Archive for January, 2012


Right Place, Right Time – Chapter 1

Right Place, Right Time


Leslie McKelvey

Chapter One

Beth Drummond’s lungs were burning and her heart racing as flew down the narrow, wooded trail, one hand tightly gripping her camera’s telephoto lens as she tried to shield it from the branches and brambles that ripped at her clothes and left red, angry scratches on her bare arms.  Blood roared in her ears, drowning out even the sounds of her footfalls.  She didn’t think the people who had been shooting at her had just given up and gone home, so she kept running, praying her legs would carry her to the ranger station.  If not, she’d run until she couldn’t or until they caught her.

The trail veered sharply to her left and she skidded to a stop, pressing close to a Rocky Mountain Maple.  She tried to breathe deeply and evenly, struggling to hear anything over the internal whush-whush of her loud, galloping pulse.  Moving slowly she peered around the trunk back up the trail.  Nothing.  But that didn’t mean they weren’t coming.  She was about to start running again when a pair of muscular arms snaked around her from behind and a large hand clamped itself over her mouth.  She inhaled sharply and thrashed about, trying to twist away from him but his grip only tightened, effectively immobilizing her.  She tried to kick, but he’d pinned her legs between his.  A turtle on its back should be so helpless.

Don’t move.”  The words were a harsh whisper in her ear.  “And don’t scream.”

She went stock still.  The hand was so big it covered nearly her entire face, and the body at her back was male, tall, broad, and hard.  The top of her head just reached his shoulder, and she felt the bunched muscles in his arms and chest as he held her close and tight.  Her throat closed up and her heart beat so hard and fast she thought it would burst, but she did as the stranger commanded.  Without a sound he pulled her away from the tree and backward into a stand of brush.  The thick branches closed around them like a cloak.

Her heart literally stopped when, not 15 seconds later, the men who had been chasing her for the last several miles ran by.  Her only advantage had been her knowledge of the area and the terrain, but apparently even that had not been enough.  She’d had no idea they had gained so much ground on her.  How had she not heard them?  They made no attempt to move quietly.  She closed her eyes and listened as they crashed through the brush, and when the sounds of their headlong run faded her limbs gave out and she sagged against the stranger.

The stranger.  Although he had saved her from the men chasing her, that still didn’t ensure he was a good guy.  And she was a woman, alone.  Fear revived her frozen heart, sending her pulse into a full gallop, and she stiffened.  Now that her pursuers had gone and quiet once again ruled the forest, the only sound she could hear was the roaring of blood in her ears and the stranger’s calm, even breaths.  Come on, Beth, she thought, you’ve been in worse situations.  Remember Afghanistan?

His heartbeat was steady and strong against her back, and she sent a silent prayer heavenward.  Please, please, please let him be a good guy or, at least, not another bad guy.  When she tried to move he tightened his hold on her waist, his lips near her ear.

“Not yet.  They may double back.”

Beth jumped when a shout cut through the woods like an axe.

“Do you see her?”


The voices were close, too close, and she hunched back against him.  Fear filled her in a cold, dark surge, but his presence was strangely comforting.  Even when the three men joined up mere feet away he remained silent and motionless, seemingly unaffected by their proximity and their weapons.  She fought the urge to turn and bury her face against the man’s chest, as if doing so would infuse her with his apparent calm.  Her pulse neared heart attack range.  She stared at the gun-wielding thugs and tried to regulate her breathing.

The tallest of the trio was Hispanic with thin with dark hair, dark eyes, and swarthy skin.  His associates were of similar lineage and coloring, one with his long hair pulled back into a ponytail and the other with a short, shaved haircut.  The tall one was obviously the leader as the others watched and waited for him to speak.

After a brief silence, tall man looked at the man with the ponytail and said, “Head back toward the meadow.  She can’t have gone far.”  The man nodded and ran back the way they’d come.

Shaved head spoke.  “I’ll head toward the ranger station.  That’s probably where she’s going.”

The tall man nodded and glared.  “Don’t come back until you find her.  And bring her alive.  I want to know what she saw.”

