountains. If she didn't love her job so damn much, she'd take the disability in a minute. But, once she did it, that was it. Wasn't like she could go back into law enforcement after that. No one would hire her. And at thirty-eight, she was a little young to retire up here and hide out in her cabin. She'd turn into a bona fide hermit before she knew it. She liked being alone too much to turn out otherwise.
After taking a few steps, being careful not to trip on a rock, the feeling in her leg returned to somewhat normal. She grabbed the padlock, inserting her key and turning, listening for the click that was about to open up her world. She swung the gate open, then hobbled over to secure it so she could drive through, knowing she'd just have to do it all over again when she stopped to close it. She'd close it and lock it and . . . finally, after nearly a month of being waited on by nurses, she'd have complete solitude. She and Cheyenne . They'd only been together two years, but they'd bonded like no other dog she'd ever had. She often wondered if Cheyenne could hear her thoughts. She had no doubt the dog understood her spoken words. A high-pitched bark urged her to hurry and she laughed.
"I know, I know." She crawled back inside and drove through the gate, stopping once again to close the gate and lock it. Cheyenne was nearly dancing by the time she got back inside. She ruffled the dog's fur, then sat still as a wet tongue swiped at her cheek. She drove on, curving to the right as the tiny road was nearly swallowed by the forest. Just a short distance later, her cabin appeared. "Here we are, Cheyenne ."
The small cabin looked like it could have easily been built in the 1800s. It was as rustic as it could get and still have plumbing and electricity. And that was why Jake loved it. Of course, when she bought it, there wasn't plumbing and electricity. She'd made do with the old outhouse and hauling in water, but that soon got old. So, she spent a small fortune on a well and having electricity brought up the pass. But the other renovations, like the new porch and the added bedroom, she'd done herself. Mostly. It was just a one-room cabin when she bought it. Now, eleven years later, it had a separate bedroom and bathroom, and a real kitchen. The original part of the cabin was now entirely a living room, with one whole wall composed of a rock fireplace and nothing else.
She opened the back door of the Land Cruiser, and Cheyenne bolted out, nose to the ground as she sniffed around the cabin. Jake walked slowly to the porch, taking the first step with difficulty. Using the cane and the handrail, she pulled herself up. She felt nearly disgusted with her inadequacy and had to push it aside, knowing it would pass. But she was impatient. She paused on the porch and looked back at the Land Cruiser, wondering how in the world she was going to unpack it.
Well, she had nothing but time. A slow smiled formed as she stood on the porch. She let the familiar smells of the forest relax her and embraced the peace she felt as she stared out at the mountains. Yes, nothing but time.
Nicole rushed down the sidewalk, dodging others who obviously were not running late. Her gym bag bounced on her hip, and she tossed an "excuse me" over her shoulder as she bumped an older gentleman. Standing impatiently at the elevators, she punched the button six times, then glanced around, just daring anyone to say something smart-ass.
A tone sounded, the doors opened, and she pushed her way on, knowing there was no way all twelve of them could fit. But she was late. She glanced at her watch. Jesus, was she late. Catherine would kill her.
And as expected, her secretary was pacing in the lobby when she walked in.
"Do you know what time it is?" she demanded.
"How long have they been here?"
"Twenty minutes. There is no telling what they've talked about in twenty minutes."
"We're in . . . what? Week nine? They're fine." Nicole shoved her gym bag at Catherine and walked confidently to her door. Only quiet murmurs were heard from inside, and she nodded. Yes, they were fine. Swinging the door open, she smiled at the eight women who were waiting for her. "Did you start without me?"
"Dr. Westbrook, no, of course not," said Patty, the group's normal spokesperson.
Nicole walked slowly to her desk, pausing before sitting down. "Sorry I'm late. I know we only have a couple of sessions left. Let's make the most of them, shall we?"
"Beth would like to go first today," Patty announced.
Nicole nodded, her mind already beginning to wander even before Beth started speaking. She'd heard their stories a hundred times, and she wasn't sure how much more she could endure. Each group was the same. Eight to ten women, all various ages and from different backgrounds, thrown together because of a common cause. Violence. And every ten weeks or so, a new group would come, all telling their stories. And this group was not unlike the one before them or the one before that. They all came because they were victims—rape, assault, domestic violence. She'd heard it all. And she realized she was no longer shocked by what she heard. It had become nearly commonplace. And that's why she knew it was time to stop. Mentally, she couldn't take it anymore. For the last five years, she'd been conducting group sessions, eight to ten weeks long, meeting three times a week. She found the women were more apt to open up in a group.
Normally, they felt no one could possibly have it as bad as they did or no one could relate to what they've gone through. But in a group setting, they listen to other women whose stories mirror their own and most times eclipse theirs. They find support where they thought there'd be none. The group sessions had been a huge success, but they had taken their toll on her. She felt like she'd lived every rape, every beating, every tear that was ever shed.
Nicole blinked several times, focusing on Beth. "Good, Beth. Who would like to comment?"
And so it went. One by one, they told their stories, over and over again. The anxiety that Nicole had been feeling for the last week seemed to manifest itself tenfold. She felt nearly suffocated, and she reached for her glass of water with trembling hands.
"What's wrong, Nicole? Catherine's afraid you're having a breakdown of some sort."
Nicole wanted to laugh it off, but Dr. Peterson would see through it in a heartbeat. The older woman had been her friend and mentor for more than ten years. If there was anyone she could confide in, it was Dorothy. She settled down on the couch beside her and took a deep breath. "I don't know how much longer I can continue to hear about their abuses. It makes me want to find one of their husbands and beat the shit out of him."
Dorothy laughed and reached over, squeezing Nicole's hand. "I tried to warn you. One-on-one sessions are hard enough. But groups?"
"The group sessions are the most helpful," Nicole reminded her.
"Yes, I agree. You've done wonderful things for these women. I've no doubt they're able to ease back into society with a confidence they never could have imagined before. I'm talking about you, Nicole. You relive everything that happened to them, over and over. Ten of them at once? I can't imagine the burden you're carrying around."
Nicole rolled her head along the sofa, meeting the other woman's eyes. "Dorothy, I'm not sure I'm in the right profession."
The other woman only smiled. "We all go through that, Nicole."
"We're trained to be objective and to separate ourselves from our patients. But all I hear is their pain and their fears, and I realize there is so very little I can do for them."
"That's not true and you know it. By the time they finish with you, they are ready to head out that door and take life by the horns. You've instilled confidence in them, Nicole. Every one of them leaves here knowing that what happened to them was not their fault. And you do it in a mere ten weeks time. I have a patient that I've been seeing for over a year. She was raped by her neighbor, and I'm no closer to having her accept it than I was on the first day. You have a way with them, Nicole. Don't throw that away just because you have . . . burnout."
"Burnout? I think that's too mild a word for what I'm feeling. Do you know I was twenty minutes late for our session today? I was at the gym, and I knew I was late but I just couldn't make myself . . . go."
"Because you were exercising and you weren't thinking about them or their problems, and it made you feel good."
"Well, good for you. Most of us just turn to alcohol."
Nicole laughed. "I've tried that, too." She turned sideways on the couch, facing Dorothy. "I feel like I have this tremendous weight on me and I can't shake it. I have two more sessions next week with this group, and Dorothy, I don't think I can do it."
"Of course you can do it. You know why? Because when you're done, you're going to take a vacation."
"Vacations are hardly stress-free. And at the end of them . . . it's back to work."
"I happen to know that your most favorite thing in the world is to backpack into the mountains. When's the last time you've done that?"
"I've only been able to get away once since I started the group sessions."
"Exactly. You used to tell me that the only way you could reconnect with yourself was to go out alone into the mountains."
"There's never time."
"Well make the time, Nicole. Next week, when this group is done, take the time. Go out alone, forget about all this and focus on you."
"And just like that, it'll all be better?"
"No, it won't. I'm going to recommend that you limit your group sessions to two per year. Get back to doing one-on-one. I know that family violence is your specialty, but perhaps you could broaden that. There is always marriage counseling."
"The divorce rate would soar, I'm afraid." Nicole sat up. "But Dorothy, I'm doing five group sessions a year now. Cutting back to two . . . that eliminates about thirty women that I could possibly be helping."
"If you don't cut back to two, you'll be eliminating fifty women, not thirty. You said so yourself, you can't keep this up."
Nicole nodded and squeezed the older woman's hand. "Thanks for coming by. I think I'll take your advice and get away. After that, I'll see how I feel." She stood. "Regardless, Catherine has already scheduled the next session."
"As a colleague and a friend, I would recommend you cancel it, Nicole. Take on a few of them for individual sessions if you must, but don't take on another ten-week group session."
"Thank you, Dorothy. I'll take that under advisement."
Dorothy let out a laugh as she stood. "I'll take that to mean I should mind my own business."
"Not at all. I appreciate your concern. And Catherine's."
"Don't be hard on her. She's just worried about you."
After Dorothy left, Catherine stuck her head in, albeit a bit hesitantly. "Are you mad at me?"
Nicole motioned for her to come in. "Of course not." Nicole pushed away from her desk and leaned back, relaxing as she stared at Catherine. "Sit down. Let's talk."
"I've just been really worried about you. I've never seen you this stressed," Catherine said, taking a seat in one of Nicole's visitors chairs.
"You're right. I have been stressed, and it is hardly professional to be late to an appointment. You were right to call Dorothy."
"What's going on?"
Nicole gave a forced laugh and shrugged. "Too much pain and suffering, not enough love, I guess."
"This group's been hard, I know. Two of them lost children, one . . ."
"I know," Nicole said, interrupting her. "God, I know."
"Sorry. Is that what's bothering you? That you have to . . . absorb all that?"
"That's a good way of putting it." Nicole leaned forward, resting her elbows on her desk and closing her eyes. "Every day, every session, hearing about the horrors they faced," she said quietly, "has taken its toll, yes. I would never admit this to Dr. Peterson, but I've been having dreams about it. And that scares me. I'm too close, and I have no outlet."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm single, I live alone. I don't even have a damn cat."
"You can talk to me," Catherine offered.
"Thank you, but not the same."
"Well, I won't bring up your love life, I know that subject is off limits."
"I date. I don't have a love life."
"You date. So, at least . . . you know."
Nicole shook her head.
"You're not having sex?" Catherine asked loudly.
Nicole looked away. God, it was so . . . weird to talk to Catherine about this. "Since Rachel."
"You're kidding? Nicole, that's been . . . what? Three years?"
"Something like that."
Catherine shook her head. "That's just not normal."
"Why thank you, Doctor Catherine. However, I'm afraid to sleep with someone. The last time I did, they moved into my home within a week and stayed a year and a half."
"You know what you need?"
"No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me."
"You need to go out . . . and just . . . have wild sex. Meaningless wild sex. And don't tell them your name, and certainly don't tell them where you live."
"And what exactly would that solve?"
"Well, it would certainly let out some of the pent-up energy I'm sure you have." Catherine leaned forward. "Just let loose for once. Let your hair down. You're always so controlled."
"I have to be."
"I know. So go out somewhere where you don't have to be. Surely you people have sleazy bars you can go to."
"I will not go to a bar, thank you."
"Well, you need to do something. My God, your dates have to be so boring."
Nicole let out a deep breath. "You probably won't think of this as letting my hair down, but Dorothy suggested I take some time off and maybe . . . well, get away into the mountains."
"But that's great. You love doing that, you should go."
"There are only two weeks between sessions," Nicole reminded Catherine.
"I can stretch it, no problem."
"I really would like to have a break. Can we stretch it to three?"
"Of course. Only two more sessions with this group. Which ones are you going to hold over for individual meetings?"
"Sara, of course. And I think Lee Ann. I'll know for sure after next week."
"Okay." Catherine stood. "It's late. Why don't you go home?"
"I just have a few more notes to make."
"Fine. Make them. Then go home."
