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Originally published as Sandra James · Harlequin 1989

First Time in e-book
North of Eden

Contemporary

 

Read an Excerpt

Central Oregon
Late October

Outlaw Heart

Ghostly shadows rippled across the surface of the mountain road. A dark sedan hugged the winding, twisting curves, burrowing ever deeper into the rugged high-country of the Cascade Mountains.

Three men occupied the sedan; one in the front seat, two in the back. The driver, Tom Phillips, glanced in the mirror, and spoke to the man directly behind him. "You're awfully quiet back there, Garrett. You miss that old cot you left behind already? Well, we've got another one just like it for you in Portland. No, sir- ree, I doubt you'll miss the Lake County jail at all."

Garrett sat still and silent. His large callused hands rested lightly on his legs. Inch-wide links of steel dangled from his handcuffs. His leg irons rattled slightly when he shifted and turned to stare out the window. Garrett's eyes glinted, the only sign he'd heard the driver's words.

Larry Robertson laughed and turned to the prisoner sitting beside him. He eyed his charge, his gaze sharp and piercing. "I wouldn't count on breakin' loose again if I were you, Garrett. Too bad it's so dark you can't take a good look around you. After your trial, it'll be a long, long time before you see any wide open spaces like this again."

All was silent as Tom Phillips turned his attention to the narrow ribbon of road before him. Cresting the top of a hill, the vehicle's nose dipped forward once more. His fingers tightened around the wheel in preparation for the next curve.

He never even saw the patch of ice that sent him to his death.

The vehicle spun out of control. It sailed from the roadway; the wheels left the ground as if it were airborne. The impact was horrendous as it plunged over the embankment and met the ground once more. Like a miniature toy, the sedan flipped end over end, skidding down a short but steep hillside until it finally came to rest against a burned-out tree trunk.

The silence was ominous and oppressive. The car's wheels spun crazily until at last they, too, ceased their restless motion. The rear door had been ripped off, leaving a jagged opening in the side of the car.

A low keening moan filled the air.

The sound came from Robertson. He'd been thrown from the vehicle's wreckage and lay sprawled facedown on the frigid landscape. Like a limp rag doll, his head lifted, then dropped forward again.

Nearby, a shadowy form slowly—painstakingly— pulled itself up and out of the wreckage. Dazed and disoriented, the man staggered and fell. Long moments later, he shook his shaggy head, gingerly flexed muscles and joints, and righted himself.

It was then he spotted the limp figure nearby. The leg irons scraped over the rocky landscape as he stumbled forward. He dropped to his knees, eyes straining, fingers searching frantically over Robertson's body. Within his bushy red beard, thin lips twisted into a sickening parody of a smile as he discovered the items he sought.

With a twist of a key, the metal cuffs around his wrists yawned wide; they clattered onto the ground along with the leg irons. The next instant his fingers grazed the cold hard steel of a gun barrel       

There was an explosive ricochet that sounded like thunder.. .but only the moon heard. The man glanced back at the winking lights of civilization.

And only the moon bore witness when he turned to gaze toward the mountainous wilderness. Toward survival... and freedom.

 

 

Chapter One

North of EdenThe night was endless... or was it day?

She wanted to lie back and relax. But she had to keep moving, wiggling fingers. Toes. She had to, or she would lose them.

Kevin! He lay motionless beside her, stiff with cold.

Don't lie still, Kevin! Keep your blood moving

The mists of darkness shifted. The filmy white shroud swirled and parted. Through a dreamworld, she saw herself crawling painfully to her knees, bending over a still, silent figure curled in a fetal position.

The cold was like nothing she'd ever felt before. Even the tears trickling down her numbed cheeks were like icy drops of crystal.

Don't leave me, Kevin! They'll find us... I know they will. ..I love you, Kevin! Oh, please don't leave me. Take me with you... Take me with you, please....

The crystal teardrops shattered. Her heart froze. And she saw herself, curling next to her beloved as she lay down to join him in sleep eternal  

Randy Pierce awoke suddenly, her heart pumping with terror. Unthinkingly, she dug her fingers into her cheeks, knowing only that she needed desperately to feel....

A moment later she slid abruptly from her bed. Her steps carried her straight to the window. Thrusting aside the lacy curtain, she stared out.

The Oregon dawn was a glorious one. The first faint fingerlings of sunlight pierced the low-hanging clouds gathered on the horizon. The sky was painted half a dozen breathtaking hues of purple and pink. But it was on the jagged outline of the craggy spire known as Mount Hope that her gaze lingered.

Mount Hope. Just thinking about it caused her to shiver. She had always found the virtuous name ironic, even before Kevin's death. All she had discovered there—all she remembered—was death.

Randy inhaled deeply, willing her heart to cease its furious drumroll. Her hands dropped away from the glass. The curtain fell back in place. It was then she realized her entire body was clammy, her forehead beaded with perspiration. Despite the chill of her bedroom, the nightshirt she wore was drenched through.

She glanced at the rumpled bedclothes. There was no point in going back to bed; she knew she would never sleep. She shed the knee-length jersey she wore and crossed to the closet for her robe. But her mind was still troubled.

She should have been surprised that the nightmare had returned, yet somehow she wasn't. After her last tragic climb, the nightmare had plagued her for months. She had dreaded closing her eyes for fear of the images seeping into her subconscious. It was only in the past year that she had given up the comfort of the night-light plugged into the socket at her bedside.

So what had spurred the unwelcome recurrence of her nemesis? The inevitable advent of winter?