Beth watched as the three men split up, each headed a different direction.  Even though she knew she was far from safe, her legs sagged as relief washed over her.  Had it not been for the stranger’s steely arm around her waist she would have dropped to her knees.  Once the men disappeared from view he let his hand fall from her face.

She jerked away from him and spun.  Her gaze was inexorably drawn upward.  He was one of the tallest men she’d ever seen, well over six feet and probably closer to seven, his blonde hair cut in a high and tight.  Broad shoulders filled out the shirt of woodland camouflage, the long sleeves rolled up to reveal muscular forearms.  Sharp blue eyes cut straight through her, like a pinpoint laser.  His features were chiseled, his jaw sharply squared and shadowed with blonde stubble.  He looked her up and down once, though there was nothing sexual in his perusal.  He glanced at the camera hanging around her neck, and when their eyes met again the intensity of his gaze pierced her like an arrow.

She lifted her chin.  “Who are you?”

“I’m the guy who can get you out of here if you can keep up.”

She backed up a step.  “And why should I trust you?”

He rested his hand on his hip and her heart fluttered wildly when she saw the pistol.

“If I’d wanted to hurt you we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”  His gaze turned frosty.  “Do you want to get out of here or not?”

She was good at no-brainers and nodded.

“Then we need to move.”  He grabbed her hand and pushed through the shrubs, moving with unexpected stealth for a man of such stature.  His eyes swept one way down the trail, then the other, and then he skewered her with a look.  “Stay close, and keep quiet.”  Without another word he crossed the trail and melded into the trees on the other side, drawing her with him.

He was fast, sure-footed, and silent, his feet seeming to barely touch the ground.  Beth felt like a clumsy oaf as she tried to step where he stepped and move how he moved, and several times she failed.  Dead branches snapped beneath her feet, and anger burned hotly in her chest, anger at herself.  Her lack of grace was the equivalent of sending up a flare, alerting the gunmen to her location.  Get it together, Beth.  Get your blasted feet on straight.

She had learned from Chief Dancing Eagle, a local Native American man, how to traverse through wilderness areas because wildlife didn’t usually stand still to be photographed.  Normally she had no trouble moving like a resident of the forest, and she had an impressive portfolio to prove it.  She’d been fleet and surefooted before her rescuer had shown up, managing to avoid the horror movie faux pas of falling and giving the killers the chance to catch her.  But, as she trailed behind him now it was as if she had two left feet.  He leapt over a fallen tree with the grace and ease of a gazelle, and when she tried to imitate him her boot caught on an errant branch.  Her hand was jerked out of his and her camera went flying as she landed face first in the dirt.

She lay there for a moment, dazed, but when she tried to get up he planted a hand between her shoulder blades and pressed her back into the ground.  Before she could protest he sprawled out beside her and pushed her against the trunk of the prostrate conifer.

“Stay down.”

Suddenly she heard the sound of running feet and sucked in a breath, her eyes flying to his face.  Her lungs spasmed, unable to expand as a band of near panic tightened around her chest.  His expression darkened, he shook his head once, and pressed one finger to her lips.  Somewhere on the other side of the fallen tree the person paused for several tense, silent moments, and then the footsteps retreated until she could no longer hear them.

Beth blinked and exhaled slowly, blood pulsing through her veins at warp speed.  The stranger slowly lifted his head and peered over the top of the log, moving with a grace and fluidity that was mesmerizing.  Even though they were the ones being hunted, he did not look like prey.  Those steely eyes surveyed the area with all the cunning and confidence of a highly skilled predator.  If he hadn’t just saved her life his expression would have terrified her.  He waited another couple of minutes then carefully rose.  When no one burst from the brush with guns blazing he grabbed her camera, tossed it to her, and held out a hand.

“Let’s move.”

Beth quickly checked her camera, and then looped the strap over her neck and slipped her fingers into his.  He hauled her to her feet.  Without another word he spun and those long legs ate up the distance as he went from zero-to-sixty in half a dozen heartbeats.  She lengthened her stride and managed to keep up, barely.  Her lungs started to burn again and her muscles protested vehemently, but she choked down her discomfort and focused on him.  Even at a run he appeared serene and unruffled, and she tried to absorb his calm.  Oddly enough, his composure helped her regain hers.  She tightened her grip on his hand.