Nicole stared after her, a little envious that Catherine had someone to go home to. Well, maybe not envious. It wasn't all that long ago that Nicole longed to go home to an empty house. Rachel had come to stay one weekend and never left. But even at the beginning, what she'd had with Rachel was never anything close to what she imagined a relationship would be like. In reality, Rachel was the first time she'd even tried. At first, she'd been so busy with school, she didn't want the complications of seriously dating someone. Then, when she was building her practice, she certainly never had time. Most of the dates she went out on now were discreetly set up by well-meaning friends. She felt like she'd been out with every eligible doctor and lawyer in the city. Unfortunately, second dates usually meant sex and so far, she'd been able to resist. None of them stirred her libido, and she just didn't see the point in faking it.
She twirled around in her chair, staring out the eighth floor window at the lights of downtown Denver . Now . . . now that she was settled in her practice, now that she was well respected in her profession . . . now, she felt the emptiness in her life. But after Rachel, God, she swore she'd never do that again. No. If she were to meet someone now, someone that she was attracted to enough to consider a second date, she would never live with them. In fact, she wondered how anyone found the courage to take that step.
The professional part of her knew that it was simply the dreadful experience with Rachel that deterred her. Well, that and the constant horror stories she heard about failed relationships turned violent.
She took a deep breath, forcing herself back to her desk and away from the lights of downtown. A vacation? She smiled. Yeah. One more week, then she'd get away. And reconnect, as Dorothy had said.
Jake stood on her porch, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she sipped hot coffee. Dawn had brought her outside and even though it was cold, she couldn't resist the sunrise. She leaned on her cane, head cocked slightly as she watched the first pink rays cross the mountain tops. Before long, the colors changed, the dark green of the pine and spruce trees nearly glowing as the light touched them. She stood still, her eyes fixed as the orange globe rose over the Collegiate Peaks , casting light and warmth over the mountains.
Cheyenne nudged her and whined softly. She gently brushed the dog's head.
A quiet whimper followed.
"Okay. Let's do breakfast. Then we've got to finish unpacking." She looked at the frosted windows of the Land Cruiser, knowing that she'd only managed to bring in the bare minimum yesterday. She'd been too tired to finish. But she felt much better this morning. In fact, she'd only had to take one pain pill. Hopefully, in a few days, a week, she could wean herself off them completely.
After a hot bowl of oatmeal and a scrambled egg, she showered and slipped on a thick pair of sweats. For wearing jeans, they had given her a padded bandage to put over her wound but with sweats, she didn't bother with the bandage. She stood and looked at her reflection in the mirror. It still startled her. She brought her hand up and rubbed across her head, the very short hair popping back into place. After a week of lying in the hospital with no one to wash her hair, she'd gotten pissed off and had a nurse call up a hairstylist. The dark hair that normally reached below her shoulders was gone in five minutes, replaced by a close crop that needed no brushing. She stared at herself, thinking that she actually liked it better this way. Definitely no fuss. But she'd always worn her hair long, going all the way back to college. Well, it was past time for a change. She rubbed her head one more time, then grabbed the cane, walking slowly through the cabin, Cheyenne right at her heels.
She knew the dog couldn't understand why they weren't out hiking. Normally, the first morning, they would have been out before dawn, hiking to the rock pile that overlooked the canyon behind Cumberland Pass. Across the canyon were the Collegiate Peaks . If she hiked high enough on Cumberland Pass , she could see all the way to Mt. Harvard . Actually, she could see six of the peaks at once. It was a favorite spot, but she knew she wouldn't be climbing up there on this trip. If fact, it would probably be awhile before she climbed it. But she would do some hiking. Her doctor told her that the best way to strengthen her leg was by walking.
"Come on, girl. Unload first, then a short hike."
Cheyenne cocked her head, her intelligent eyes staring directly into Jake's. It was at moments like this that Jake would swear the dog understood perfectly what she'd just said.
She made three trips from the Land Cruiser to the cabin, carrying as much in one hand each time as she could. With the other, she still used the cane for support. Most of her supplies consisted of food items and a fifty-pound bag of dog food. Having the young man at the grocery store load it for her was fine, but now, she was on her own. The dog food would have to stay in the truck. She'd have to get it little by little as she needed it. Again, she hated the helplessness that she felt at not being able to function as normal. But . . . at least she was alive. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to get the image of the little boy from her mind. It had been haunting her. She'd had her standard sessions with the police shrink, and she'd lied her way through them. Yes, it was tragic that the little boy had died but no, she didn't feel like it was her fault.
"Yeah, right," she murmured. "Then whose fault was it?"
But she would deal with it herself, not on the couch of some shrink. Yes, goddamn it, she felt like it was her fault. She was the fucking cop, she was supposed to protect him. The fact that she took two bullets didn't matter. The little boy was still dead.
She took a deep breath, refusing to think about it. Right now, she wanted to get out in the forest and forget. She filled up a water bottle and clipped it to her waist pack, then checked her cell phone, surprised that she had service. Normally, she would turn the damn thing off while she was up here, but not now. In case . . . well, in case she fell or something, she could at least use it to call the local sheriff. She and Chad Beckett used to be poker buddies when she stilled worked in Gunnison . Wouldn't he get a kick out of her calling for a rescue?
Cheyenne was dancing at her feet, knowing the waist pack meant a hike. Jake nearly laughed, something she'd not come close to doing in the last month. "Let's go. Lead the way." That was all it took. Cheyenne was out the door in a flash, her bushy tail held high as she shot into the forest, following the trail that they always took.
Jake took her time, using the cane and trying to put as much weight as she could stand on her leg. It would be throbbing like hell by the time they got back, but that was okay. She needed this, even if it was only a short hike, she needed it. She'd been treated like an invalid for the past three weeks. She didn't care how much it hurt, she was going on a hike.
Nicole leaned her pack against the rental car then looked inside one more time, making sure she hadn't forgotten anything. She manually locked the door and slammed it. The rental car was a dud, but she wasn't about to drive her Lexus down here and leave it parked for a week or more.
Struggling to lift the heavy pack onto her shoulders, she walked past the trailhead, pleased that hers was the only car in the tiny parking lot. She needed time alone and the last thing she wanted was to walk up on another hiker or two and have them ask her to join them. Even if she declined, they were obviously on the same trail. She remembered her last trip, four or five years ago, where she and another woman had crossed paths at least ten times over the course of five days. She finally gave up trying to avoid the woman and simply hiked with her the last day.
But not this trip. She would go off-trail if need be. This time, she craved solitude. And this late in the season, she would likely get it. Labor Day was right around the corner and the campgrounds would be full, but she doubted the backcountry would get that much activity. Checking her trail map one last time, she set out on the Colorado Trail, heading southwest to Cottonwood Pass. From there, she would take old Forest Service trails to the ghost town of St. Elmo. There was an old mining road that was now simply a trail. She would take that to reach Monarch Pass. Nicole figured five or six days to reach Monarch Pass , another two to hike down the mountain to the highway. Once she reached Salida, she'd grab a motel for a night, then hire a taxi to drive her back to Buena Vista and her rental car.
"Simple enough," she murmured. She shoved the map into the back pocket of her jeans, steadily climbing the trail that would take her high into the Collegiate Peaks mountain range. She hadn't been in this area in years. But with September only a few days away, she didn't want to chance a trip into the northern mountains and get caught in an early season snowstorm. So, she'd studied the map for a more southerly route. And the Collegiate Peaks , with their numerous hot springs , seemed the logical choice.
She felt a spring in her step and she actually smiled when she hit the first switchback. Switchbacks meant she was climbing and climbing meant she was leaving her life behind, if only for a week or so.
Jake tried to stretch her leg and nearly cried out from the pain. She reached blindly for the pain pills beside the bed and swallowed two. Cheyenne shifted next to her, moving around on the bed until she rested her face on Jake's arm.
"It's okay, sweetie. Just too much hiking."
Cheyenne nudged her arm until Jake reached over to pet her, gently scratching behind her ear. "Spoiled rotten," she murmured.
A short while later, she felt the pain pills kicking in, and she finally relaxed. She'd felt so good after their short hike on Saturday that she thought they could hike down to the rock pile overlooking the canyon. The hike down was fine. It was the climb back up that nearly did her in. She wasn't afraid to admit that there were a couple of times that she wasn't sure she could make it. She had cursed herself last night as she lay soaking in the tub, trying to stem off some of the soreness she knew she'd feel. It was a stupid thing to do, and it would probably take her a whole day to get the strength back. But . . . she had time. Her eyes finally closed . . . the pain pills had taken hold. She threaded her fingers into Cheyenne 's fur and fell asleep.
She held the gun tightly, finding him in her sights, but her hand trembled, she was shaking so. The boy was too close. Too close.
"He's going to shoot him," Perkins said as he knelt behind her.
"No he's not."
"Back off, bitch! I'll do it! I mean it."
"No! He's done nothing," she yelled.
"He's dead! I mean it," the man threatened.
Jake met his eyes. Even at this distance, she could see his fear, see his anger. She walked closer, her weapon still pointed squarely at him.
"Backup's coming," Perkins said urgently. "About fucking time."
They heard the sirens in the distance, and Jake saw the man's face twist in anger. "I said no more cops, bitch!" he yelled. He had the boy around the neck with his forearm and he pressed the gun to the boy's head, pulling him along as tried to round the corner into the alley.
Jake moved with him, staring him down. "You're not going anywhere," she yelled. "You're a dead man."
Jake's eyes widened as she saw his index finger tighten on the trigger.
"No!" she yelled. She felt the perspiration drip down her face, could feel the rapid pounding of her heart. "Don't fucking do it!"
"Take him!" Perkins yelled as the boy screamed.
Nicole sat cross-legged on the boulder, staring towards the east as the sun finally showed itself, peeking above the mountains, chasing the shadows from the canyon and engulfing her in light. Her eyes widened as she took it all in. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed this, the simple pleasure of a sunrise on a clear morning in the Rockies . Amazing, but for the brief moments that it took for the sun to scale the highest peak, Nicole's mind had ceased its tumultuous churning and racing and simply stopped to enjoy the show.
Yes, this trip would be good for her. She'd ended her last session with the group only three days ago, holding over Sara and Lee Ann for future visits. The others she set up with support groups if they felt the need, but the last session told her that they'd accepted what had happed to them and were ready to move on. After ten weeks together, meeting three times a week and sharing the most intimate details of their lives, most of them had formed the bond necessary to be each other's support. Nicole knew that was one of the best benefits of doing group sessions. It produced long-lasting friendships that would endure long after their therapy ended.
But she didn't come up here to hash over her practice. She stood and brushed off her jeans, then went about the task of taking her tent down. The morning wasn't exceptionally cold, so she would forego coffee and a hot meal and make do with a breakfast bar instead. She was anxious to get on the trail and put as many miles between her and her life as possible.
She rolled her eyes. God, if Dorothy could hear her thoughts, she'd set her up for a counseling session in a minute. And it wasn't like she was really running from her life. In fact, she had a good life, a successful practice at a relatively young age, and she was well respected by her colleagues. She paused, looking up thoughtfully. Was thirty-six considered young? She shrugged. Young enough, and it didn't really matter. The point was, she had a good life.
Then why did it feel so . . . empty? She refused to even consider that being single contributed to her feelings. Lots of people were single. Not everyone had to have constant companionship to feel complete. She, of all people, should know that. But still, sometimes, she wished there was someone to confide in, share things with, be with.
And therein lay the problem. It had been so long since she'd been intimate with someone, she was afraid it had become a habit she couldn't break. Maybe she needed to take Catherine's advice and just let her hair down and . . . and what? Anonymous sex? Jesus, the very thing she preached against in her sessions! Besides, that just wasn't her. She was too . . . too conservative for that. She'd like to say that she was from the old school and wanted to have some sort of commitment before entering into a sexual relationship, but that wasn't really it.
"Hell, I'm shy, okay," she said out loud. Jesus, now I'm talking to myself.
Shy and . . . embarrassed. It was silly, and she knew it was silly but she still saw herself as the fat teenager with thick glasses nobody wanted to go out with, much less see naked! She'd poured herself into books instead of friends and graduated valedictorian, much to the dismay of Crissy Piper, who had wanted to add that to her long list of accomplishments, as if class president and head cheerleader weren't enough.