North of EdenHer fingers closed around the warm terry of her robe. She gripped a handful of material tightly, fighting the shadowy hold of darkness sliding over her.

But it was no use. She'd felt an elusive sense of danger last night in the midst of closing the outdoor sporting goods store she owned in town. Then later, after midnight, she'd heard the eerie wail of sirens heading out of town.

Coincidence? Randy expelled a slow, pent-up breath. She wanted to believe that's all it was, but she couldn't.

Again her gaze sought the rugged terrain dominating the skyline. Randy had once been like everyone else, totally captivated by the breathtaking panorama.

No more.

"One of these days," she said aloud, "I'm going to leave here, and I'm never coming back."

But she knew she wouldn't.

A half sad, half whimsical smile curled her lips as she turned away. She had only one employee at the store right now—Chuck Hall. The past two summers, she'd hired a young man from the area to lead hiking groups. This had been his last year, though.

Earlier in the week, Chuck had been showing three young men some of the latest ski equipment. One of them mentioned the trip they planned the next weekend. Before bad weather set in, they intended to hike up one of the most beautiful—and dangerous—peaks just outside of Bend.

She remembered thinking they were thrill-seekers—all of them. Both she and Chuck made no bones about vehemently discouraging them. "It's a difficult ascent," she had warned sternly. "Even for an experienced climber."

A slight shiver shook her. She prayed that this niggling feeling of apprehension had nothing to do with any of the three climbers.

Randy didn't wonder what made them crave the fevered excitement of such an adventure, the danger and thrill of conquest. She knew. The mountains were mystery and magic, offering an allure that inspired both excitement and fear. And this area of central Oregon was considered a winter playground, a summer vacationland, a sportsman's paradise.

Even paradise had its serpent.

Zachary Corbett swallowed his last antacid tablet and cursed the debilitating nausea. He was six feet two inches from the soles of his feet to the top of his blond head, and that was as close to the sky as he cared to come. He'd been that way since the day he'd had the fear of God—and heights—put into him by a woman who made Cinderella's wicked stepmother seem like a saint. Closing his eyes, Zach concentrated on drawing in deep, cleansing breaths of air.

He would have preferred to make the trip from Portland to Bend in an agency car, but the time simply couldn't be spared. Not when there was a potential killer on the loose. He'd caught the first flight out at seven that morning.

North of EdenAt the thought, his mouth tightened grimly. John Garrett's month-long spree of statewide bank robberies had ended several days ago. He'd finally been apprehended in Lakeview, not far from the state line. No doubt Garrett had intended to flee into either California or Nevada.

Tom Phillips and Larry Robertson had been assigned to transport Garrett from Lakeview to Portland to face Federal charges. But the transport had turned out to be anything but routine.

Their departure had been delayed because of engine trouble. The pair were due in around ten o'clock that night. By eleven, Zach was battling a sickening sense of dread. There had been no contact from the two men for hours. The state police were called in to assist.

Then a call had come from the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office. Tom and Larry's vehicle had been located; it had crashed just outside of Bend. Whether the cause was accidental or otherwise, no one knew. But Phillips was dead. Robertson had been shot. And there was no sign of John Garrett.

Zach's palms were damp where he gripped the arms of the seat. When the small propjet finally touched down on the runway, every muscle in his body was rigid.

But there was no sign of weakness, physical or otherwise, when Zach crossed the tarmac and entered the terminal. His spine was straight, his posture strong and determined; he encompassed the driving spirit of a lawman from the previous century.

Gazing down the corridor, Zach spotted the drab brown of the sheriff's uniform as he came toward him.

"Zach Corbett?"

Zach nodded and extended his hand. "You must be Sheriff Parker." In the wink of an eye, Zach sized up the other man. Dan Parker was in his late fifties, with steely blue eyes and a sharp, watchful manner. He was several inches shorter than Zach, his build definitely on the wiry side.

The two men shook hands. Parker had removed his hat, but before he replaced it, he rubbed his temples wearily. Something in the gesture told Zach this man had just been through one hell of a long night, the same kind of night he'd had.

And it wasn't over yet. This was only the beginning.

The pair left the terminal and made their way to a patrol vehicle parked at the curb. The sunny blue sky was in direct contrast to the layer of clouds he'd left behind in Portland. But the air was nippy, the wind brisk.

"What's the situation?" Zach asked once they were in the car.

Sheriff Parker started the engine. "Not much change," he said with a shake of his head. "We found Garrett's wrist and leg irons next to Robertson. Apparently he had no trouble finding his key and removing them."

"What about their weapons?"

Dan Parker grimaced. "Couldn't be located," he said briefly.

North of EdenZach swore under his breath. There was no doubt in his mind why they hadn't been found—Garrett had them.

The car sped forward. During the short drive to the brick building downtown where the sheriff's office was housed, Parker filled him in on the search for John Garrett.

There was a small silence. "What about Larry Robertson?" he asked finally. "Any word on his condition?" The question cost Zach no small amount of effort. He'd known Tom, but Larry had been a close friend for years. Zach was godfather to his oldest son, Todd.

Parker hesitated. "I checked with the hospital just before I came after you. He was still in surgery."

Zach stared straight ahead, his face expressionless. "His wife is coming in sometime this morning."

"He's married?"

Zach nodded. He had been the one to tell Tom's wife he was dead; he'd been the one to tell Peggy last night that Larry had been shot. God, but it hurt to think of the disbelieving anguish on their faces. His lips barely moved as he added, "They have two boys—eight and ten."