The sun was well into its downward descent into the west, shadows lengthening across what was barely more than a deer path.  They were moving south/southeast, and this time she pushed thoughts of the armed men aside, focusing on moving as quickly and quietly as possible as the trail narrowed and the terrain roughened.  Several times the trail forked off but he didn’t hesitate or even glance at the branching paths.  Apparently, he knew exactly where he was going.  After about twenty minutes at a near dead-run, she heard the sound of rushing water and prayed they would stop soon.  Her mouth was dry and her lungs were begging for more oxygen.  Trees started to thin and less than a minute later she and the stranger stood on the banks of a rushing stream.

Without even pausing he released her hand and crossed the tributary, hopping from rock to rock as if the path was marked and only he could see it.  Beth stopped, took several deep breaths then followed, making certain to plant her feet where he had planted his.  Her camera had survived its flight into the brush, but she doubted it would recover from a swim.

He reached the opposite bank and turned toward her.  She was aware of his gaze and tried to move faster while keeping her balance and staying out of the torrent.  Once she put foot on the bank he spun away without a word and started running downstream.  Beth squared her shoulders and followed.  She was actually starting to enjoy his unspoken challenge.  He’d said he’d save her if she could keep up.  Well, she was going to keep up or die trying.  She focused on his broad back and set her stride to match his.

After about a mile they reached an eddy in the stream.  The water lapped at the shore, rock-studded sand edged with trees creating a small clearing that would be a perfect campsite.  He ran to the far side of the glade, reached into the bushes, and pulled out a pack.  He shrugged into it, reached back into the brush, and retrieved a rifle.  Beth stared and a shaft of apprehension pierced her.

“Let’s go,” he said brusquely.  “We need to put some more distance between us and them before we make camp.”

“Camp?”  He couldn’t be serious.  She gaped at him and wondered if perhaps he’d spent too much time in the wilderness.  “We need to get to a ranger station, try to get out of here.”

His brows drew together.  “You heard them.  That’s where they’re going.”

“There’s more than one station,” she argued.

He gave her a tolerant look, the same look one would bestow on an argumentative toddler.  “And there’s more than one of them.  You want to chance that?”  He shouldered the rifle.  “My car is east of here parked at the Drake’s trailhead.”

“That trailhead is more than ten miles,” Beth said.  “It’ll be dark soon.”

He lifted one blonde brow.  “That’s why we keep moving until we make camp.”  He glanced at the sky.  “We’ve got about an hour of daylight left.  We can cover three, maybe four miles in that time.”

“And if they’re headed the same direction?”

“We’ll stay off the main trails.  None of them had packs, so they weren’t equipped to be out here for more than a few hours, unless you know something I don’t.”

She thought back and shook her head.  “I didn’t see any packs.”

“Then we keep moving.”

Indignance filled her, but before she could even form a retort he started jogging, his long legs taking him away and fast.  Beth planted her hands on her hips and stared after him, then realized he wasn’t waiting for her.  In fact, he didn’t even look back to see if she was following.  It was obvious he thought her smart enough to realize she had little choice.  As he disappeared into the trees she huffed and sprinted after him.  Challenge accepted.

They moved quickly and quietly, staying well off the established, marked trails, and she wondered if he was listening as hard as she was.  Thankfully, the only sound was the chirp of birds, the soft rustle of their feet over the ground, and an occasional cry from an unseen wild animal.

She had to admit that, as much as she preferred having an unobstructed view when she went on her photo safaris, there was a distinct advantage to her current position.  Watching him made their run infinitely more bearable.  He ran through the trees seeming more animal than human.  His muscles moved with fluid grace and easy, unrepressed strength as he traversed the narrow path with smooth, silent strides.  Fascinating.  And then there was his backside.  Tight and ultimately grab-able, it warranted a warning label, which would just give her even more reason to look at it.  A pulse of attraction vibrated inside her and she gulped.  There were a million questions she wanted to ask him, but she thought it wise to imitate him and keep her mouth shut for the time being.  From his actions and the brief, terse conversations she discerned he was the sort of man accustomed to leading and being in control.  Being in control required knowledge of the facts which required questions; questions he hadn’t asked, yet.  She imagined once they made camp and were relatively safe he would start the interrogation, and for some reason she doubted she’d be able to get a word in edgewise.

