New York Times Bestselling Author

She was lost once, but found. He's not willing to lose her twice.

Getting lost in the woods isn’t on Bristol Wingham’s agenda. Neither is being abandoned by her friends or getting injured. Luckily for her, she’s found by one of Fallport’s search and rescue members. She hadn’t planned on staying in the small town, but when her rescuer offers her a place to recuperate…she can’t resist.

Cohen “Rocky” Watson has rescued his fair share of lost hikers, but there’s something about Bristol that makes him sit up and take notice. The world-renowned artist could definitely afford to go back home to Tennessee and pay someone to look after her until her broken leg heals, but the more time he spends around her, the more he wants her to stay.

Slowly but surely, as Bristol heals, the former Navy SEAL and the artist find themselves falling in love. But someone is less than happy with the budding relationship. When Bristol disappears, it’ll take Rocky, his entire team, and every colorful, gossip-loving Fallport local to find her—and the clock is ticking.

Chapter One

Bristol Wingham wanted to kick her own ass.

She’d known better than to go hiking by herself. But Mike had pissed her off so badly, there was no way she could’ve stomached one more night in his presence. She’d told him time and time again that she wasn’t interested in being anything more than a friend, and she thought she’d finally gotten through to him.

And okay, she was kind of desperate for friends. Which was why, when he’d suggested this trip, she’d agreed in the first place.

But as soon as they’d arrived in the quaint town of Fallport, he’d once again begun pressuring her, trying to talk her into dating.

Mike was good-looking enough. Used to women falling all over him, in fact. His brown hair, chocolate-brown eyes, and muscular physique were enough to woo plenty of women, but Bristol had stopped being impressed by physical attributes a long time ago. And at twenty-nine, Mike should’ve been well past the time in his life when he saw all women as conquests. But apparently, he wasn’t.

Sighing, Bristol closed her eyes. She should’ve known something was up when he’d belatedly informed her that Drake Long and Carol Page would be coming on the trip. Drake was twenty-five and Carol a young twenty-three. The last week had been spent listening to the other woman giggling and fawning all over her boyfriend…and Mike.

The plan before leaving had been to go on one last hike, to a picturesque camping area along the Falling Water Trail. It was an intermediate hike that linked up to the famous Appalachian Trail at some point, but they weren’t going to be on it that long. The overlook where the campground was located was around eight miles from the trailhead.

But after only four miles, Mike had suggested they stop and camp right off the trail. Bristol had been confused…until he’d asked her to join in on a sexual interlude that he, Carol, and Drake had obviously already planned.

She’d been appalled—and had told Mike for the three-thousandth time that she wasn’t interested in being more than friends, and she certainly wasn’t having sex with the other couple either.

Mike had shrugged and said it was her loss. Then he’d calmly turned his back and began setting up camp…with one tent.

There was no way Bristol was going to sit around and listen to the threesome having sex for the rest of the afternoon and evening, so she’d turned on her heel and continued down the trail. Her plan was to camp at the overlook as they’d intended…well, as she’d thought they’d intended.

She’d meet up with her ex-friend in the morning, get back to Kingsport, and never talk to any of them again.

Except she hadn’t made it to the campground. She’d gone off the trail to pee, heard some rustling in the woods and decided to investigate. She wasn’t exactly expecting to see Bigfoot or anything, but she would’ve loved to have seen some sort of wildlife, and she knew better than to go too far off trail.

But she hadn’t expected the ground beneath her to suddenly give way.

She didn’t remember much of what happened after that. Bristol assumed she’d hit her head in the fall and was knocked unconscious. Her head hurt—bad. She was nauseous and had a splitting headache. But that wasn’t the worst of her injuries.

Somehow in the fall, she’d hurt the shin on her right leg so badly, the first time she’d attempted to stand, she’d passed out from the pain.

The next time she woke—after throwing up from the pain in her head and leg—she’d been much more careful about moving.