"Damn!" Parker muttered. "I hope to hell he makes it."

So do I, Zach echoed fervently.

There were no further words until after Parker led the way through the dispatch center and into a small private office. He'd no sooner dropped his hat onto the coat tree in the corner than a knock sounded at the door.

Zach heard only bits and pieces of the conversation that took place between the sheriff and a deputy.

The lines in Parker's face seemed to have deepened when he stepped back inside. "Bad news," he stated. "We just got a call from Dale McMillan, a rancher outside of town. About midnight someone broke into his house, threatened him, tied up the entire family and scared the living daylights out of all of them. One of the ranch hands found them this morning. They were all pretty shaken up." He seemed to hesitate. "McMillan was roughed up pretty bad."

The two men exchanged knowing looks. "Garrett," Zach muttered aloud.

"The description matches," Parker confirmed. "And the ranch isn't far from where he escaped."

Zach's mind was working furiously. "I'm surprised he didn't try to use them as hostages."

Parker sat down behind the desk. "He's got another motive," he murmured. "He knew exactly what he was after. Food. Warm clothing." There was a brief but significant pause. "A rifle and a couple hundred rounds of ammunition."

Zach's face tightened.

"I think," Parker added with slow deliberation, "I know where Garrett is headed."

Zach's gaze sharpened. There was something in the sheriff's manner that alerted him. "You know Garrett?"

North of EdenThe sheriff's smile held no mirth. "You might say John Garrett and I have had a long-standing relationship over the years." He pulled a file from the drawer next to him and tossed it onto the desktop in front of Zach. "He's the spittin' image of his daddy, and his daddy put me in the hospital for two weeks once. The old man's gone now, but every time he came down from the hills we could count on him hitting every bar in the county and tearing up at least one."

A muscle twitched in Zach's lean cheek. "And his son?" He already knew that Garrett had an arrest record a mile long, from petty theft to first-degree assault. And now with Larry and Tom, there was another. He prayed it wouldn't evolve into another murder charge.

"John was always half-wild. His father let him do as he pleased, and no one dared challenge either one of them. He's been on the wrong side of the law from the time he was ten years old." Dan leaned back in his chair, his expression grim. "He almost killed a game warden five years ago. When the judge put him behind bars, I hoped we'd seen the last of him." His tone had dropped. It was almost as if he were talking to himself.

Zach's jaw thrust out. "He's escaped from numerous county jails. It's my understanding he's been on parole less than two months. But he won't be free for long," he stated tersely. "I intend to make certain of that."

"Do you?" There was an odd light in Parker's eyes. "I'm afraid that's easier said than done." He rose and moved to the window, where he gestured out at the jagged skyline. "He's headed up into the mountains. I know it. I can feel it."

Zach stared at him. The other man sounded almost resigned. "Garrett isn't the first man who's tried to flee from custody." He thought of Peggy, her heartbroken sobbing last night, and his lips compressed into a thin line. "Wherever he is—" his voice echoed his grim determination "—I'll find him."

For the longest time Parker stared at him. Then he said softly, "I don't think you understand, son. Garrett is like a modern day mountain man."

The force of his emotions brought Zach to his feet. "So what are we supposed to do?" His fist crashed down on the desk. "He shot a Federal officer—one of my closest friends, for God's sake. We can't let him get away with it."

"I know that." The sheriff's voice held a note of sharpness. "There's a National Guard helicopter doing an aerial search right now, but you've got to realize what we're up against. The forest is unbelievably dense. You know damn well Garrett won't put himself in a position where he'll be easily spotted. And what if the weather takes a turn for the worse? It's suicidal to fly in bad weather. And if the visibility is hampered, there's about as much chance of sighting him as a jackrabbit in a snowstorm."

"So what are you saying?" Zach demanded. "That we won't find him so why bother?"

Dan shot out of his chair like an arrow springing loose from a bow. "Hell, no!" he thundered. "I know my job, boy, and I don't need somebody telling me how to do it!"

The younger man's back was ramrod stiff. "That wasn't what I was trying to do."

"Wasn't it?"

North of EdenA grating silence prevailed as the two men confronted each other. Surprisingly Zach was the first to look away. He slumped back into his chair.

"All right," he relented, his voice very low. "But you know I can't let Garrett walk away as if nothing happened." He closed his eyes and ran long-fingered hands through his hair, suppressing the urge to grind his teeth in frustration. "It's not just my job." He attempted to explain his frustration. "Larry's a friend, a damn good friend."

Dan's expression softened slightly. He placed his hands on the desktop. "And you have to understand," he stated very quietly, "that we have to be realistic about this. There must be hundreds of places a man like Garrett could hide out."

It was the last thing he needed to hear. Zach rose and walked toward the window. He stared sightlessly through the clear glass, his hands thrust into his pockets. "There's got to be more," he muttered. "There has to be something else that can be done."

Seeing Zach's bleak impotence, Dan experienced an odd kind of kinship. He knew what it was like to be kept waiting... and wondering.

He broke the silence with gentle insistence. "Everything that can be done is being done." The younger man's eyes flickered; if it wasn't for that, Dan might have thought the other man hadn't heard.

He hesitated, hoping he wasn't about to make matters worse. "The county search-and-rescue team is a hundred and fifty miles north of here searching for a woman who was separated from her hiking group yesterday. But we sent out several teams this morning to search the woods and foothills."

Zach's voice was clipped. "Who?"