Nicole pulled the heavy backpack onto her shoulders and adjusted the straps, recalling their fifteen-year class reunion. She didn't know what possessed her to go, but she was awfully glad she had. There wasn't a single member of her high school class she'd kept in touch with, but her mother received the invitation and urged Nicole to go. Nicole knew it was mostly her mother wanting to show her off. The fat teenager had grown up. Nicole wasn't sure if her mother was more proud of the fact that she had "doctor" preceding her name or that she'd turned into a fitness freak with a toned body. Regardless, both caused quite a stir. That and the fact that Nicole now sported a chic blond hairstyle instead of the mousy brown ponytail of her childhood. She had seen the envious looks from her classmates and the appraising eyes of most of their husbands. Yes, she was awfully glad she'd gone. Especially when Crissy Piper showed up, looking every bit the married housewife and mother of three that she was.
As Nicole walked along the trail, she wondered why she was taking a trip down memory lane. It wasn't like those people were a part of her life. But the therapist in her knew that those years had shaped her life and because of them, she was who she was today. Corny, but true. Had she not been a fat teenager with glasses who got teased mercilessly, she may have been a cheerleader dating the quarterback and stayed in Grand Junction and gotten married instead of going to college. Well, that probably wouldn't have happened. She knew even back then that she was gay. She just didn't do anything about it. In fact, she didn't do anything about it until . . . God, was I really twenty-four?
"Suzette," she murmured dryly. They had been in medical school together. And to this day she's convinced it was her encounter with Suzette that caused her to abandon medical school and settle on psychology instead of psychiatry. Her world had been turned upside down, and she simply couldn't handle that and med school at the same time.
Again she rolled her eyes. Dorothy could have fun with her thoughts today. She might even make a case study. But she knew it wasn't really Suzette's fault. It was just a good excuse at the time. The reality was, she didn't want to be a physician. She wanted to be out helping people, counseling them. Not studying medicine.
Nicole stopped suddenly and looked around. She'd been hiking for over an hour and had been so lost in her thoughts that she had no idea where she was. Thankfully, she was at least still on the trail. Loosening the straps on her pack, she let it slide to the ground as she rested on a boulder the size of a small car. Unfolding the map, she spread it out across her thighs and tried to determine where she was. She hadn't started the switchbacks yet to climb to Cottonwood Pass. Moving her finger along the map, she found a small stream she would cross before climbing higher, and she was fairly certain she'd not crossed a stream. Surely she'd not been that out of it. After a quick drink of water, she again shouldered her pack and walked off, this time making a point to acknowledge her surroundings instead of getting lost inside her own mind.
"Drop your goddamn weapon!" she yelled.
"Come any closer and he's dead! You hear me?"
"Drop your fucking weapon . . . NOW!"
Jake sat up quickly, her heart racing. She touched her face, feeling tears still fresh on her cheeks, and she rubbed vigorously. The dream. Always the fucking dream. She wiped at her forehead, feeling the perspiration that had formed. Taking a deep breath, she lay back down, running her fingers through Cheyenne 's fur to reassure the dog everything was okay. She'd hoped that the damn pain pill would knock her out enough so that she wouldn't dream. Sometimes, it did. But more often than not, the little boy would visit. She wondered how long it would be before she slept through the night. A part of her feared she'd never be able to sleep through the night again.
Rolling over onto her side, she reached under the covers and touched her wristwatch, checking the time. It was only three. Too early to get up but too late to try for a good night's sleep. She closed her eyes, willing sleep to come. But forty minutes later, she was still awake.
She tossed the covers off and, with difficulty, managed to swing her leg over the side. She sat there in the darkness, one hand absently rubbing along her thigh, feeling the scar tissue that remained after her surgery. Small price to pay. She could have lost the whole damn leg.
Cheyenne moved closer, nudging her with a cold, wet nose. Jake rubbed behind the dog's ear, wondering what she would have done these last few weeks if not for Cheyenne . She was a comforting presence, a silent presence. Every person in her life had asked the same question: Do you feel responsible for the little boy's death? Even those who didn't ask, she could still see the question in their eyes. The question and the accompanying sympathy. And in others, she saw relief. Relief that it was Jake who was first on the scene, not them. All but Rick. Her big, macho partner blamed himself. He should have stayed with her. But instead, he'd chased down a guy running from the scene, a supposed accomplice. He turned out to be an older cousin of the boy who was shot. By the time Rick caught him, gunshots were already sounding in the alley. He'd rushed back to Jake, only to find her shot and bleeding profusely . . . the uniformed officer Perkins and the little boy lying dead, not five feet apart. Perkins had taken a shot to the neck. The little boy, a single gunshot to the head.
Jake squeezed her eyes closed, trying so hard to forget that night, knowing that she never would. The hardest part was waiting. Waiting to find out if it was her bullet that had killed the little boy.
"Come on, girl. Let's have an early breakfast." Jake grabbed the nightstand next to the bed and used it to steady herself as she put weight on her leg. It was stiff but actually felt much better than she thought it would. Apparently the soak in the tub had done wonders. Reaching for the cane, she walked through the dark room and into the kitchen, flipping on the overhead light, then closing her eyes against the brightness. Cheyenne , too, turned away from the light. She walked into the living room and climbed upon the sofa, curling into a ball in one corner.
Jake lit the propane heater in the living room to chase away the early morning cold, then put coffee on. Leaning one hip against the counter as she waited, she surveyed the small cabin, her eyes lighting upon objects quickly, then moving on. The Navajo rug she'd picked up in Santa Fe years ago. The old wooden snow shoes that hung over the mantel, she'd found in an abandoned cabin high up in the Wet Mountains near the Spanish Peaks . Handmade pottery—vases and bowls—littered her bookshelves and tables. The few prints that adorned the walls were mountain scenes, painted by a local artist in Crested Butte. Jake had stumbled upon her studio one summer when she'd ridden her mountain bike from her cabin to the ski village some forty miles away. She was out of water and had gone begging. Serena, with her long shiny black hair, had offered her kitchen in the back of her studio. Jake smiled at the memory. She'd stayed three days.
"Oh, to be young again," she murmured lazily. She wondered if Serena was still around. Jake hadn't run into her in years.
The smell of coffee brought her thoughts back to the present, and with automatic motions, she poured coffee and added a teaspoon of sugar, closing her eyes as she sipped the hot liquid. It was far too early to plan her day, but at least she felt well enough to plan a day. Last night, as she'd struggled with the pain, she imagined she'd be laid up all day, recovering. But, as she flexed her leg, she thought she might even be up to a short hike.
Although, if it was as warm as it had been yesterday, she may simply choose the lawn chair on the deck and sit with a book, soaking up the sun while she still had the chance. Which would be fine. It wasn't like she made a habit of lounging on the deck.
She crossed over into the living room, turning on a lamp as she went. Cheyenne opened her eyes, then closed them just as quickly. Apparently, she hadn't recovered from the hike yesterday, either. Jake eased into the recliner and stretched her leg out, careful not to spill her coffee. She sat facing the large windows that overlooked the Collegiate Peaks . Still a couple of hours before daylight, she stared into the darkness, seeing nothing. It was at times like these that she was most frightened. Awake and alone with no distractions. In her mind, she saw the little boy's face, the scared look in his eyes. And later, the look on his mother's face, the tears, the accusing eyes. Telling herself that she'd done all she could do wasn't helping anymore. She was to blame. She should have taken a shot earlier. She shouldn't have tried to talk to the bastard.
Closing her eyes, she ran her hand over her injured leg, reminding herself that she hadn't come out totally unscathed. No, but she was still breathing. She leaned her head back, bits and pieces of that night flying through her mind in no particular order, the gunshots sounding just as loud in her mind as they had that night.
"Goddamn it," she whispered.
Nicole emerged from her tent well after daybreak, the sun already warming the day. She stretched her arms over her head and bent back, loosening up her tight muscles. She couldn't remember the last time she'd slept through the night. It had been glorious. And she wasn't in any hurry. No reason to get up at the crack of dawn and hit the trail. She had time to relax. She'd allotted seven or eight days for the trip but if that stretched to ten, no big deal. Catherine would cover for her.
She lit the small stove she carried and heated water for coffee and oatmeal. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, she looked overhead at the blue, blue sky and took a deep breath. Yes, she would take her time. And if the fates were being kind, she would stumble upon one of the many hot springs that dotted the Collegiate Peaks .
She could already envision it, stripping naked on the spot and submerging into a crystal clear, bubbling hot springs . "Heavenly," she murmured. She pulled the folded map from her jeans pocket and opened it, her eyes searching for the black dots that signified hot springs . They were more numerous around Mt. Princeton . More numerous and more populated. No, she was looking for something a little more secluded. And for that, she'd have to get off the Colorado Trail and . . . pick up Cottonwood Creek. The trail followed the canyon into the mountains, crossing over Cottonwood Creek six or eight times along the way. And she counted . . . four hot springs . From there, she could follow Ptarmigan Creek which met up with a Forest Service trail that would take her to Cottonwood Lake . She could pick up the main trail again there.
She picked up a small rock and turned it over in her hands. Two days. It would add at least two days to her trip. Was hiking out of the way to find four obscure little hot springs worth it?
"I know it doesn't look like it to you, but I am hurrying," Jake said, looking Cheyenne right in the eye. Yes, she swore the dog understood every word. Cheyenne cocked her head once, then walked on, turning back occasionally to make sure Jake was following her.
She'd decided on a relatively easy afternoon hike, one in which she might be able to catch the sunset over Cumberland Pass. That is, if she hurried. After only four days up here, her leg felt much stronger, but she continued to be cautious and use the cane. Especially out in the forest. One slip on a rock, and she'd go down. But it had felt really good that morning to walk around the cabin without the aid of the cane. It wouldn't be long, she knew. Whether or not she ever regained one hundred percent strength back, she had no idea. The doctors had seemed happy to tell her she'd walk again. And her physical therapist, although a little quirky, had pushed her hard. She was actually looking forward to seeing him again. She knew he'd be surprised at the progress she'd made.
But she didn't want to get ahead of herself. That was why, after the longer hike yesterday, she'd settled on a short, easy one today. Now, she paused at the base of the hill. An easy hike, except for this last part. It involved climbing nearly straight up to reach the ridge—the ridge and her sunset. Cheyenne was already up the trail, a trail Jake had made years ago when she'd first found the ridge. She hesitated, wondering if she should be satisfied right where she was. But the cirrus clouds overhead promised a colorful show.
So, with a determined effort, she put all of her weight on her left leg, pushing off the rock and holding onto the limbs of a young spruce as she brought her injured right leg up. She felt the shooting pain as soon as she put her weight on it, but she pulled herself up. Cheyenne , as if sensing her discomfort, came back down the trail, waiting.
"It's okay, girl," Jake murmured. "I'm still coming."
And one step at a time, she pulled her way to the top, managing to catch only the last pink rays as they reflected off the clouds. The sun had already disappeared. But it didn't matter. She'd made it. She slid down the side of a boulder, resting on the ground as she stared out to the west, watching the daylight begin to fade from the sky. She'd be hard-pressed to make it back to the cabin before dark, but again, it didn't matter. She felt a sense of accomplishment as she sat on top of the ridge. After just a few minutes rest, she made herself get up. If nothing else, she at least needed to make it back to the main trail before dusk.
But she need not have worried. The trip back down was easy and quick. Once back on level ground, she leaned heavily on the cane, following Cheyenne back to the cabin as darkness surrounded them.
And once safely back inside, she was pleased to notice that her appetite had returned. For the past three weeks, she had to force herself to eat. But tonight, she felt like . . .
She took a thick T-bone from the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw as she drew her bathwater. Another hot soak, a steak on the grill, bottle of wine, maybe a few chapters of the mystery book she'd brought along. She felt almost like she was getting back to normal. And if she could sleep through the night, it'd be an added bonus.