Looking up, she saw she was at the bottom of a very steep rock face. It was about twenty-five feet to the top, and she could see the clear trail her body took as she’d tumbled downward, aided by loose soil. Her fall had been broken by bushes at the bottom, otherwise she might not be alive at the moment…or at least would be in a lot worse shape than she was.

Her pack was still on her back, which was good, but she couldn’t walk. All she could do was drag herself along the ground in an attempt to find a way to get to the top of the small cliff she’d fallen from and back to the trail. Someone would have to come by at some point…she hoped.

But it had now been three nights, and Bristol was getting scared. She’d yelled for what seemed like hours, but either no one was on the trail, or she was too far away from it to be heard. She’d hoped Mike and the others would notify someone that she was missing when they got back to the car and didn’t find her, but it was obvious they hadn’t.

They probably thought she’d hitchhiked back to town or something. But how did they think she was going to get home? Levitate?

Then again, maybe she was being too harsh. It was possible a search team was on the case but just hadn’t found her yet.

Deep down though, after three nights, Bristol had a feeling Mike and his friends had left without a second thought as to what had happened to her.

The idea was disheartening and scary.

She’d crawled along the ground the first day, staying near the bottom of the cliff but away from the sharp rocks, and it had been extremely slow going. The agony in her leg kept her from doing much more than scooting on her butt. Every dip and movement of her leg sent sharp pains shooting upward, and after just a couple hours, Bristol had decided it was better to stay put and hope someone found her, rather than risk making whatever was wrong with her leg worse by moving.

She’d done her best to create a splint for her shin, but since she had no idea what she was doing, Bristol didn’t know if she was helping or hurting the injury. The nausea she’d experienced when waking up at the bottom of the cliff had stuck with her, whether from her head injury or the pain from her leg, she didn’t know. She’d tried to stay hydrated and had forced herself to eat some of the granola and protein bars she’d brought with her, but they tasted like chalk and it was all she could do to keep the food down.

She’d also managed to get her tent out of her pack, but hadn’t been able to properly set it up, since she couldn’t stand. But having some sort of shelter was better than none, and she was grateful that she had it. Going to the bathroom had been an adventure, and she felt absolutely filthy.

Looking up at the sun shining through the treetops around her, Bristol wanted to cry, but she forced herself to take a deep breath instead. She was alive; she had to stay positive. But she had a feeling she couldn’t stay at her makeshift camp much longer. If no one was looking for her, she had to do what she could to save herself.

She’d never been the kind of person to sit around feeling sorry for herself. Her parents hadn’t raised her to be a quitter, and she wasn’t about to start now.

No one would find her where she was, that was certain. She’d have to find a way to block out the pain and get herself back to the trail. She hadn’t gone too far off it while tracking whatever animal had made the noise. If she could get to the trail, it would be much easier to move. She could eventually get back to the trailhead and someone would come by. This was a fairly popular hiking destination.

It took two hours to get her tent and everything else back into her pack, and for Bristol to be ready to start moving. She’d given herself a pep talk and re-did the bandage around her leg to immobilize it—which she knew she’d done a shit job of, but was trying to pretend otherwise. Her backpack was on her shoulders and she was ready to move once more.

Deciding that maybe it would hurt her leg less if she got on her belly and crawled that way, Bristol took a deep breath and turned over. Black spots swam in front of her eyes as she turned. Panting, she rested her forehead on the dirt under her.

“Shit. Fuck,” she muttered as the world seemed to spin. Tears formed in her eyes, but she forced them back. “Suck it up,” she said out loud. “You got yourself into this, and you’re going to have to get yourself out.”

Lifting her chin, she eyed the landscape in front of her. She was going to have to go east, around the cliff, then turn south and hopefully catch the trail. She had no idea how wide the cliff was, or how far she’d have to crawl to get back around to the trail, but ultimately the distance didn’t matter. She didn’t have a choice. She’d waited around for three nights hoping someone would come looking for her, but after hearing hide nor hair of anyone, she couldn’t sit there any longer.