"Several groups of reserve deputies and Explorer scouts who've done this kind of thing before." When Zach said nothing, Dan's lips tightened slightly. "We have to be careful of volunteers in a case like this. If they're armed, there's the chance someone might panic and shoot at the first bush that rattled. Besides—" how he kept his voice from faltering, he never knew "—once you get up into the high country, the terrain is dangerous." He gestured toward the window. "Unless you know your way around, it's easy to get lost or hurt." Or worse, a little voice reminded him. Dan ignored the spasm of pain that shot through him.

Zach was silent for a long time. On one level, his mind was calmly detached. He understood Dan Parker's dilemma. His department was a small one; no doubt they had neither the money nor the manpower to launch a full-scale search for an indefinite length of time.

He fought back the coil of tension tightening his gut. Without looking back, he spoke. "So you think Garrett's headed up there—into the high country?"

Dan's eyes narrowed. "I do," he confirmed.

Zach turned slowly to face him. "Then it looks like I have no choice," he said softly. His gaze bored into the older man's. "I'm going after him."

In spite of himself, Dan gave a start of surprise. "Going after him!" He belatedly recognized the steely resolve in Zach's lean face. "But the teams have already left. Good God, man, you can't go alone!"

North of EdenIf anything, the fiercely determined light in Zach's eyes burned deeper. "I will if I have to." His voice dropped. It was almost as if he were speaking to himself. "Besides, maybe it's better this way. A group can cover more territory, but could be a liability if we got too close and Garrett realized we were onto him."

Dan Parker snorted. "If you get close," he pointed out. "Garrett has supplies now. Even if he didn't, people used to say his old man had dozens of different places in those mountains, where he hid flour and canned goods. He could probably hole up somewhere for the entire winter. And he knows those mountains like the back of his hand. Besides, didn't you hear what I just said? You could get lost and never find your way out. You could fall into a ravine and kill yourself. And keeping in radio contact won't do a damn bit of good if you don't know where in the hell you are!"

Zach's expression was challenging. "Then I'll need a damn good guide. The best man for the job, Sheriff."

The best man for the job, Dan Parker echoed silently. He'd have laughed, if he weren't suddenly crying inside.

Because the best man for the job was a woman. And even if he'd approved—which he didn't—he wasn't sure there was any power on earth that would make her set foot in those mountains again.

But if anyone knew those mountains as well as Garrett, it was Randy Pierce. Maybe she would have some idea where he would go to weather the winter. She might even know of someone qualified to lead Zach Corbett after Garrett.

"Well, Sheriff?" Zach's voice broke into his thoughts. "Do you have anybody in mind?"

Dan sent Zach a hard look. "No," he said shortly. He snatched his hat off the coat tree and jammed it onto his head. "But I know someone who might."

 

 

Chapter Two

Randy was still wearing her worn terry-cloth robe when she heard the crunch of gravel in her driveway. Peering out the kitchen window, she saw the brown- and-white patrol car roll to a halt. She wished she could have been surprised to see it. But even though she wasn't, her heart climbed to her throat and every nerve in her body grew taut with expectation.

Go away, she wanted to scream. Go away and leave me out of whatever it is you 're here for.

She recognized Dan, of course. She'd spent the first twenty-five years of her life in the house next to Dan and his wife, Marian. Dan's face was as familiar to her as her own.

It still caused a twinge of guilt when she recalled how she'd sold the big house on Elm Street. Her parents had signed it over to her when they'd moved to Arizona. But after losing Kevin, Randy had decided it was much too painful for all of them—herself, Dan and Marian—for her to continue living there.

And she knew she'd never be able to come face-to- face with Marian day after day. Since the morning they'd buried Kevin three years ago, Marian had cut her off cold. Randy loved Marian like a mother, but even when Marian had entered the hospital last winter for emergency surgery, Marian had refused to see her.

North of EdenFor Randy, knowing that Marian Parker still blamed her for Kevin's death was but one more bruise to an already battered heart—and the hardest cross of all to bear.

In spite of herself, she felt the unfamiliar prick of burning tears. Randy had to blink several times before she was able to focus on the man climbing onto the front porch, next to Dan. Unlike the sheriff, he wasn't dressed in a drab brown uniform. Instead he wore a sweater, slacks and a dark corduroy blazer.

Randy was at the screen door when Dan knocked. "Hello, Randy. Glad to see you're up."

"'Morning, Dan." She returned the greeting, her smile as forced as his. If she hadn't suspected that something was wrong before, she certainly did now. Dan's laughing blue eyes, so much like Kevin's, were unusually somber.

She stepped back to let the pair inside, resisting the impulse to flatten her back against the wall. At five foot seven, Randy was no dainty flower about to topple over in the next breeze. But something about this tall stranger made her feel small and inconsequential.

She closed the door against the cool rush of air. Her hands moved to tighten the sash of her robe, and she realized she was garnering her defenses. It was an odd and unexpected response... or was it?

The stranger was glancing around her modestly furnished living room. There was an aura of danger that clung to the man, no hint of softness in the rugged profile he presented to her. His nose was too sharp, his chin too forceful, his lips too thin. As if that weren't enough, she experienced a sense of seething emotions held strongly in check.

She cleared her throat and glanced at Dan.

At the sound, the stranger turned to face her fully. Their eyes met for an instant. His were a strange opaque shade of grey, the color of shale. Randy registered the fleeting sensation of being weighed, stored, measured... and coming up lacking?

Her gaze flitted back to Dan. "Something tells me this isn't a social call," she said quietly.