Nicole stood at the small stream, looking in both directions, then back at the map. The trail on the map crossed over the stream and continued until it reached Cottonwood Creek. However, across this stream was . . . a mountain. Nicole leaned her head back, looking up high to the top of the peak, then back down to the little stream.
"Shit," she whispered. Am I lost?
She let her pack fall to the ground as she turned a circle, wondering where she'd taken a wrong turn. As she looked around, she noticed that she wasn't really on a trail anymore. This, obviously, was not Grizzly Gulch. "Christ." She unzipped a side pocket on her pack and pulled out her compass. Well, she was facing west. At least she thought she was. Turning a complete circle, she watched the compass needle turn with her. Yes, sure enough, she knew which direction was north. Great. And if she only knew where she was on the map, the fact that she knew where north was might help her. She'd been told numerous times that there was an art to using a compass. An art that she'd obviously not mastered.
"So I'm lost."
Saying the words out loud caused a mini panic attack, and she leaned back against the trunk of a Douglas fir and closed her eyes. She couldn't really be that lost. Surely. An hour ago, she would swear she'd been on the right trail. Or so she thought.
"Okay, okay. Talk it out. You're an educated woman. How hard can it be?" She pushed off the tree, pacing next to the bank of the tiny stream. "I'm on the east side of the Continental Divide, so, I would turn south and follow the stream. It's going to hook up with . . . maybe Grizzly Gulch." She looked at the map again. No, Grizzly Gulch should be . . . God, like I know. She rolled her eyes. "When in doubt, follow a stream. It's got to go somewhere. Or, you can backtrack." She looked behind her. If only there was a real trail to backtrack to.
She shouldered her pack again and started walking downstream, pleased to see that there was somewhat of a trail there along the bank. Apparently, she wasn't the only one to hit this dead end.
But an hour later, when the sun crept behind the mountain, leaving her in shadows, she felt another wave of panic. The trail was non-existent and the creek was flowing steadily downward. It was slow going as she maneuvered over the rocks that littered the banks. And now that the sun's rays had left the canyon, she felt the evening chill.
"Couldn't walk upon a hot spring, could I? No."
Well, it was too early to stop for the day. There was at least another good hour of daylight left. Then she'd find a nice level spot in the forest to pitch her tent. Hopefully, she'd be too exhausted to worry about being lost. And surely to God, tomorrow, this creek would take her somewhere.
A part of her knew she shouldn't be doing this. But the stubborn part, the part that won, would hear nothing of it. So, as Cheyenne danced excitedly around her, Jake added a couple of extra dinners to the pack, just in case. Two nights out on the trail, there was nothing wrong with that. She'd be careful. She'd take her damn cane.
It wasn't so much being out on the trail, it was the lure of the hot springs . She felt like Grizzly Gulch was her own personal spa. Few people knew of the springs and those who did found the hike difficult when coming up from the Colorado Trail. If they were smart, they would simply hike the Mt. Princeton trail. The hot springs along the river there were so numerous, if one was crowded, you simply moved downstream to the next. No, the hot springs that bubbled up along Grizzly Gulch were primitive and secluded. Only twice in the eleven years Jake had owned the cabin had she shared the springs. And once was with a black bear that chased her up a tree.
Pulling the backpack tight on her shoulders, Jake closed and locked the door to her cabin, then dutifully leaned on her cane as she walked down the three wooden steps that took her from the deck to the forest. She figured the normal four-hour hike to the springs would take six. Still plenty of time to get there before dark. Plenty of time to enjoy a soak before bedtime.
"Oh yeah, Cheyenne, we'll be living the good life tonight," she said, smiling as the dog tossed her a look before continuing down the trail. With luck, she added silently. Her leg felt pretty good. Not normal, certainly, but not the constant throbbing pain she'd felt the first three weeks. Still, part of her knew she was overdoing it. But even then, she didn't care. She just couldn't stand being confined.
So, instead of worrying about her leg and the subsequent aches and pains she'd feel after this hike, she focused instead on the mountains around her. After eleven years of hiking these trails, she knew every rock, every tree, and every mountain peak. It brought her a sense of peace that she could never explain to anyone else. It was the smell, the crispness of the air, the sounds of the birds, the whisper of the trees as the wind kissed them. All simple things, insignificant alone but playing off each other much like a well rehearsed orchestra. Her footsteps on the rocks blended in with the other sounds and soon she was lost in the magnificence of it all. She forgot about her injury, she forgot about her dreams, she forgot about the damn job and just drifted away. Yes, this is what she'd hoped to find up here. Peace. For however long or however brief, she would embrace it.
Because once she left the mountains and went back to Denver , it would hit her full force. The shooting, the boy's death, the questions. And she would be ready to face them. All she needed was . . . a little time.
"Jesus Christ," she murmured. The wind coming off the water was biting and Nicole hurried, dutifully grabbing the toilet tissue she'd tossed aside as she pulled her jeans up. She had hoped for an early morning campfire to warm her up, but the wind was too strong, and she decided not to chance it. Instead, she'd have coffee and oatmeal and hit the trail.
"What trail?" she asked, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. Of all the stupid things she could do—getting lost had to rank right up there. She liked to think that she had a general idea of where she was but, the truth was, she didn't have a clue. She was somewhere in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, of that she was certain. But the stream she was following? The compass said she was traveling southwest. The map showed streams going west and streams going south. There were no streams going southwest. Obviously the map lied.
But she would not panic. The stream had to go somewhere. And she had enough food for three weeks. So, there really wasn't a problem. She rolled her eyes. Of course there is a problem! You're freakin' lost!
Nonetheless, after a quick breakfast, she folded the tent and tied it to the bottom of her pack and bravely set out again, following the stream into the canyon. With luck, she'd hit a river or a larger stream that she could find on the map, and she might figure out where she was. If not, she'd hike the stream until she came to civilization or met another hiker. Which, again, surely to God, would be soon. Not that she was afraid of being alone. In fact, she liked nothing better than being alone in the mountains. Of course, that was when she knew where the hell she was. But, being lost like this, she had a strange feeling of being disconnected from the world. And a part of her wondered if that was such a bad thing.
Jake rested against a tree, leaning heavily on her cane. She could just make out the stream through the trees but knew she had a good half-hour hike to reach it. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her leg lightly. The throbbing had started nearly two hours ago.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea." Jake affectionately rubbed Cheyenne 's head as the dog rested on her haunches next to Jake. Oh, she could make it down to the stream. That wasn't the problem. It would be the return trip home. Even if she stayed two nights at the springs, she still didn't think she could hike back to the cabin in one day. Mostly uphill . . . she'd be lucky to hike it in two days.
"Got nothing but time," she murmured. Giving Cheyenne a pat on the head, Jake pushed off the tree, grimacing as pain shot through her leg. "Goddamn," she whispered. She gripped the cane tighter, leaning heavily on it as she moved carefully down the mountain.
"Where the fuck am I?" Nicole whispered as she bent forward. She stood on a rock, watching as her little stream disappeared over the edge of the canyon and tumbled down some thirty or forty feet before landing in a beautiful spray of water and continuing on its way.
With an exasperated sigh, she shrugged off her backpack and let it fall as she rested against the trunk of a spruce tree. The map that she'd folded and unfolded a hundred times that day was spread out once again on her lap. Unfortunately, the topographical map didn't mark insignificant waterfalls on unnamed streams. She fingered the compass in her right hand, turning it over and over before looking at it. So she was facing south. And? She looked again at the map, shaking her head. She still had no idea where she was. She'd been in the mountains three days. Surely she couldn't be that far off course. Surely, she was following one of the hundreds of streams on the map.
Again, she tried to tell herself it didn't really matter. So she was lost. She had food, she had water . . . she had time. Might as well enjoy it. She found it funny, actually. Had she known exactly where she was on the map, she'd be enjoying herself a hell of a lot more. But since she didn't, that tiny, nagging panic attack that she'd managed to keep at bay was rearing its ugly head. She should be enjoying the solitude, the quiet, the peacefulness. Instead, she was studying the damn map, wondering where the hell she was.
"Well, forget it," she murmured. She hastily folded the map and shoved it back in her pocket, vowing once again to simply enjoy the mountains and not worry about where she was. Eventually, she would turn up somewhere. After all, Colorado wasn't that big.
With a clenched jaw, Jake took the last few steps down the trail, holding onto a tree limb as she balanced on a rock overlooking the stream. The fallen log she'd pulled up last year to help cross the stream with was gone. Apparently, last spring's snowmelt had flooded the stream, moving her log. On a good day, it wouldn't matter. She'd simply hop across the rocks to the other side, moving upstream to the hot springs .
"But it's not a good day."
Cheyenne was already in the water, splashing across to the other side, waiting expectantly. Jake studied the area, knowing that she couldn't cross here. Not with one bum leg. So, with the cane digging into the soft earth near the stream, she pulled herself farther upstream, using the trees for support. There was a natural pool around the hot springs . If nothing else, she'd hike upstream that far and simply walk across the flat rocks.
Easier said than done. This side of the stream was steep and rocky. The other side, the side that Cheyenne was walking along, flat and padded with spruce needles.
"Fuck it." She was tired and way past ready to submerge in the hot springs. So, using the cane to support herself, she stepped into the ice cold water, sinking to her knees as the mountain stream rushed by her. The current pulled at her and she used her left leg to brace against it as she moved slowly through the icy water to the other side. Her injured leg felt nearly numb as she maneuvered over the rocks, her thoughts simply on making it to the other side. Cheyenne waited anxiously as Jake pulled herself from the water. Her jeans were wet up to her thighs and the late afternoon shadows cast a chill over her as she limped after Cheyenne . The dog, as if sensing her pain, walked slowly, turning often to look at her.
"I'm okay, girl. Lead the way." Damn dog. Her intelligent eyes acknowledged that Jake was in pain. Jake didn't doubt that if the dog could talk, she'd have blasted her for making this trip in the first place.
The springs were as Jake had remembered. A large pool carved out of the stream, steam rising as the afternoon temperatures dropped into the forties. She felt a grin slash across her face at the sight of the springs. Yeah, she could easily spend the entire day tomorrow soaking. It was picture-perfect—the water, the steam, the trees surrounding the hot springs , the sun setting over the mountains.
Jake let her pack fall, bending to unlace her wet boots. She kicked them off and shed her jeans, walking towards the water as she pulled her shirt over her head. Stark naked, she limped to the edge of the pool, bending down to support herself as she pulled her right leg over the rocks and into the water.
"Oh . . . God," she murmured as she submerged up to her neck. She let out a satisfied moan as the hot water washed over her and she bent her head back, wetting her hair. She relaxed under the water, stretching her legs out in front of her and closing her eyes tiredly. The throbbing pain, constant for the last two hours, eased somewhat. Despite her vow that she didn't need pain pills any longer, she was thankful she'd brought them along. No doubt, she'd need one tonight.
Keeping her eyes closed, she listened to the water, hearing the constant roar of the waterfall farther upstream. Tomorrow, she'd hike to the falls. It was a beautiful sight, watching the water drop off the mountain some forty feet above her head, crashing on the rocks before continuing on its journey south. It was a beautiful sight, but, tucked way back here in the wilderness, few ever saw it.
Nicole spent the better part of the afternoon climbing down the canyon, trying to reconnect with the stream. She could hear it, she just couldn't get to it. The steepness of the canyon dictated her route, and on more than one occasion, she slipped, landing on her backside as she bounced down the rocks. But finally the rocks lessened, and the trees thickened as the ground leveled out. Resting, she got her bearings as she listened to the rush of water over the rocks.
She pushed on, walking toward the sound of water. It was nearly deafening as she approached the falls. Lifting her head up, her eyes followed the stream of water high up the canyon, finding the spot where she'd stood earlier that day, the spot where her small stream had disappeared. And ended down here.
"Wow." Beautiful. Nicole wasn't one to carry around a camera but she certainly wished she had one now. The sight was nearly breathtaking. See, getting lost has its benefits.
She stared a little longer at the falls, then moved on, feeling somewhat comforted by being next to the stream again. It, at least, was familiar. So, she followed its rocky bank, taking the time to admire the scenery around her; the sounds, the smells of the forest. Even though she was lost, she was determined not to waste this time. The day was too perfect.
