That One Moment — Chapter 1
Ricki Sheridan didn’t expect to die falling off a mountain ledge.
One misstep, a soft spot on the trail, and her leather hiking boot slipped over the edge, sending a shower of gravel over the jagged cliff.
Unbalanced and top-heavy, her scream echoed across the deep ravine like a wounded loon falling from the sky. She jerked the backpack to the right, dragged her left foot up the ridge, and fell against the rocky cliff gasping for air.
A misty fog wet her face and chilled her fingers while tendrils of fear snaked around every nerve. Breathe, Ricki, you didn’t go over. You’re okay.
She shrugged the pack off her shoulder and eased her sore body onto the makeshift cushion. The trembling persisted, uncontrolled, and violent.
Crap, a little too close for comfort.
Thankful no one witnessed the near disaster, she gulped the crisp mountain air to restore balance and quiet the pounding in her chest. A mixture of grit and sweat slid over one brow and stung her eye. The only thing available to erase the grime and unbidden tears was the sleeve of her faded denim shirt, which she hastily swiped across her face.
The pup tent on top of the pack slid to one side. She stood to re-center it and mumbled, “This trip might be a bad idea. I should have stayed in Texas.”
A devastating betrayal found her on this mountain to help eradicate the pain from her mind. Ricki is a strong woman most times, but the most vulnerable aspect of her personality failed her, again. When it comes to men, she always chooses the wrong one. This time was the last straw, because this time it involved her best friend.
Another deep breath diminished the shaking. “Lucky I didn’t tumble down on top of the second team.”
“You all right?”
The deep male voice made her jump and spin around. Off balance again, she teetered to the right and kicked another spray of gravel over the edge.
The man reached out to steady her. “Whoa, let me help you.”
He was one of the trail bosses. She saw him at Wolf’s Den Lodge, noticed his ink black eyes and quick smile, but chose to hang back and keep her distance. When the group took to the trail, she decided to bring up the rear. As a result, she fell farther behind the others, but that suited her purpose. Her goal was to be alone. She aimed to keep it that way.
“Thanks, I’m fine, just tripped. Pack is a little off balance. I’ve got it covered.”
Her wanna-be rescuer ran a hand through thick, raven hair, assessed her with a glance, and said softly. “You look like you need a little break.”
Overcome with a sudden awareness of her physical state, her hand went swiftly to her own disheveled mane. She smoothed the windblown tangles as best she could. “I said I could handle it. It’s steep here, that’s all. I was looking up instead of the trail. No harm done.”
“What’s your name?”
She ducked her head. “Ricki Sheridan.”
He stretched out his hand. “We didn’t get to meet formally. I’m Kory Littleton, Trail Boss.”
“I know who you are.” The rude retort wasn’t natural to her, but necessary to keep the distance she coveted.
“I saw your name on the list. Nice to put a face to it. Ever been on a pack trip before? This is a good mountain to start on.”
To her relief, she didn’t have a chance to answer. Another group arrived in single file, impatient, and unable to pass.
A short, scruffy man scanned the sky and looked back at Kory. “You gonna stop on this narrow ledge or what, Chief? It’ll be nightfall soon.”
Shadows darkened the snow tipped peaks, clouds drifted across the late afternoon sky, and a keen breeze cut through Ricki’s thin shirt.
Littleton stepped around in front. “Take your troop on ahead. The lady experienced a small set-back. Her ankle’s bleeding. I’m gonna doctor it.” He lowered his voice. “Watch the trail over there, Steve, it’s soft. Don’t want anyone to slip off the mountain.”
Steve Gorman eyed the edge of the trail and turned back to survey Ricki’s injured ankle. He nodded and spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt.
She looked down. Blood oozed over the thick, woolen sock onto her low rider boot.
“Next time, try the high-tops. They’re safer,” Steve said. He brushed by, motioning the others to follow. He and the rest of his band followed him around the bend.
“Sit down, the first aid kit is in my pack,” Kory ordered.
Her chin rose in defiance, another chink in her armor—a quick temper. “Thanks, I can bandage it. Take care of the rest of your group.”
He grinned good-naturally and gave her a cheerful salute. “I’m an Eagles Pass Trail Boss, ma’am. We never leave anyone behind. That’s our motto. I’m the head guide, gotta set the example.” The bulky pack slipped easily off his broad back.
“Head guide, huh? What makes you so special?” Embarrassed about her clumsy mishap, she couldn’t resist the urge to goad him.
“Oh, I don’t know, probably because I’ve been around longer—saved a few more lives.” The smile flashed again before his teeth ripped through the adhesive bandage. “Now hold still, I’ve done this a couple of million times, we’ll be through in a flash.”
She flinched at his touch, a small shock of pain raced through the ankle.
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