The sun had just dipped below the mountains to the west, darkness swallowed up the land like a carnivore gorging on its prey.  They’d been moving for close to half an hour and just as she was about to ask him to stop for a moment he paused.  Beth bent over and rested her hands on her thighs, taking deep breaths.  Although she kept in top shape because hiking the trails of America’s wilderness lands demanded she do so, she was not accustomed to prolonged runs over the rough and tumble terrain.  Not to mention she’d been running for several miles before her enormous rescuer had saved her.  A water bottle appeared in her periphery and she glanced at it then lifted her gaze to his.  To her annoyance, he wasn’t even breathing hard.  He said nothing, those blue eyes boring into hers, his face expressionless.  Apprehension skittered up her spine.  Straightening, Beth took the bottle.

“Thanks,” she said softly.

“You’re welcome.”  He shrugged out of his pack and dropped it on the ground, then crouched and started searching through it.  “Think you can make it another couple of miles?  I’ve got an idea where we can make camp, but if you’re worn out we’ll stop now.”

Beth took a long drink of the water, careful not to drink it all.  “I’m fine.”  She handed the bottle back to him.  “I may be sucking wind, but I will go as far as you need me to.”

He rose, finished the water, and handed her an energy bar.  “Okay then.”  He pulled another bottle from his pack, tossed it to her, and finished off his energy bar in two bites.  “The spot I’m thinking of is a little tough to get to, but we’ll be able to see anyone coming.  And, if anyone does manage to track us that far, it’ll give us an opportunity to get away.”

“Sounds perfect.”  Beth opened the bar and took a healthy bite.  “Lead on.”

After she finished her energy bar and took a few more drinks of water he did just that.  He moved like a Marine sniper, quick and lithe, as if the pack and the rifle slung across his back weighed nothing.  As they ran, dusk expanded its hold on the Rockies, the sky to the east draped in navy blue with faint pinpricks of light.  Every so often he glanced over his shoulder at her, and she had the feeling he was pacing himself so as not to wear her out.  The very idea irritated her.  She was accustomed to others trying to keep up with her, not the other way around.

“Stop checking on me,” she said when he looked at her again.  “If I break a leg and can’t go on, believe me, you’ll be the first to know.”  She frowned.  “I will keep up, and you can take that to the bank.”

The briefest smile curved his mouth and she was momentarily stunned by the change in appearance.  In that split-second he’d gone from handsome to drop-dead gorgeous.  Wow, bet you have to beat them off with a stick when you flash those pearly whites.  She had no doubt women would drop their panties when he turned on that smile, but then it was gone and the blank mask was back.  Bummer, but now I can look at his butt again.

As the final rays of sunlight vanished he stopped in a small clearing several dozen paces from the foot of a sheer vertical rock wall.  Beth leaned against a tree and tried to catch her breath.  She hurt in places she hadn’t even known had muscles, and she knew she would really feel it in the morning.  The sound of his pack hitting the ground made her look up, relief flooding her at the thought of finally making camp.  When he pulled a coil of heavy-duty nylon rope from inside the pack she slowly straightened.  She glanced at the wall, looked at the rope, and hoped like hell her math was wrong.  Nervous tingles traveled from her head to her toes and back.

“Um, what’s the rope for?”  Please tell me you’re going to use it to make a tent, string a hammock, tie me up, anything but what I’m thinking.

He glanced at her, glanced at the wall, and then gave her a small, grim smile.  “I told you camp would be a little tough to get to.”

Her stomach dropped.  “You’re kidding.”  She looked up and fear churned in her gut.  She’d witnessed the brutality of war up close, she spent her days chasing wild animals that could easily kill her, and she was being chased by people who would definitely kill her.  However, heights were not her thing.  Her heart did a double back-flip.  “Oh, crap.”

He rose and started tying knots in the rope.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll go up first then you can climb up.  I’ll anchor you.”