Jake watched as Cheyenne raised her head, ears pointed forward as she stared upstream.
"We got company?" Jake asked quietly. Cheyenne growled low in her throat, then stood and walked quickly along the bank. Jake followed the dog with her eyes, finally seeing movement in the trees.
"Oh, shit," Nicole murmured as the large brown dog bounded up to her. She stood still, her earlier excitement of seeing steam rising from the water—a tell-tale sign of hot springs—vanished as she was being stalked by this—"Nice doggie. I hope."
It was only then that she saw someone in the water. Again, her elation at not only finding a hot spring but another human as well, was curbed by the curious dark eyes watching her.
Nicole froze as the dog walked closer, sniffing her pants and boots, then nudging her hand with a wet nose. "Please don't bite," she whispered. Finally, the dog shook herself and turned, trotting back to her owner. She watched as the woman in the springs reached out a hand and affectionately rubbed the dog's head. Nicole cleared her throat, deciding she better ask first instead of just walking over.
"Is it safe to come closer?" she yelled. "I mean, with the dog."
" Cheyenne won't hurt you."
Nicole stared. "I guess that's a yes, then," she murmured. As she walked closer, Nicole politely averted her eyes. The woman was naked, casually sitting on a rock as the water swirled around her waist. Great. A naked woman. A naked woman with . . . perfect breasts.
Nicole looked downstream, she looked at the dog, she looked at her own damn feet. Finally, she looked at the woman, struggling to keep her gaze from lingering. "I . . . I don't mean to intrude," she finally said. Jesus! You'd think you've never seen a naked woman before!
"You're not intruding. This is public land," the woman said. Nicole noticed the amusement in the woman's voice.
Nicole shifted uncomfortably. "Actually, I'm . . . well, I'm sort of lost."
"Yeah." Nicole finally loosened the straps on her pack and let it fall to the ground behind her. "Actually, I'm really lost. I'm assuming I'm still in Colorado . Other than that, I don't have a clue."
The woman's laughter rang out, and Nicole relaxed for the first time in what seemed like days. "I've been following this stream for two days."
"This is Grizzly Gulch then?"
"The map showed the trail crossing over Grizzly Gulch and continuing on until it reached Cottonwood Creek. But when I got to Grizzly Gulch, there was a mountain on the other side. No trail."
"Maps have been known to be wrong." The woman shifted off her rock and submerged under the warm water, a satisfied look on her face as she resurfaced. "Why don't you join me? There's not much daylight left."
Nicole hesitated. A few hours ago, she would have given her right arm to walk upon some hot springs . But that didn't involve stripping naked in front of a stranger. A quite attractive stranger with . . . perfect breasts.
"If you're shy, I'll turn my back," the woman offered.
"That'd be nice," Nicole said. "Thank you." Jesus, you're being silly. But as the woman dutifully turned her back, Nicole wasted no time in stripping off her clothes, dropping them in a neat pile next to her pack. As she walked into the water, the dog watched her every move. She had no doubt that, if instructed, the animal would attack. So, she slowly reached out and petted the dog's head, pleased that it didn't bite. She settled into the warm water, a quiet moan escaping before she could stop it. "You can turn around now."
"More than great. I've been dreaming of this for three nights. That's the reason I'm lost."
"I had this bright idea to leave the main trail in search of hot springs ." Nicole stretched out, not caring that the crystal clear water did little to cover her. She dipped her head under water, smoothing the hair away from her face as she surfaced. "Two days of being lost is well worth it." Then she smiled. "Provided, of course, that you tell me where we are."
Again, the woman laughed, and Nicole couldn't help but stare. Her hair was cut short, brutally short almost. But it did little to distract from the attractive face. In fact, it most likely enhanced the woman's features. Clean, smooth complexion, nicely tanned for this time of year, dark eyes framed by thick eyelashes, and full lips, turned up now in a smile. Jesus, Nicole, can you get any more obvious?
"We are between Cottonwood Pass and St. Elmo."
"St. Elmo? The ghost town?"
"Yes. A good three-day hike."
"My original plan was to hike the Colorado Trail to the base of Mt. Princeton and then head up the mountain to St. Elmo."
"Lots of hot springs around Mt. Princeton ."
"Yes. But I was looking for solitude."
The woman shrugged. "Sorry."
"Anyway, I didn't count on getting lost. Once I made St. Elmo, I was going to hike around Mt. Shavano to the highway and down to Salida."
"That's quite a trip. Especially alone."
"Yes it is." Nicole looked away, sinking a little lower in the water. "But I needed some time alone." She felt the woman watching her, but she didn't care. The water felt too good, and she closed her eyes, sinking below the surface, letting the warm water surround her. When she lifted her head out of the water and slicked her hair back, the woman had moved away. Nicole watched as she rose out of the water, catching her breath as the woman stood, water dripping lazily off her body. Nicole's eyes, of their own accord, traveled down the sculpted body, resting briefly on the . . . Jesus . . . nicest ass she'd ever seen. You're a pig.
"I'll give you some privacy, since you wanted to be alone," the woman said. "I'll get a fire going."
Nicole wanted to protest, but she'd lost her voice. The woman was . . . beautiful. She told herself it was extremely impolite, but still she stared. Long legs moved through the water and the woman sat on the ledge, swinging both legs out of the water at the same time. Nicole frowned, catching a glimpse of a red scar. Then the woman moved, standing on the bank, water dripping from her body. Nicole tried to summon just a small portion of her professional side and failed miserably. Unabashedly, she stared, eyes moving over the well-toned body, resting again on the nicely rounded backside.
"There's plenty of room for two tents. You're planning on camping here, right?"
"If you don't mind."
The woman nodded and walked away, still naked, clutching her clothes to her body. Nicole noticed the slight limp and dutifully turned her eyes as the woman bent over to retrieve her backpack and a cane. The dog walked obediently beside her, following the woman into the forest.
"What is wrong with you?" Nicole whispered as she turned away from the woman. God, try to act like you're not a total idiot!
Jake tugged sweatpants from her pack and slipped them on. From the side pouch, she pulled out thick socks and her moccasins. The warmth she'd enjoyed in the springs faded as soon as the cool, crisp air hit her. She unrolled her tent, using the cane to steady herself as the clasped the rods to the ends.
Unable to stop them, she found her eyes wandering to the naked woman frolicking in the hot springs . Her hot springs . "She's cute, Cheyenne. Don't you think?"
Cute . . . and damn sexy. You could tell a lot about a woman when she was soaking wet. And with the blonde hair slicked back from her face, the woman appeared nearly angelic. Flawless skin, sparkling blue eyes. And even though Jake had turned her back while the woman undressed, she'd managed a quick peek before the woman sunk under the water. And that quick peek afforded her a lovely sight of a small, yet muscular frame. Yes, there was nothing like soaking with a naked woman.
"You're such a guy sometimes," she murmured. Even so, she still stared as the woman rose from the water and hastily pulled on her shirt over her still-wet torso. Like Jake, she searched in her pack for something, pulling out gray sweats much like the ones Jake was wearing. Jake swallowed hard, watching as the woman pulled the sweats over her naked body. " Cheyenne , did you see that?"
It was then that she realized that she hadn't even started gathering wood yet. She'd been leaning on her cane . . . staring. She finally turned away, walking under the trees in search of fallen limbs. There were plenty. However, bending over and grabbing them was easier than it looked. She was struggling with the first piece when the woman spoke next to her.
"Maybe you should let me do that."
Jake wanted to protest. She wasn't a fucking invalid. But, the woman, this stranger, was only offering a helping hand. "Yeah. Kinda hard to maneuver with the cane."
The woman bent down and collected an armful of sticks and a larger limb. She dumped them near the fire ring, then went back for more. Jake felt the woman watching her as she broke up the sticks and piled them on top of the pinecones she'd already tossed in. Any minute now, she's going to ask, Jake mused.
The woman came back, dumping another armload beside the others. Jake looked up and smiled. "Thanks. This ought to last us."
"I take it you've camped here before. This spot looks well-used."
"Yeah. I camp here quite a bit. Actually, I've got a cabin over near Cumberland Pass. It's about a four-hour hike, on a good day."
"Wow. That must be great. Do you live there?"
The woman nodded then hesitated. Finally, "I couldn't help but notice your limp. A four-hour hike must be difficult."
"Like I said, that's on a good day. It took me six hours today."
"Forgive me for asking, but what happened? You seem incredibly fit. Is it a recent injury?"
Jake nodded. "Yeah, I . . . I was in an accident. Had surgery on my leg. But it's coming along."
Nicole had been in enough sessions to know when someone didn't want to talk. Which was fine. Nicole wasn't exactly in the listening mood. However, she did want to know the woman's name.
"I'm Nicole, by the way. I just realized that I don't know your name."
"Jake?" Nicole raised an eyebrow. "Either your mother hated you or they really, really wanted a boy."
Jake laughed. "Some of the kids I hung around with in the sixth grade gave me the name. My mother detested it."
"What's your given name?"
"No, no, no," Jake said, shaking her head. "That's not something I say out loud."
"Can't be that bad."
"Oh, yes, it can be. I had my name legally changed when I was twenty."
She shrugged. "It's what I've been called since the sixth grade."
Nicole noticed that the entire time Jake spoke, her hand was threading through the dog's fur. She didn't want to analyze, hell, she was on vacation. But, she suspected the woman was single and childless, and the dog was her constant companion. Judging by the protectiveness of the dog, who was leaning against Jake's leg, it was a mutual affection.
"I don't know about you, but I'm starved," Jake said.
She got to her feet with the aid of her cane, and Nicole had to force herself not to hop up and assist her. She sensed that the injury was fairly new, and no doubt the woman was struggling to regain her independence. Why else would she hike six hours through the mountains? So, instead of offering help, Nicole went to her own tent. She always packed her favorite meals, and she debated between the stroganoff and the chicken spaghetti. The stroganoff won. When she returned to the campfire, Jake was already lighting her stove, with a small pot full of water sitting nearby.
Nicole sat on the opposite side of the fire and attached the small propane canister to her own stove, occasionally glancing up at the other woman as she poured water into a pot. She finally sat down on the ground, crossing her legs. Through the smoke of the fire, she watched Jake. She was a striking woman. Tall, lean . . . powerful looking, even stark naked. Especially stark naked. Her smooth face and full lips had Nicole mesmerized. As her gaze lifted higher, dark eyes captured her own and refused to let go. Through the smoke of the small fire, their eyes locked and, for the first time in her life, Nicole was afraid of another woman. Not physically afraid, but, with difficulty, she pulled her eyes away, impatiently tucking her still-damp hair behind her ears. It occurred to her then that had she met this woman in the city, Nicole wouldn't have given her a second look. Not that she wasn't attractive, she just wasn't Nicole's type. Nicole tended to date professional women, like herself, whose appearance didn't scream lesbian. She wondered why then, she found this woman physically attractive if she wasn't her type.
Jake lifted a corner of her mouth in a smile as Nicole turned away. If she were so inclined—and had the energy—this impromptu camping trip could turn out to be fun. There was just something about sharing an intimacy with a total stranger. No inhibitions, no worries. Just . . . sex. Well, perhaps she was being a bit presumptuous about this woman. You couldn't put a whole lot of stock into looks. But still, pain pills and fatigue weren't the best ingredients for a brief, anonymous sexual encounter. The mind might be willing, but the body was definitely dragging.
Well, it didn't matter. For all her professed desire to spend some much-needed time alone, she found the other woman's company enjoyable. And that was enough.
"How long have you been on the trails?" Jake asked, startling Nicole.
"This is day four. I think. Being lost sort of turned days into weeks."
Jake nodded. "I can imagine. Although I don't recall ever being lost."
"No? There is a well-marked trail from your cabin, six hours away?"
Jake smiled. "No trail."
"Then how on earth did you find this?"
"I found it about ten years ago. I had hiked all around the cabin, up to Cumberland Pass. I knew the area pretty well. The topo maps from the Forest Service are pretty good, if you can use a compass."