Inch by inch, Bristol began to crawl. Every foot seemed like a mile. Rocks dug into her forearms and hands, and her leg throbbed badly enough that she’d stopped to dry heave—since her belly was empty—twice. But she kept going. She did her best to throw rocks and branches out of her way so her leg wouldn’t bounce over them, but the rough terrain she was dragging herself through was brutal.

After what seemed like hours, Bristol looked behind her to see how far she’d gone—and immediately wished she hadn’t. The trees were thick, but she could just see where she’d spent the last three nights in the distance.

The urge to give up was strong. She wanted to blame the situation she was in on Mike, for being a horny bastard, but the reality was, she’d been the stupid one to go off trail. She’d been determined to see the overlook that had been their original destination, instead of immediately heading back to the trailhead and catching a ride to Fallport.

Taking a deep breath, Bristol clenched her teeth and began to crawl once more. She could do this. She literally had no other choice.

* * *

Cohen “Rocky” Watson walked quickly along the Falling Water Trail. There had been no other cars at the trailhead when he’d arrived, which was unusual for this time of year.

He still wasn’t convinced the supposedly “missing person” he was searching for hadn’t just forgotten her promise to visit Sandra Hain, the woman who owned the Sunny Side Up diner in town. People did that kind of thing all the time. Promised something, then simply forgot, not understanding how much the other person was counting on them.

But Sandra thought otherwise. She’d begged Rocky to go looking for Bristol Wingham, the tourist she’d befriended.

Rocky had no idea why Sandra had gotten so attached. She was notoriously picky about who she accepted and who she didn’t, like most people who lived in the small town of Fallport. Regardless, Sandra and this Bristol person had obviously clicked, and Rocky hadn’t had the heart to turn down Sandra’s plea to at least check the trail to see if the woman was in trouble.

He’d left after eating breakfast at the diner, going back to his apartment to grab his go-pack he always had ready for search and rescue missions, and to change into appropriate hiking gear. He hadn’t bothered to call Raiden, the other member of the Eagle Point SAR team who was in town at the moment.

The others had all gone with Zeke, Elsie, and her son, Tony, to the Eagle Point Lookout tower.

Rocky smiled to himself, knowing all about the surprise that awaited Elsie when they got there. She wasn’t much of an outdoors girl, and Zeke had wanted to make her as comfortable as possible at the tower, so he’d hiked the ten miles ahead of time and outfitted it with a blowup mattress, sheets, a comforter. Rocky was pretty sure he’d brought flowers as well.

He was thrilled for his friend. Rocky genuinely liked Elsie and her son. Tony was a good kid who was starved for positive male attention. He understood a little about what the nine-year-old was feeling, as his own father had died and he’d been raised by his mother. But his situation was a bit different, since he’d had his twin, Ethan, and their sister, for company growing up.

Rocky scowled when he thought about what Tony’s biological father had done to his own child. The scheme to kill him and collect life insurance after his death. What a fucking bastard.

He wasn’t sure he wanted children himself, but if he ever did, he’d protect them with his life. There was too much evil in the world already, making it too easy for kids to be hurt or corrupted. He’d seen it with his own eyes through his former job as a Navy SEAL.

He’d gotten out of the Navy the same time as his brother, because he couldn’t imagine not being close to Ethan. He didn’t miss it; he’d become disillusioned with the bureaucracy that came with the military. Moving to Fallport and finding people who got lost in the Appalachian Mountains was much less dangerous than what he used to do, but no less fulfilling.

The morning was beautiful, nice and warm, and while hiking would become miserable because of the heat in the afternoon, Rocky couldn’t complain at the moment. He adjusted his pack on his back—it was light compared to the loads he used to carry as a SEAL—and continued up the trail.