Beth just stared at the rock face and tried to wrestle the near-panic back to simple fear.

He approached her.  “Remember to use your legs, not your arms.”  Her arms automatically went up when he reached around her waist.  Heat crawled up her neck.  “Find a handhold, and then a foothold, then use your legs to push yourself up until you find another handhold.”  After he tied the rope between her legs and around her midsection he stepped back.  Her cheeks burned but, thankfully, he seemed unaware as he added, “It’s easier than it looks.”

Beth laughed shortly, her eyes still on the rocks.  “I’ll bet.”

“You’ll do fine.  And if I have to I can pull you up.”

She glanced at him.  “And what happens if you fall?”

He lifted one blonde brow.  “I won’t fall.”

“Right.”  Beth looked at the wall again.  “Of course not.”

He looped the rest of the rope over his shoulder then shrugged into the pack.  “Relax.  It’ll be over before you know it.”

Her pulse notched up.  An image of flailing limbs and the ground rushing up, and the sensation of air whooshing by flashed in her brain.  “Well, you’re right about that,” she said under her breath as she leaned her head back.  “One way or another it will be over.”

“Here, carry this.”

The rifle appeared in front of her and Beth stared at it.  She fought not to remember the last time she’d held a rifle but the memories were harder to box up this time.  She squeezed her eyes shut briefly and forced the words out.  “I don’t . . . I don’t like guns.”

He frowned.  “You don’t have to like it.  You just have to sling it across your back.”  When she hesitated he huffed and slid the sling over her shoulder.  “I can’t carry it all and climb.”

Heat crawled up her neck.  She adjusted the sling and forced herself to think logically.  The rifle was an inanimate object after all and not something to worry about.  Getting away . . . that was far more important.  Now was not the time to let her past get the better of her.  Picturing her pursuers helped her focus and she gave him an apologetic look.  “Right.  Sorry.”

“Don’t be.”  His expression softened just a bit, or so it seemed in the deepening night.  “We’ve made it this far.”  He spoke with confidence, and the deep, rough timbre of his voice soothed her.  “The finish line for this evening is about sixty feet up.  Think you can handle that?”

She wasn’t at all sure she could.  “I don’t know,” she replied, “but I will give it my all.”

He clapped her on the shoulder.  “That’s all I ask.  Let’s get this party started.”  He turned away then turned back.  “You may want to move your camera.  It’ll be tough to climb with that telephoto between you and the rocks.  You don’t want to break the lens.”

Without another word he put his pack on and moved toward the rocks.

Shooting a glare at him she slung her camera across her back like the rifle.  “I knew that,” she said under her breath.

She followed behind him, her heartbeat jumping a point for every step they took.  However, when she got close to the cliffs she realized that what had at first looked sheer and nearly vertical was not quite so intimidating.  Beth sent a silent thank you heavenward and took a deep breath.

“All right,” he said, “here we go.  When I get to the top I’ll jerk on the rope twice, then you start up, okay?  And keep it quiet.  We don’t want to help them find us.”

Beth nodded then watched as he began carefully picking his way up the cliff face.  She made mental notes of where he put his hands and feet, hoping to imitate him when her turn finally came.  Then she rolled her eyes.  He was nearly a foot taller than her.  For this leg of the trip she would have to blaze her own trail.

All too soon he disappeared from sight as night deepened.  She suddenly felt very alone and very vulnerable.  Her stomach knotted and she looked around.  By the time it got this dark she was usually sitting near a cheery fire or safe inside a hunting blind.  Her mind started to play tricks on her.  Trees loomed.  Her pursuers danced in every shadow.  Beth closed her eyes and kept a hand on the rope and when she felt the tug a sigh of relief escaped her.  Sending another silent prayer into the cosmos, she started up.

Her progress was painstakingly slow as she felt her way, darkness almost vocal in its claim of the mountains.  She couldn’t see the handholds, so she had to feel for them, which made it harder going.  She half expected her rescuer to start pulling her up but he didn’t.  However, the rope remained taut, so she knew he was aware of her progress.  Pausing, she looked down before she realized what she was doing and a wave of dizziness spun her.  She squeezed her eyes shut.  It looked like she had a bottomless pit beneath her, the ground swallowed in shadow.  A cold surge of panic burst upward from the pit of her stomach.  Beth sucked in a breath and pressed herself against the rocks, her heart beating so hard she was sure the pounding would push her backwards off her perch.