Nicole rolled her eyes. Of course.
"I wanted to find some hot springs that were relatively close, but still off the beaten path. It took me three days to find these. But they're beautiful. And in ten years, you are only the second person I've ever seen here."
"You're kidding? You mean I'm that far off a trail?"
"Well, yeah. You're two days from a trail."
"So, this is all really your own private resort?"
Jake grinned. "I like to think of it as my private spa." Jake pointed upstream, where the constant roar of the falls had faded into the background. "You came by way of the falls?"
"Yeah. I was following the stream. When it tumbled over the side, I almost went with it. It took me several hours to find a way down the mountain and into the canyon. But I didn't want to lose the stream."
"Yes. It's a steep drop. But beautiful."
"Oh, very. And if I wasn't so concerned with being lost, I think I would have camped there, by the falls."
Jake put another small log on the fire, then stirred the embers. "If you're up for a little hike in the morning, the falls are great for sunrise." Jake pointed over her shoulder. "There's a gap in the mountains where the sun shines through. It hits the water perfectly. The colors are out of this world. Every time I see it, I always wish I could paint."
Jake nodded. "I've taken several shots, at different times of year. But it's never the same as seeing it in person."
Nicole smiled across the fire. "I think I'd like to take a look. Of course, that would mean being up by sunrise."
"I won't have that problem. Because after I eat, I think I could lay down and sleep the night through."
"Does your leg stiffen up?" Nicole asked.
Jake shrugged. "Some."
Ahh. Off limits. Okay. Instead, Nicole lifted the lid on her dinner, satisfied that it was done. She turned her stove off, watching as Jake did the same.
"What about Cheyenne ?" Nicole asked. The dog was staring intently at Jake's food.
"Yeah. I usually split it with her." Jake reached behind her and pulled over a canvas pouch. Inside was a dog bowl and some dry food. She filled the bowl, then added part of her dinner to it. Cheyenne sat obediently, never taking her eyes from the bowl. "Spoiled," Jake whispered.
Nicole saw the tail wag and wondered what Jake had said. Obviously, the dog understood. "She's very pretty."
"Yeah, she's a good dog. Smartest dog I've ever seen."
"How old is she?"
"She's only two. And you don't need to be afraid of her. She won't hurt you." Then Jake grinned. "Not unless I tell her to."
Nicole smiled, too. "So, I need to stay on your good side?"
Jake was about to say she didn't really have a good side, but no sense scaring the poor girl. Besides, a month ago, she did have a good side. But, well, the shooting had pretty much ended that. She closed her eyes for a second, then forced them open, meeting the pleasant blue ones across from her.
"How's your dinner?"
Nicole looked at the untouched pot in her lap and twirled her fork a few times before stabbing some noodles. You're on vacation, she told herself. Don't meddle. But the nearly pained expression on the woman's face made Nicole want to ask a hundred questions. But she didn't. And Catherine would be very proud of her. For once, she shoved her professional side away and tried to simply enjoy the evening, the campfire, the outdoors, and the company of this very attractive woman.
"It's good," she said as she chewed. "Yours?"
Jake shrugged. " Cheyenne appears to like it." Jake twirled her own fork in the fettuccini and took a bite. It tasted like freeze-dried fettuccini.
"You should try this beef stroganoff. I swear, I can't tell the difference between this and homemade."
Jake peered across the fire, eyebrows raised. Nicole finally offered her pot and Jake stole a forkful of noodles.
"Good," she murmured. "Better than mine."
Nicole smiled. "All we're missing is a good bottle of wine."
"Yes, that would be nice." Jake took a couple more bites, then emptied the rest into Cheyenne 's bowl.
"Was it that bad?"
"Wasn't great. But I took a pain pill earlier. It kinda kills my appetite."
Nicole glanced at the woman's outstretched leg. "Is there anything I can do?"
"No. I'm fine. It's just the hike today was probably too much. I'll hang out here tomorrow and soak and rest it."
Nicole stood up. "At least let me wash out your pot. I'll take it with mine."
Jake protested. "No, you don't need to do that. I can get it."
Nicole took the pot anyway. "I'm sure you can."
Jake watched her walk away to the stream, feeling the heaviness of her eyes as she attempted to remain focused. Damn pain pill. She struggled to stand, using her cane to push herself up. Her leg hadn't felt this bad since . . . well, since she got out of the hospital and started walking again. Hopefully, after a day of rest tomorrow, the pain and stiffness would subside. And, she would hike back to her cabin in two days, not one.
"Need some help?"
Jake turned her head, quickly meeting Nicole's eyes before looking away. "No, thanks. I'm going to turn in. Please make sure the fire is out."
Jake knew she sounded abrupt, and it had nothing to do with the other woman. She just hated feeling dependent on anyone and appearing weak. So, she paused at her tent, looking back at Nicole. "Don't forget our date in the morning."
Nicole flashed a smile and nodded. " Sunrise ." Her smile faded as she watched Jake struggle to get into the small tent. Cheyenne sat patiently outside until Jake was in, then, with a wag of her tail, followed the woman inside.
Nicole couldn't understand why some people were so fiercely independent that they wouldn't accept help from anyone, regardless of the circumstances. And she imagined this woman fit that mold perfectly. Well, she wouldn't push. If the woman wanted to struggle to get up instead of accepting a helping hand, that was her business.
But it was eerily quiet now that the woman and dog were gone. Beyond the crackle of the fire, the constant roar of the falls seemed almost muted by the darkness. The breeze that had been blowing down the canyon all day had subsided, and she leaned back slightly, her eyes following the smoke of their fire as it rose into the night, disappearing in the trees.
Jake stretched, then cautiously rolled over, careful not to bump her leg. She'd slept like a rock. Apparently, the exertion from the hike and the pain pill had been enough to keep the damn dream away. For one night, at least.
Sitting up, she rubbed her face with both hands, then unzipped the tent. It was still dark. Plenty of time for coffee before they attempted the short hike to the falls. She slid her cane out of the tent with her, using it to stand. Surprisingly, her leg, although stiff, felt pretty good. She couldn't say the same for her head. She always felt hazy the morning after a pain pill. But, coffee and a hike usually brought her around.
She put water on to boil, then took a discreet trip into the woods. No sense squatting too close. Wouldn't want the woman surprised by her bare ass this early in the morning. But Jake needn't have worried. The woman's tent was still zipped.
It would only take them fifteen minutes to reach the falls. So, she decided not to wake Nicole just yet. She'd take the time for a quick bath and enjoy a few more minutes of solitude. This was always her favorite part, listening . . . waiting for the sounds of morning. The first bird, the first chipmunk. So much more relaxing than meaningless conversation with a complete stranger. Cheyenne nudged her, and Jake automatically reached out a hand, rubbing her ear. Yeah, nothing like a near-death experience to make you appreciate the little things that nature offered. It was a cliché, but it was also true.
Finally, when the water was boiling and the darkness just starting to leave the sky, Jake got to her feet, limping only slightly as she walked to Nicole's tent. She grabbed hold of one pole and tugged.
"Hey. Coffee's ready."
Jake smiled as she was greeted with a groan. She heard the rustling of the sleeping bag and imagined the other woman sitting up.
"Are you sure it's morning?"
"Pretty sure. But if you're not up to a hike, don't worry about it."
"No, no. I want to go."
Nicole heard Jake walk away, and she lay back down, wondering why she'd agreed to this. She wasn't a morning person and if she missed a sunrise or three, well so be it. But Jake had promised this would be a feast for the eyes, so Nicole tossed off the warm sleeping bag and got up. She tried to tame her hair with her fingers and gave up, settling on tying it back and slipping on a fashionable ball cap instead.
Jake was already sipping coffee and Nicole squatted down next to her, adding a spoonful of instant coffee to her cup before pouring the hot water in. She raised her eyes, wondering how this woman could look so fresh and clean after just crawling from a tent. Nicole looked at her own clothes, noting the dirty jeans that should have been retired days ago. But she only had one other clean pair. She planned on donning them when she resumed her trip. Jake, on the other hand, sported clean jeans. Faded, baggy and comfortable looking. Even the long-sleeved T-shirt was immaculate.
Don't I feel quite the trail bum?
"Why do you look like you've just emerged from a shower, clean clothes and all," Nicole said, waving her hand at Jake's wardrobe, "And I look like I've been on the trail for a week?"
Jake flashed a smile. "Because I packed one set of clean clothes, these being them, and you have been on the trail for nearly a week."
"And the shower part?"
" Hot springs ."
"Brushed your teeth?"
Nicole groaned. "God, I feel like a slob."
"Well, after our hike, feel free to bathe. I'll give you some privacy."
"That would be great. Although, these are your springs. I really hate that I'm intruding."
Jake shook her head. "I really don't mind the company," she said, surprised that it was the truth. "I'm just going to hang out here today and rest. Tomorrow I'll pack up and head back to my cabin. You're welcome to stay here as long as you like."
Part of her, the polite part, knew that she should be on her way and leave this woman in peace. But the other part, the part that won, wanted nothing more than to hang out here another day and soak in the hot springs. The fact that an attractive woman, an attractive naked woman, would be sharing those springs didn't hurt. And, the fact that Nicole was even considering that as a reason for staying, startled her. This was so out of character for her. Perhaps, she thought, Catherine was right. She just needed to let her hair down and . . . and what? She met the dark eyes looking back at her, and she wondered what Jake's reaction would be if she simply leaned closer and kissed her. God, those full lips were practically begging her to do just that. She finally came to her senses, pulling her eyes away before she made a complete ass of herself.
Jake was surprised at what she saw in the other woman's eyes. Although brief, she hadn't missed the blatant desire that flashed across Nicole's face. She smiled. It could be an interesting day. So, she leaned forward, her voice low.
"You want to stay with me today . . . and play?"
Without warning, all of Nicole's blood rushed to a long dormant part of her anatomy, causing her breath to catch. The nearly whispered question hung between them, and Nicole again found her eyes captured. She felt herself nodding, unable to speak.
"Good." Jake finally released the blue eyes, surprised at the quickened pace of her pulse. Yes, it could be a very interesting day. She tossed out the rest of her coffee and stood, holding out a hand to Nicole. "Let me show you a beautiful sunrise."
Nicole stared at that hand, noting, in a matter of seconds, the clean, neat nails, the smooth skin, the tiny scar on her thumb. Then she slid her own into it, letting herself be pulled up. She wasn't quite sure what was happening. A few minutes ago, they had been calmly discussing bathing. And now, without a single word spoken, there was an electricity between them, an underlying sense of physical attraction that seemed suddenly to have exploded around them. Her skin felt alive, her senses heightened. Every breath she took, every sound she heard seemed exaggerated. She found herself falling into those eyes, wondering what the day would bring. Then, with a quick squeeze, her hand was released and it fell nimbly to her side. Jake bent and retrieved her cane, then walked away, leaving Nicole to follow. And follow, she did, her eyes never leaving the enticing figure in front of her. Out of character? Most certainly. But, she figured she was entitled to a little craziness once in a while.
Cheyenne led the way to the falls, turning around often to make sure she was being followed. Jake walked along the shore, using her cane as needed but pleased that her leg was holding up as well as it was. Nicole followed, walking silently behind the two, her eyes darting between the dog, the water, and the intimidating woman.
Rolling her eyes, she halfway convinced herself that she'd imagined the whole thing. Jake was simply being polite when she'd invited her to stay the day. There was nothing more to it. But then why was every nerve ending standing at attention?
"You're being awful quiet," Jake stated without turning around.
The voice startled Nicole, and she nearly tripped on a rock. She gathered her thoughts before speaking, her eyes never wavering from the lean body before her. "I'm just enjoying the scenery," she said.
"I guess it's different than what you saw yesterday, eh?"
Nicole blushed crimson, thankful that the other woman had not turned around. "I was so concerned with being lost yesterday, I hardly remember this at all." And it was true. Yesterday was positively a blur. She remembered the hike down the canyon. She remembered the falls. And she certainly remembered seeing Jake for the first time. But here, now, with dawn just breaking around them, nothing looked familiar, nothing felt familiar. And perhaps it was fitting, seeing as how she didn't feel familiar, either. Her thoughts were still running in a decidedly intimate direction. And that was something she could not shake.