"No." His agreement seemed to come reluctantly. He gestured between her and the stranger. "Randy Pierce, Zach Corbett. He's a Federal marshal here from Portland."

The stranger's gaze had moved to the hallway. It lingered there a second or two, and Randy had the curious sensation he was waiting for someone else to appear.

But there was little time to dwell on the thought. Her mind was already reeling. What on earth was someone from the Federal marshal's office doing here in Bend? And why on earth had Dan brought him here?

She suddenly realized the lapse in her manners. "How are you, Marshal?" she murmured. Clad in only her thick terry-cloth robe, Randy wasn't about to march across the room and offer her hand. But she didn't quite understand the faint relief that fluttered through her when he merely gave a cursory nod at her acknowledgment.

Dan dropped his hat onto the coffee table. "I think we'd all better sit down," he suggested, then glanced at Zach. "Especially you," he added, "since this will probably be your last chance for God only knows how long."

North of EdenBut Zach remained where he was, and suddenly there was an ominous, almost deadly silence. His eyes slid accusingly to Dan's.

"Wait a minute," he said slowly. "You mean she's going to find someone to..." His voice trailed off, and he continued to look at the sheriff, his jaw hard.

Suddenly Randy wasn't sure she wanted to know what Federal Marshal Zach Corbett was doing here in Bend—or why Dan had brought him here. But like it or not, Randy was very much afraid she was about to find out.

She vaguely noted Dan rising to his feet. He looked as if he were about to square off for a knock-down- drag-out fight. "For your sake," she heard him say, a distinct challenge in his voice, "let's hope so."

Zach still hadn't moved. He'd appreciated Dan Parker's air of quiet authority and competence, but he had the feeling he'd just been royally duped.

He glared at the sheriff. Next he'll be telling me she's going to lead me up there after Garrett!

He stifled a sound of disgust. He'd already scrutinized Randy Pierce. Her hair was so dark it was only a shade lighter than black. She was slightly taller than average, and from what he could see of her body, her build was on the slender side. She wore that drab old robe as if she were a queen, but he could see the prominent bones of her shoulders beneath the worn material. Hell, she looked downright skinny! More than likely the only way she could traipse through a forest was if he carried her. She reminded him of a poor little church mouse. And with those huge dark blue eyes shining out of that narrow, high cheeck-boned face, she looked about twelve years old.

It seemed as if Dan must have read his mind. "If I were in your place," he snorted, "Randy Pierce is the only one I'd ask to take me up into those mountains. She was on the search-and-rescue team for years. Hell, she trained almost every one of the members on the team today, including the leader!"

It was only too apparent that Zach had hit a nerve. But every time he thought about Garrett shooting Larry and leaving him for dead, his fury got the best of him. His gaze flickered to the woman. He could have sworn a look of panic flitted across her face, but his attention was reclaimed by the sound of Dan's voice.

"But," Dan added, "thank God that's not what we're here for." He glanced at Randy and paused, as if to choose his words with the utmost of care.

The tension in the air was like a knife-edge. Randy sat quietly, hands laced tightly in her lap to still their trembling. Under other circumstances, perhaps, the sight of usually unflappable Dan Parker nose to nose with this dark gold stranger might have made her smile.

But right now she was certain her face would splinter into a thousand pieces if she even tried. A tight knot of dread lay heavily in her stomach. It was an effort to make herself speak. "I think you'd better tell me what this is about," she said, looking at Dan.

Dan's expression did nothing to ease her peace of mind, however. In fact, it had quite the opposite effect. The knot in her stomach grew heavier. Harder.

North of Eden"I guess that might help." His attempt at a smile met with failure. "The marshal and I have been up all night. I guess we're both a little on edge."

She sensed Dan's frustration as he thrust his fingers through his shock of steel-gray hair. And when he looked at her, she saw the one thing in his eyes she never expected to see.

Pity.

For all her outer calm, her insides were churning fiercely. "Tell me, Dan." She scarcely recognized the thin little voice as her own.

"All right," he said heavily. "You know the rash of bank robberies that's been in the news lately? The whole state's been hit from one end to the other."

Randy nodded. Her eyes never left Dan's face. "I thought the man responsible had been caught."

"He was. His name is John Garrett. The local police arrested him in Lakeview." Dan glanced at Zach. "Yesterday two U.S. marshals went there to pick him up and transport him to Portland to face federal charges. But last night something happened. We don't know if there was an accident or if Garrett overpowered the two marshals. But the car they were in crashed about twenty miles west of here. The driver was killed, and Garrett escaped." He paused before adding quietly, "He left the other marshal for dead."

She sucked in a sharp breath, her gaze traveling immediately to Zach. "And you're here after him."

The nod Zach gave was terse.

Dan sat down next to her. "Randy, I doubt if you know him, but John Garrett is from this area. He and his father, Isaac—"

Her eyes widened. "Dad mentioned him every once in a while," she murmured. "When I was just a kid, he came in once and tore up the store."

Dan glanced at Zach. "Randy's parents had a store specializing in outdoor sporting equipment," he explained. "When they moved to Arizona, she took it over."

Turning back to Randy, he reached out and gripped her hands. They were ice-cold. "Randy," he said very gently, "Garrett is still out there. We don't know where he is—if he's hiding out in the forest somewhere, or if he's headed up into the mountains."