“You okay?”

He spoke in what was little more than a whisper, but she heard him readily enough.  Again, the husky resonance of his voice calmed her.  Beth took a steadying breath and whispered back, “Yes.  Just trying to find another handhold.”

“You’re doing great.  Take your time.”

She had no idea how far she’d gone before a strange yet oddly familiar mechanical sound reached her.  The deep, reverberating whump-whump was distant but growing closer, and she turned her head that direction.  The glare of a spotlight sliced through the fabric of darkness better than the sharpest blade.  The calm she had borrowed from him evaporated.  She gasped softly as her pulse launched into a full sprint.  “Oh, crap.”

Suddenly the rope went taut and she felt herself move up, but not under her own power.  Apparently he, too, had noticed the blazing light.  Beth briefly thought about helping, but realized she would probably do more to hinder.  Branches and leaves grabbed at her hair, face, and clothing and she realized she was being pulled through a wall of brush, fast.  She closed her eyes and shielded her face as best she could.  Then she was out of the foliage and lying on the hard ground.  Beth took several deep, ragged breaths and tried to gather her wits.  When she finally did, she realized it wasn’t hard ground she had collapsed on, unless the ground normally moved up and down like it was breathing.

As if sensing her intentions his arms immediately locked around her.  “Don’t move.”

Beth looked down into his face and the sound of the helicopter washed over them.  It was close, very close, and her throat closed up.  A few seconds later light penetrated the bushes, moving slowly back and forth, illuminating the rocks with disco-ball dots and strange, moving, leaf-shaped shadows.  Beth blinked as she realized they were in a small cave.  She froze and held her breath, as did he, his chest hard and unmoving beneath her.  The light paused and her heart stopped.  Certain they had been spotted she closed her eyes and waited for the ensuing gunfire.  An explosive breath escaped her when, after several long, tense moments, the aircraft moved on.  Without having to be told she remained motionless and tried once more to absorb his calmness.  She felt his heartbeat, slow and steady, and started counting.  By the time she reached ten her pulse had eased down several points, and when the rapid thump-thump of helicopter blades finally vanished she was almost back to normal.  She was surprised at the effect he had on her.  His unruffled demeanor soothed her fears and imparted a serenity she knew wasn’t her own.  It suddenly hit her that if he hadn’t intervened earlier she’d most likely be dead.  Beth’s heart flipped once and she gulped.

Several minutes passed before he gave her a small nod.  She took a deep breath, moved away from him, and sat cross-legged on the ground.

She was wrong, they weren’t in a cave.  Beth ran a hand over the wall, vertical and horizontal striations telling her this “cave” had been carved, not naturally formed.  His pack leaned against the back wall and large bushes obscured the opening from view.  The sage sprouted from the very rock itself.  Thank goodness.  If not for that cover, they would have been like ducks in a shooting gallery.

Glancing at her savior, she took her camera from her neck, then removed the rifle and held it out to him.  He watched her closely, but he took the gun without a word, putting it aside.

“Who are they?”

The direct, sharp tone of his question startled her and she blinked at him.  “I don’t know.”

His tone didn’t change but his posture certainly did, his shoulders squared and tense.  “Why are they chasing you?”

She saw the drawing down of his brows, his hands clenched into fists the size of footballs.  Not only did Beth see the scowl, she also felt it and cringed, both physically and emotionally.  She looked down at her camera and wound her fingers around the telephoto lens, memories surging to the surface despite her efforts to the contrary.  The annoyance that had morphed into shock and disbelief followed by a cold wave of despair and helplessness chilled her.  She shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut, but that only gave her mind a better screen on which to play.  Fear rose like bile, hot and thick in the back of her throat.  She choked it down.  After several deep, steadying breaths and a brief silence she forced herself to meet his gaze.  “Because I saw them kill four people, and I have the pictures to prove it.”