"You hear them?"
"We'll be just in time," Jake said. "See how the mountains are shining? The sun will peek over in a minute."
Nicole stared where she pointed, seeing the glow between the two mountains, the gap that Jake had spoken of. She suddenly became aware of the birds singing, the gentle rustle of the trees, the water as it flowed past them. Sounds that had been there all along but sounds that she had not allowed to penetrate. She'd been too concerned with what was happening between them that she'd lost the peace around her. She paused, noting that Jake had stopped and was looking into the trees, eyes closed. No, Jake had not lost it. She was still focused, still absorbing. And Nicole envied her. Apparently, whatever was happening between them had not affected Jake in the same way. She still seemed to be normal. She still seemed to be . . . intact.
"You love it here, don't you," Nicole whispered, not even aware that she'd been thinking the words, much less uttering them.
"Yeah, I do. This is paradise." Jake turned around and faced Nicole. "At least, paradise to me."
Nicole didn't even try to fight as Jake captured her eyes. She went willingly. Then Jake moved, pointing, and Nicole's eyes followed.
"Watch," Jake whispered.
They were standing within ten feet of the falls, close enough to feel the spray of the water as it hit and scattered along the boulders. Nicole stood shoulder to shoulder with Jake, following her direction as she stared into the falls, waiting for the sun to strike.
"Almost there," Jake whispered.
Nicole felt her breath catch, and she wasn't sure if it was from the anticipation of the sunrise or from the warm hand that had captured hers. Regardless, both took her breath away.
The falls positively shimmered in colors as the sun hit—reds, oranges, pinks and even a deep purple shot through the water, all exploding as the falls crashed on the rocks, sending the various hues down the stream. For a second, Nicole felt like dropping to her knees with the beauty of it. She stared, her hand squeezing tight with Jake's, almost embarrassed by the tears that had formed in her eyes.
"Oh my God," she whispered.
"I know," Jake murmured. It was the first time she'd shared this sight with anyone. She was pleased Nicole found the same beauty that she did. But in a matter of seconds, as the sun rose higher, the colors changed, dimming and then fading until you questioned whether you'd seen them at all.
"Jake, that was incredible." Nicole turned, finding Jake watching. "It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever witnessed."
Jake nodded then looked back to the falls. "It's almost . . . spiritual, if you believe in that sort of thing."
"And do you?"
"At times like this, yeah." Then she dropped Nicole's hand and looked away. "Of course, real life tends to throw a kink into that sometimes, makes you question it all."
Nicole left her questions unasked as Jake tapped her cane a few times on a rock before turning back. Cheyenne circled both women, then headed back downstream, tail held high as they followed in silence.
Just as their tents came into view, Jake stopped. "Why don't you go on and enjoy that bath you were talking about," Jake offered. " Cheyenne and I will collect some firewood for tonight."
Nicole looked at Jake, then down to the springs, which beckoned. "You don't mind?"
The slow smile that formed on Jake's lips caused Nicole's pulse to race, and she cursed herself for acting like a total fool.
"I don't mind at all. In fact, I'll join you in a bit, if that's okay?"
Nicole held her gaze, knowing that her words meant she'd be joining her. And that was okay. Nicole was more than ready. So, she nodded, dragging her eyes away from the other woman, knowing she was coming close to acting like the teenager she felt! She walked purposefully to the tents, refusing to turn back, knowing that Jake was watching her. Then she frowned. Perhaps the other woman was looking for some sign, some acknowledgment that her message had been received. God, do I feel stupid. What if I'm just way off base? Don't be silly. She finally turned, finding Jake's eyes still on her. No, she wasn't off base.
Jake bent down, collecting firewood, pleased that her leg was holding up. Still sore from the long hike yesterday, but the recovery time after each excursion was getting shorter and shorter. She was convinced that in another week or so, she'd be back to normal.
And despite her best resolve not to look, she found her eyes searching the springs, waiting for Nicole to bathe. She knew their exchange of earlier was not imagined, but still, intuition told her that Nicole would never initiate anything physical between them. But she wouldn't have to. Jake could read a woman's eyes, and what she saw in Nicole's was nearly smoldering.
They were both adults, both apparently willing. There was absolutely no reason they couldn't share an afternoon of sex. And, truthfully, this was the first time sex had even crossed Jake's mind in well over a month. Oh, last week before she'd come up here, Heather had come by with the excuse of making sure Jake was managing since her surgery. But Heather, although totally fun in bed, was ten years younger and, quite frankly, more than Jake could handle with a bum leg. So, she'd sent Heather away with a promise to call her when she was back on her feet.
But Nicole was sexy as hell with wet hair and had a body that was nearly sculpted. Jake wasn't afraid to admit that she was attracted to her even though she normally shied away from athletic-looking women. She preferred the more feminine bodies. But, damn, Nicole's body, although muscular, was nearly perfect. And she was attracted to her. So, up here in the mountains, alone, there was no reason she couldn't explore that attraction. It made perfect sense to Jake. Of course, provided Nicole was willing. And that look in her eyes told Jake she was willing.
So, as she bent to pick up another limb, her eyes scanned the stream, stopping when she spotted the blond-haired woman rinsing out her hair.
"Oh, Cheyenne, that woman stirs something, you know?" At the dog's questioning look, Jake ruffled her fur, then walked on.
Nicole dipped below the water, rinsing her biodegradable soap from her hair. She always felt guilty when bathing in the streams. Numerous people had told her over the years that biodegradable soap was no better for the environment then regular soap. But, Jesus, a girl had to bathe. And especially today.
She had a moment of panic, of her nerves trying to get the better of her, but she pushed it aside. She was an adult, for God's sake. If she wanted to partake of some afternoon delight—God, that's pathetic—then why should she feel ashamed or embarrassed by it? It wasn't like scores of women didn't do it. And this was with a stranger. She'd never have to see her again. One day of wild sex, as Catherine would say, then they'd go their separate ways. And she wouldn't have to even tell anyone. But she grinned as she dipped once again under the water. Oh, she'd tell Catherine. Catherine would be proud of her.
But when she finished bathing, Jake was nowhere in sight. Perhaps she had misread the other woman. And she was oddly disappointed. She stood, putting her toiletries back in her case and leaving them on a rock. She walked back upstream to where the main pool was, careful not to slip on the rocks. The warmer water felt good on her skin after her bath. She submerged, letting the water envelope her for a second before rising to the surface. Slicking the hair back from her face, she moved to a rock to catch the sun. A small part of her acknowledged that she should feel self-conscious, sitting there totally naked. But she felt free and uninhibited. For one of the few times in her adult life, she wasn't concerned with what someone might think of her or say about her. She simply was. She was out here in the mountains, she was sitting in the middle of some hot springs , she was . . . wishing that the gorgeous woman she was camping with would come and ravish her.
She opened her eyes, staring, as if her thoughts had conjured up this vision. But Jake was walking slowly to the springs, eyes locked tight on Nicole's. Nicole swallowed nervously, watching as Jake reached down and pulled the long-sleeved T-shirt over her head in one motion, revealing those perfect breasts. Nicole felt her heart clutch, her breath catching in her throat as faded jeans were removed and lowered, sliding slowly down firm, tanned legs, only the scar there to mar perfection. Nicole realized she wasn't breathing as Jake stepped into the springs and walked closer.
Jake's heart was pounding as she waded through the water, eyes still locked on Nicole's. She saw no surprise or shock in those blue eyes, only desire. Desire for her. She didn't stop, she simply walked closer, pausing only when they were nearly touching. Without speaking, she took Nicole's hand and pulled her into the water. They stood facing, water only to their waists. Jake stared at the pulse pounding in Nicole's throat and realized that her own was beating a similar rhythm.
She slowly reached out, nearly embarrassed by her trembling hand, and laid gentle fingertips against one of Nicole's breasts. The other woman flinched slightly, then relaxed. Jake's eyes followed the path of her fingers, watching in fascination as Nicole's nipples hardened at Jake's touch. She finally raised her eyes, past slightly opened lips to stare into deep blue, a blue that was both calm and anxious. She visibly saw Nicole let out her breath, saw her eyes soften. Jake gave a tiny smile before moving closer, finally capturing those tempting lips.
It was as if a torch had been lit. Nicole's arms circled her shoulders and pulled her closer at the same moment Jake's hands slid to Nicole's hips. Their bodies fused as mouths mated, and Jake felt herself melting in this woman's arms.
Nicole moaned as Jake's tongue moved against her lips, slowly slipping inside her mouth. She welcomed it, surprised that her legs still supported her. She felt nearly wanton as she clutched the woman to her breasts, but she hardly cared. Her entire body was on fire and the fact that it was a complete stranger making her feel the heat mattered not. She simply craved it. Her head fell back in surrender as Jake's mouth left hers and traveled lower, capturing a nipple in her mouth as Nicole pressed her closer.
"Yes," she murmured as her eyes slid shut.
Jake moaned as her lips and tongue surrounded the aroused nipple, licking and touching before sucking it into her waiting mouth. She felt Nicole's hand on her neck, urging her to take more and she did, sucking hard as Nicole pressed into her mouth. For so long, Jake had felt empty, drained, the weight of a little boy's murder slowly sapping the very life from her. But right here, right now, with a stranger's hands on her body, she felt alive.
She heard the whimper as her mouth left Nicole's breast, and she silenced her with a hard kiss, both hands threading through the blond strands of wet hair. Pulling away, their eyes locked, both swimming in desire. Then she lifted Nicole, urging her back on the rock.
Nicole's breath left her as Jake spread her thighs. She offered no protest as warm hands moved slowly up her legs, thumbs rubbing along the inside of her thighs, dangerously close to the fire that was burning. With eyes still locked, she moaned at the first touch as Jake's fingers found her, wet and ready. She watched as Jake's eyes turned nearly black, and she felt herself being pulled forward, watching as Jake's head lowered to her.
Nicole's eyes slammed shut, head bent back as she struggled to hold on to her sanity at the touch of Jake's tongue. Incoherent sounds came from her mouth, mumblings she could not stop. Dear God, she was naked, sitting on a rock, and another woman, a stranger, was feasting on her . . . literally. None of it mattered. She had long ago lost control, and she simply could not fight to regain it. Not when a warm mouth was covering her intimately, not when a tongue was reaching deep inside her. She clenched her hands into fists, giving in to the feelings that this woman, this stranger was bringing out in her. She felt her thighs being pushed farther apart, felt the rapid movement of Jake's tongue, and she became aware of her own hips as they moved urgently against Jake's face. Then Jake's lips were there, sucking her swollen clit into her mouth, teasing with her tongue, and Nicole positively exploded, unable to hold the primal scream that escaped from her mouth.
Jake was so lost in this woman that she very nearly had her own orgasm as Nicole erupted beneath her mouth. It was with difficulty that she released her, resting her head for a second on Nicole's thighs before looking up. What she saw took her breath away.
Nicole still had her head tilted back, mouth slightly opened, eyes squeezed shut. And the pulse in her throat was pounding wildly. Jake stood in the water, her hands reaching out to capture both of Nicole's breasts.
Nicole covered Jake's hands with her own, still trying to focus. She couldn't believe that she had just screamed out like that. She never did that. Never.
"Kiss me," she murmured. Jake obliged, and Nicole tasted herself on Jake's lips, igniting her desire all over again. Wanton? She no longer cared. Her hands moved between them and she cupped Jake's breasts, pleased when the other woman moaned. Pulling away slightly, she looked into those dark eyes. "I need to touch you."
The only response she got was a slightly raised eyebrow. Then she was being pulled into the warm water, sinking below the surface as Jake found her mouth once again. Without warning, Jake's fingers were inside her, filling her, and she bit down on Jake's lip as she opened wider for her.