Zach spoke, his voice low. "Garrett's already proved he's dangerous. He broke into a house last night and terrorized the family. And now he has food and weapons." His tone roughened. "The sheriff says he's skilled in wilderness survival. But he'll have to come out sometime, and when he does, there's no predicting what he'll do. He has to be found—now." His eyes met hers, cool and unreadable and opaque. "Before someone else gets hurt. Or killed."

If anything, Dan felt her hands grow colder still. He spoke quickly, before she had a chance to refuse. "Two things, Randy. You know those slopes as well as Garrett. I need you to think—think about anywhere in those mountains Garrett might be able to hide out."

Her lips parted. Dan saw the effort it took for her to speak. "And the other?"

There was a slight hesitation. "We need someone to take Corbett up into the high country," he told her. "We've got a couple of ground teams scouring the foothills, but the search-and-rescue team is up near Mount Jefferson, searching for a lost hiker." Dan squeezed her hands, hoping to still the leap of fear in her eyes. "The last few summers you had someone working for you in the store, taking groups of hikers up the trails in the mountains."

North of EdenRandy's lips barely moved. "Hank. Hank Sullivan."

"Sullivan! That's right! He lives in Tumalo, doesn't he?" Dan's voice rose eagerly. "Can you give me his—"

But Randy was shaking her head, her eyes dull. "This was his last year working for me, Dan. He got a job with the forest service in Washington and moved last month."

Dan's expression was pained. He didn't bother to hide his disappointment. "Damn! Damn it all!" He let go of her hands and slammed a fist into his palm. "There's got to be someone else. There has to!" He lurched to his feet and gestured impatiently at Zach. "This damn fool says he's going, no matter what— even if he has to go alone!"

Randy's gaze flew to Dan's. "He can't," she said jerkily. "It's too risky. What if he got lost? Or what if he falls? He could lie there for days and..." She gave a choked sound deep in her throat.

Zach watched the scene unfolding before him with mounting unease. He was tempted to jump in and tell them both that he didn't appreciate being talked about as if he weren't even there. But something was happening here; the atmosphere in the room was suddenly stifling. The sheriff's expression was no less tense than the woman's. He didn't understand the unspoken messages that passed between her and the older man. But whatever was going on between them, it didn't lessen the fact that Garrett was out there somewhere.

Vengeance had no part in this. But Zach was only human, and when he thought of Garrett's coldblooded murder attempt on Larry, it was as if all the demons in hell had leaped inside him.

He wasn't even aware of the step that carried him forward. "I don't see what the problem is," he stated tersely. "As long as I have a map—"

"A map!" Anger brought Randy to her feet. "Mister, we've seen your kind before. You think you're the conquering hero who doesn't need any advice and refuses to prepare for the worst. Do you know what happens to people like you? They're brought down on a stretcher—or in a body bag once the spring thaw starts! Besides, I doubt Garrett will be on any of the trails, and to do any traveling otherwise, you'll need a contour map!"

Zach's lips pressed together. He didn't dare look at Dan Parker for fear he'd be gloating.

Randy stepped forward. "Well?" Her eyes were snapping. “Do you know how to read a contour map?"

Zach's reply was almost grudging. "No," he conceded. He half expected to hear a triumphant "I knew it!" But instead he heard her say, “Weather conditions can change in minutes up there! If it snows you could be caught in a whiteout where you don't know up from down, right from left."

"Then what do you propose I do?" His jaw clenched. "If you know so much, maybe you should be the one taking me up there."

Zach wasn't prepared for the effect of his carelessly thrown out remark. He was so anxious and on edge about Larry and Garrett that he was only partially aware of what he'd just said. Dan Parker looked as if he'd throttle him without a second thought, but when Dan’s gaze moved back to Randy, his face filled with pained resignation. Hers was completely drained of all color.

North of EdenNo one said a word. The silence was suffocating.

"Look," Zach injected tightly. "Garrett shot my best friend! Because of Garrett, he's lying in a hospital bed, and I still don't know if he's going to live or die. We're going to have to make some decisions here—"

It was Dan who spun him around by his shoulder and wheeled him toward the door with a strength that belied his size. "That's right," the sheriff said under his breath. He shoved the screen door open. "And I think you'd better let me handle this one, so just give Randy and I a minute alone."

Zach had a hard time biting back a blistering retort. He could feel the frustration and resentment building inside him with each minute that took Garrett farther and farther away from him. He was the first to admit his temper was never placid, but he'd always prided himself on his control. His stab of conscience told him he'd been wrong to lash out at both Randy and the sheriff.

"All right," he conceded shortly. "But make it quick. Garrett's not wasting time hightailing it away from here, and I'd better not, either."

 

 

Chapter Three

"You should have told me Dan," Randy admonished quietly. "I had no idea Garrett had shot someone." She pulled her hands from his and moved toward the window, her eyes locked on the purple haze of the mountains.

She noted distantly that Zach Corbett had stripped off his coat and tossed it carelessly over his shoulder. The image of his chiseled features swam before her; he possessed a tough aggressiveness that some women might find attractive.

Zach Corbett was, she suspected, a hard man. As tall and rough as the mountains, and just as remote. But was he? an inner voice chided. It was concern for his friend that had prompted Zach's impatient reaction. She couldn't fault him for that, could she?

"How is he?" she asked Dan quietly.

"Who?" Dan frowned.

"His friend." Randy's eyes never wavered from Zach's figure. He stood with his hands thrust into his pockets, the wind tearing at his coat and his hair, but he paid no heed as he stared toward the ragged skyline. With his long legs braced slightly apart, his stance reminded her of loneliness and pride ...and spirit. She could use a little of that spirit right now.