With the buoyancy of the water, Nicole nearly floated as Jake plunged in and out of her, and Nicole held on, her breath coming fast as she tried to match Jake's rhythm. Jake held her cradled to her chest and Nicole slipped one hand between them, fondling Jake's nipple just as Jake found her lips again. She rocked, hard, taking all of Jake inside. Opening her mouth, Jake's tongue slipped past her lips, and Nicole closed around it, sucking, as Jake's fingers continued their mastery, bringing her to the brink . . . almost, almost . . . until . . . oh my God . . . spasms shook her and she again flung her head back, this time able to contain the scream that threatened to spew forth.
"Dear God," she whispered.
"No, it's just me," Jake whispered back into her ear.
Nicole opened her eyes and smiled. "Funny, aren't you?"
Nicole took a deep breath as she reached out both hands and cupped Jake's face. Their eyes locked as Nicole brought her closer, touching Jake's lips in a gentle, quiet kiss. Then she pulled away and smiled. "My turn."
Jake raised an eyebrow, then backed up, raising both arms teasingly. "I'm all yours."
The boy's too close, she thought. Too close. I'll hit him for sure.
"You've got to take the shot, McCoy," Perkins whispered. "You're the goddamn sharpshooter."
"He's too close," she said. "I can't."
The man pulled the boy with him, the gun pressed firmly against his head, the boy crying in terror, screaming for his mother.
"Let . . . him . . . go!" Jake yelled. "He's just a boy, for Christ's sake!"
"Fuck you!" the man spat. "I ain't dying today!"
"The hell you're not!"
He laughed and jerked the boy by the neck, making him scream. "You gonna shoot me, bitch?"
The sirens got closer, just a block away now and Jake felt some relief. There was nowhere for the man to run, nowhere to go. He had to give it up. Jake walked with them, barely twenty yards away, Perkins just behind her. The man pulled the boy behind the garbage cans, kicking at them with his foot, nearing the corner. They heard the screech of tires, heard voices yelling, and Jake met the angry eyes of the man. He nodded at her and smiled, then she saw his finger go to the trigger, saw the gun press into the boys soft forehead.
"No!" she yelled.
"No! No . . . I can't," she cried, her arms flailing at her sides. "I'll shoot the boy!" she yelled.
Nicole sat up, watching Jake's movements, the jerking of her arms, the twitching of her legs. A dream.
"I'll fucking kill you."
Oh dear God. What does that mean?
Nicole moved farther away, wishing she had a flashlight, something, to see Jake's face. She'll shoot? She'll fucking kill? Who?
"Oh my God," she whispered. "She's a killer. She's an . . . assassin." Just my luck.
Jake sat up too, rubbing her eyes. "Shit."
"You . . . okay?" Nicole asked hesitantly.
"Yeah. I'm sorry. Damn dream."
Jake lay back down, silently cursing herself. She'd probably scared the poor woman to death. She reached out a hand, pulling Nicole down beside her and wrapping her arms around her again.
Nicole tried to relax. Just a dream, for God's sake. But something about the way Jake had said the words made Nicole realize that she'd said them before, perhaps many times. But still, the arm around her shoulders was warm, secure. Jesus, it was the same woman who'd made love to her for most of the day, the same woman that Nicole had touched, had brought to orgasm more times than she could count. She let her breath out. The same woman who had made her delirious with desire, made her scream out with pleasure time and again, made her sink to her knees from the satisfaction of it all.
A woman she knew absolutely nothing about. A woman who could be a killer, for God's sake! She knew she wouldn't get another minute's sleep. Her eyes were wide open as she stared at the dark figure of the woman next to her, a woman who had fallen fast asleep again, a woman whose arm's were still holding her.
Great, Nicole. Let your hair down for once. Why don't you pick an assassin? That'd make things interesting.
She closed her eyes, trying to relax, trying to find the same contentment she'd had when they'd finally crawled into the tent at dusk, totally exhausted, but still not able to stop touching. Even in her most vivid dreams, she never imagined she could spend an entire day having sex. Jesus, having sex with a stranger. But she had. And, damn, she'd enjoyed every second of it.
But now, now that reality was creeping in, now that she realized this stranger could be a hired killer or something, now she wanted to escape. And escape gracefully. After all, this woman had taken her places she'd never been before. Now that's an understatement.
Hours later, as she still fought a fitful sleep, dawn thankfully was creeping into the canyon. She pulled out of Jake's arms, careful not to wake her. As she unzipped the tent, she found herself face to face with Cheyenne , who had obediently slept outside.
"Hi, girl," she whispered and was rewarded with a quick wag of the tail. She reached out and rubbed the dog's ear, then pulled herself from the tent and zipped it up again. Sore muscles protested as she stood, and she was surprised she was even able to walk.
After a quick trip to the woods, Nicole gathered firewood and got a fire going, warming herself as she held both hands over it. It was probably the coldest morning yet, and she contemplated a dip in the hot springs . But, if Jake should wake up and find her out there, Nicole knew she'd not be able to resist, hired killer or not. So, she settled for the fire and hot coffee.
The sun was already up by the time Jake stirred. Nicole had taken her tent down and packed. The only thing she needed to add to her backpack was her coffee cup.
Jake crawled out of the tent, every muscle in her body sore. God, who would have thought? Cheyenne was lying close to the tent, front legs crossed and Nicole was sitting by the fire, twirling her coffee cup. At first glance, Jake knew something was wrong.
"Morning," she murmured as she got to her feet.
"Ah . . . yeah, morning."
Jake hesitated, then motioned to the woods. "Be right back."
Something about Nicole's demeanor indicated that, well, something was wrong. And maybe it was just embarrassment or something. After all, they'd spent the better part of yesterday having sex. Jake scratched her head with both hands as she went into the woods to relieve herself. She absently noted that she was only slightly limping and had not even thought to take her cane.
When she got back to camp, Nicole was standing by her backpack, nervously kicking at a rock.
"You okay this morning?"
Nicole turned, having a difficult time meeting Jake's eyes. Jake just stared, waiting for Nicole to speak.
"I think I should probably head out. I mean, I'm really behind schedule."
Jake nodded slowly, wondering at Nicole's nervousness. Had she done something wrong? She walked to the fire, still watching the other woman. "Sure. I understand. But, you seem a little upset. You want to talk about it?"
"No, no. I'm not upset. It's just . . . well," Nicole paused, shifting the ball cap over her hair. "I don't make a habit of doing this," she said quietly. "In fact, I've never done this."
Jake nodded. "I understand. But," she shrugged. "We're two consenting adults who had a little fun. At least I did. I hope you did." She watched as Nicole turned nearly scarlet, and she couldn't hide her smile.
"You don't really have to ask, do you?"
"But you're going to run away?"
Nicole nodded. "Yes. I'm going to run away. Provided, of course, that you'll give me directions."
Jake stared at her, again noticing the nervousness as Nicole's hands clenched together. Jesus, she'd apparently freaked the woman out. So, she sat down near the fire and held out her hand. "Show me your map."
Nicole produced it from the back pocket of her jeans and handed it over. Jake pointed to the rock next to her, motioning for Nicole to sit.
"Do you have a pen?"
Nicole found one in her backpack, and she sat quietly as Jake studied the map.
"Here we are," Jake said, making a circle on the map. "See the indication for the falls?"
Nicole nodded as she leaned forward, watching as Jake's fingers moved over the map.
"Follow Grizzly Gulch downstream. It'll feed into Cottonwood Creek. You'll know you're there because Cottonwood is twice as wide as Grizzly. Continue downstream, that'll be to your left, and you'll come upon Cottonwood Lake ." Jake drew a mark on the map. "The Colorado Trail is on the opposite side of the lake. Once you hook up with that, you're about a day and a half from St. Elmo."
Nicole found herself staring at Jake instead of the map and when brown eyes captured her own, she finally looked away.
"I think I can find my way now."
"Good." Jake leaned forward, brushing her lips against Nicole's. "Because I'd hate to think of you lost somewhere."
Nicole had to restrain herself from taking those lips and begging for more. Jesus Christ! Surely twenty orgasms with the woman was enough! She closed her eyes for a second, gathering herself, then stood.
"Thank you for . . . rescuing me, I guess."
"Rescuing?" Jake grinned. "I should be thanking you."
Nicole blushed again as she shouldered her pack, taking a step backwards, away from Jake. She walked around the fire, reaching down to pet Cheyenne .
"It was . . . it was nice meeting you," Nicole said awkwardly as she walked away.
Jake watched her leave, feeling a sense of regret. "You, too," she murmured. As Nicole disappeared into the forest, Jake became aware of Cheyenne as the dog leaned against her. "Hungry?"
Jake took one last look into the woods, then turned around, pulling out her pot and stove from her pack. She still had not had coffee.
"Well, it's just us again, girl." She scratched Cheyenne 's head, then lit the stove. Once water was heating, Jake walked towards the springs, stripping off her sweatpants as she went. She sunk under the warm water, her mind on nothing but Nicole.
Nicole methodically set up her tent, moving away from Cottonwood Creek and into the forest. She had hiked well past sunset, not relishing the prospect of an evening alone. Not after the last two days.
She ignored the little voice in her head and instead, set up her stove to heat water for her dinner. She sat, staring into the darkening forest, trying to recall her hike today. It was but a blur. Her mind had been totally on Jake. So she had a shady background? Was that any reason to jump to conclusions that she was a killer?
"There was the dream," she reminded herself out loud.
She rolled her eyes, convinced that she'd overreacted. Jake's touch was too gentle, too loving to be that of a killer. Loving? No, Jake probably did that sort of thing all the time. Probably preyed upon stranded women and used her skills to tame them.
It didn't matter. It was time for her to leave anyway. She would simply look back on this trip with fond memories and that was all. Jake was still a stranger.
She let out a heavy sigh, trying to work up the energy for a campfire, wishing she could forget about the hot springs . Wishing she could forget about Jake.
"Well, I'll be damned," Rick drawled. "It's Jake McCoy, in the flesh!"
Jake flashed a smile at her partner. Hell, she'd missed him. "Give me a hug."
He shook his head. "No. Everyone's watching," he said quietly.
"Give me a hug or I'll beat your ass right now."
But he stood, reaching out and enveloping her in long arms, squeezing tightly. "Damn, McCoy, I missed you."
"Me, too, Rick." She pulled out of his arms, looking around at the others. She met their eyes, nodding. "How's the lieutenant?"
"Anxious. Worried about you."
Jake looked at her desk, wondering where all her stuff was. She pulled out the chair and sat down, folding her arms on the empty desk and watched Rick Chase. Damn, but he was a handsome man—sandy blond hair, dark eyebrows, dark stubble. And not just handsome, but nice. A truly nice guy. A rare find these days. Michele was lucky. Jake had told her that many times.
"Why are you looking at me?"
"Where the hell's my stuff?"
"My . . . stuff," she said. "I know my desk wasn't this clean when I left."
"I tidied up. You're a slob."
"You stole my favorite pen, didn't you? I knew you would."
"Jake, I know how you love that pen. I would never take your pen."
"You're so full of shit."
"Well, well. You're back less than a minute and already the two of you are bickering? Damn, I've missed this."
Jake and Rick both turned, watching as their lieutenant hurried over with a file in his hand, wearing the same faded suspenders he always wore. His smile was genuine when he touched Jake's shoulder.
"Damn glad you're back, McCoy."
"Thanks, Lieutenant. It feels really good to be back."
"So? Good as new?"
Jake nodded. "Almost. Leg's still a little sore if I overdo it. I'm not likely to run a marathon any time soon."
"Well, the doc cleared you, so that's good enough for me." He tossed the file on her desk. "Might as well get your feet wet."
"What's up, boss?" Rick said as he snatched the file off of Jake's desk before she could open it.
"They found a body over by the airport yesterday. Been there a few days. The ME's report is nearly identical to the one you had the other week. So, the airport police are graciously letting us investigate it."
"What did you have the other week?" Jake asked, ripping the file from Rick's hand.
"Housewife. Middle-aged. Found over near Chatfield Lake ."
"Raped. Strangled. Totally nude. Been there a few days."
Jake looked up from the file, meeting his eyes. "Lovely."