"Not good," Dan admitted finally. "The bullet lodged in his chest. They had no choice but to remove it right away, so he's still in surgery. The doctor wasn't sure he'd even make it through it."

North of EdenRandy hugged her arms close to her body, as if to ward off a chill. There was a never-ending silence before she squeezed her eyes shut. "What should I do?" she murmured. "How can I go back up there after what happened?"

There had been a time when Randy would have thought it impossible to call herself a coward. Yet she had done so many times in the past three years.

Especially now.

She despised herself for her weakness, yet as always, her emotions won out against logic. The thought of climbing Mount Hope again—or any mountain— filled her with a pain that ran too deep to ever be forgotten. Three years ago she had lost her hopes and dreams along with the man she loved, and nothing would ever change that.

Behind her, Dan spoke quietly. "1 can't tell you what to do, Randy. If it were a matter of personal choice, I wouldn't even be here. I don't like the idea of you anywhere near a man like Garrett."

She shook her head, the movement almost imperceptible. "There's probably more danger from the weather and terrain than there is from Garrett."

Dan didn't look convinced.

"I know how to use a gun, Dan. You taught me."

Dan's voice turned fierce and gruff. "I still don't like it. Dammit, if I could, I'd go up there myself and bring him back!"

Randy's heart leaped to her throat. The thought that Dan was serious didn't even bear thinking about. He'd suffered a minor heart attack about a year ago. But regardless, Dan was in no condition to take on such an attempt.

Whether that was what made up her mind, Randy wasn't sure. But she suddenly realized that if she refused, knowing what was at stake, she could never live with herself. Maybe they wouldn't find Garrett—perhaps they would. But either way, she'd have the satisfaction of knowing she had tried.

And maybe then she could stop calling herself a coward.

"The marshal was right, you know." Her half smile was whimsical. "Although I think he was surprised to hear himself say it." She paused. "But 1 should be the one to take him up there. Besides, there isn't time to find someone else."

The silence spun out for a moment. Dan came up behind her and touched her shoulder. The words he spoke were not what she expected.

"You know you're wasting away here, girl. I've often wondered why you stayed within a hundred miles of this place, why you didn't move to Arizona with your parents."

Her smile held a trace of sadness. "I've wondered the same thing about you and Marian. You could have retired at the last election."

Dan sighed, his gaze drawn toward Mount Hope. "Sometimes I doubt either one of us will ever leave here—or ever forget what happened up there." He was silent for a moment. "And sometimes I think leaving here and never looking back would be the best thing for all of us."

North of EdenWhen he turned to her again, she saw that the lines in his features had eased slightly. "You know," he said with tender gruffness, "that you're the daughter I never had."

No, she thought with a pang that speared her heart. I'm the daughter you should have had... and would have had if I'd married Kevin.

She lifted herself on tiptoe to kiss his lined cheek. At that precise moment, they heard someone thump twice on the front door.

"Drat the man," Dan grumbled. "He sure as hell didn't give us much time."

But it was Randy who ushered Zach Corbett inside again. The moment she closed the door, she lifted her eyes and confronted him with a directness that caught Zach off guard.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" she asked evenly. "This won't be a stroll in the park."

Zach cocked an eyebrow. In spite of what he'd said, " had he really expected her to help him go after Garrett? The question was moot. She was the best he could hope for, and so be it.

He was secretly surprised she'd decided to take up the gauntlet. It appeared that Randy Pierce was no church mouse after all, he decided, looking her over. She wasn't smiling, but her eyes held a challenging gleam that reminded him of a mountain lion. Well, better this than passive lassitude.

He folded his arms and met her gaze head-on. "I'm as ready as you are."

The merest hint of a smile curved her lips. In the back of his mind, Zach wondered what the real thing would look like. She might even be pretty.

But everything else was wiped from his mind as he found himself the object of a very careful scrutiny. Her gaze lingered on his shoulders, his arms, the lean strength of his legs. There was nothing the least bit coy or sexual in her examination, and he found himself wishing there was! He was a lot better equipped to handle a subtle or not-so-subtle come-on. But Randy Pierce looked at him as if he were a bug under a microscope, and it made him just a little ill at ease.. .hell, he felt downright uncomfortable!

"Are you now?" she finally returned coolly. "What kind of shape are you in?"

He was a little disconcerted by the question. "Well, I... do a little jogging now and then."

"Now and then? And I suppose you pump a little iron, shoot a few baskets with the boys occasionally? A weekend athlete, Marshal?"

Zach glanced at Dan. Judging from his expression, the sheriff was finding this rather amusing. Clearly he'd find no help in that direction.

He cleared his throat. "I wouldn't quite say that."

"But you're not on any kind of regular regimen? Daily?"

He shook his head. "A couple times a week is more like it," he admitted, feeling rather sheepish and not quite knowing why.

North of Eden"Well, that's better than nothing." Randy sighed. "You'll be sore, though. And don't be surprised if your muscles spasm."

By now, Zach had made up his mind that if he did get sore, he certainly wouldn't admit it. He wouldn't put it past her to gloat!

She was all business now that she'd given her consent, and he couldn't fault her for that. But he stiffened when he noted her considering look again.

"You probably didn't come prepared for something like this," she murmured.

"If you mean clothing—" Zach shook his head "—no, I didn't. At least, not if we run into snow."

He could have sworn he saw her flinch, but she spoke so quickly he decided he must have been mistaken. "That's a possibility. The weather can be very unpredictable this time of year." She glanced at Dan. "You'll have to take him down to the store. Chuck can fit him with what he needs while I get things together here."

Dan nodded. "Something else, too," he said, his voice low. "I don't like the idea of you two going out on such a wild-goose chase. What if Garrett isn't below timberline?" His eyes fixed on Randy. "Where could he go to weather the winter? Is there any place that might offer enough shelter?"

Randy felt her whole body go numb. Her mind zeroed in on the abandoned gold mine not far from the summit of Mount Hope. Few people even knew of its existence. She had stumbled on it by accident only after she'd climbed to the summit countless times.

She'd talked about it so much that Kevin finally decided he had to see for himself. And it was there where Kevin had fallen and pulled a muscle. If it hadn't been for that, they could have made it down the mountain hours earlier, before the storm blew in.

If it hadn't been for that, Kevin might still be alive.  

But no., .no! She wouldn't give in to the veil of darkness waiting to snatch her in its grasp. It was going to take all her strength to gather the courage to set foot in those mountains again. Strength she wasn't sure she had.

"Possibly," she said at last, reaching for the map he'd pulled out. "I'll show you."

Zach didn't miss the look she exchanged with Dan. They spread the map out on the dining room table, but just before she bent over it, some elusive emotion flickered over her face. Pain? Fear? A little of both?

He thought of her reaction when Dan told her Garrett had probably escaped to the mountains. But now, he balked at calling it a display of weakness.

He scrutinized her closely, taking advantage of her preoccupied concentration. Whatever it was that had come over her earlier had vanished, which meant she had an amazing amount of self-control. He was a little ashamed for having thought of her as a church mouse. But he also had the curious sensation that Randy Pierce was not an easy woman to get close to.

And indeed, there was a kind of stoic aloofness etched on her features. The stark daylight filtering through the window highlighted a bone structure that hinted at a hidden sensuality rather than prettiness.

North of EdenNor was she as young as he'd first thought. There were faint lines fanning out from her eyes; he placed her age at somewhere near thirty, a few years younger than he was.

He listened distractedly to the low-voiced conversation between Randy and the sheriff. Dan showed her the place where the accident had occurred and Garrett had escaped, as well as the McMillan ranch Garrett had robbed. She shifted and stretched to indicate an area farther north on the map. The movement outlined the unexpectedly tempting swell of her rounded hips... not such a skinny-minny, either.

"Marshal!"

With a start he realized he'd been staring. Randy had straightened, and judging from the disapproval snapping in her eyes, she was only too aware of the direction his eyes had taken.

No harm in looking, he wanted to say. Instead he summoned a faint smile.

Randy sent him an arch look. "How soon do you plan on leaving?"

Zach countered with a question of his own. "How soon can you be ready?"

There was a lot to be done. Randy's mind worked furiously. Food, sorting through gear, the meticulous job of packing... a flurry of panic set in. It had been so long since she'd done any of this! What if she forgot some essential item? What if her skills weren't as sharp as they had been?

Once she and Zach Corbett headed out, there was no turning back. She was responsible, not only for her own safety, but his as well.

Responsible. The word rang in her head almost like a death knell. Kevin had trusted her; he had no doubts about placing his faith in her. But Kevin was dead. And Marian had screamed that she—Randy—was responsible for the death of her son

Randy couldn't help it. She longed to fling the map back at both men, to tell them to find someone else, someone who wasn't plagued by nightmares and fears of the dark.

But suddenly she remembered what Dan had said: "Dammit, if I could, I'd go up there myself and bring him back."

Could she take the chance it wasn't just idle talk? Dan was the sheriff, and there was no one else available. No doubt he would consider it his duty to assist Zach Corbett in tracking down Garrett. And if Dan did that simply because Randy was too cowardly, Marian would never forgive her if anything happened to him.

But who was she kidding? an inner voice mocked. Marian still hadn't forgiven her for Kevin.

Zach was waiting expectantly for her reply. Bravado was a wonderful tool, and it was this that made Randy lift her chin and inform him evenly, "I can be ready in about three hours."

"Three hours!" His voice reflected his impatience. "Dammit, if Garret left the McMillan ranch just before dawn, he already has a hell of a head start on us. That's going to put us at least six hours behind him."

"Look, I'm sorry." She cut him off sharply, but to her horror, her vision began to mist. She averted her head, her teeth digging into her lower lip as she struggled for control.

"I'm sorry," she said again when she was finally able to speak. Her low tone carried both a warning and a quiet petition for understanding. "But most of my equipment has been packed away for... a while." He didn't seem to notice her slight faltering. She forced her gaze to meet his. "I need to make sure nothing's been damaged since it was last used. I'll do it as quickly as possible."

Zach fought his impatience. "I suppose it'll have to do," he muttered curtly.

Randy made a quick call to Chuck, advising him of the situation and asking him to be there when Dan brought Zach in. She then arranged to meet them at the sheriff's office as soon as she was ready.

Randy watched the patrol car leave a few minutes later. She shivered as if an icy mountain wind had swept into the room. But unlike the feeling that had awakened her earlier that morning, it was not the chill of remembrance, or even the chill of fear. It was the cold of foreboding, and she found her gaze drawn helplessly toward the mountains...and Mount Hope. A fugitive—a potential killer—was out there somewhere, and she and Zach Corbett were going after him. Three people...

Randy didn't believe in spirits; she didn't believe in ESP or anything remotely like it.

 


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