He’d been walking for about six miles when something caught his attention. A couple miles back, he’d seen evidence of a campsite. It was in an unauthorized area…not a place set up for camping. Rocky had been irked, but not exactly surprised. He used to be shocked when they found trash on the trail—poopy diapers, empty bottles and cans, even random items of clothing—but it was hard to surprise him anymore. Plenty of people were lazy, entitled, and didn’t care about anything but themselves. Certainly not others who might come along the trail behind them, not the animals who might get hurt by eating the trash that was left behind, and definitely not whoever picked up whatever junk was left in their wake.

So seeing that someone had camped in an area that wasn’t designated for it wasn’t all that surprising. Rocky figured the foursome Sandra had told him about had probably camped there for the night, before heading back to the trailhead and heading home to Kingsport, Tennessee. But because it was such a nice day, and because he couldn’t be certain that was their site, he’d decided to keep going to the overlook, the group’s original destination. It was only another four miles or so.

But two miles later, as he stood in the middle of the trail, Rocky frowned at the trampled weeds leading into the woods to his left. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was a trail left by a person.

A recent trail.

And just like that, his adrenaline kicked in. All thoughts of the easygoing hike he’d been on disappeared.

“It’s probably nothing,” Rocky muttered to himself. “Tons of people have been on this trail. Who knows how many have wandered off?”

But how recently? The trail he was looking at was maybe a few days old.

Cautiously, he stepped off the well-worn and marked hiking path to follow the trail that led into the woods. Rocky was well aware that there was a large drop-off not too far from the path. There was an outcropping of rocks that went on for half a mile or so, and every now and then, someone tumbled over the edge. It was possible to survive a fall from the cliff, as it wasn’t more than thirty feet down, but the potential injuries one sustained could be serious. He and his team had rescued two people who’d fallen in the past, and Rocky expected they’d have more in the future.

He had no idea what enticed people off the hiking trail. If he was a superstitious man, he’d say there were creatures lurking in the trees, luring humans to the edge. But because he’d seen and experienced too much to believe in such things as Bigfoot or Mothman—or worse, the being some people in Appalachia called Sheepsquatch—Rocky felt no fear as he followed the clear-as-day path someone had taken in the last few days.

He swore under his breath as the trail ended where he expected it to, right at the edge of the small cliff face. Worse, he saw scuff marks in the rocky dirt next to the edge and a chunk of earth had clearly broken off. Someone had been here—and had slipped over the edge.

He cautiously looked down, relieved when he didn’t see a broken and bruised body at the bottom of the precipice. But that didn’t mean someone wasn’t down there, hurt and needing assistance.

“Hello?” he bellowed, listening as the word echoed off the trees around him. The loud noise scared a few birds nearby, and they took off from their perches on the branches overhead with loud complaining squawks.

Listening hard, Rocky didn’t hear anything, just the sound of his own heart beating.

He swallowed hard. Most people would simply shrug and continue on their way, but the hair on his arms was standing up. His intuition told him that he’d located the missing woman Sandra had sent him to find. He had no proof, and it was unlikely she was here when her hiking companions clearly weren’t, but something was telling Rocky not to give up. That he’d discover what happened to Bristol Wingham.

He waited a moment and tried to think about what he’d have done, had he fallen over this ledge. If he wasn’t hurt, he’d probably try to climb back up at the same place he fell. But if he was injured…

Rocky looked to his right and left. If he was hurt, he’d do his best to get back up to the trail—and hopefully people—the fastest and easiest way he could.

Which meant heading east.

Walking slowly, watching where he put his own feet so he didn’t fall over the edge himself, Rocky strained to catch sight of anything unusual below. It was slow going, since the ledge wasn’t well defined and he had to dodge large boulders, trees, and thorns. Every now and then he yelled out, hoping Bristol—or whoever had gone over—was conscious and could hear him.

He’d walked just ten minutes before something caught his attention below. Most people would’ve overlooked it, but Rocky wasn’t most people.

There was a large circular patch of grass that was flattened, visible thanks to the taller weeds and grass around it. If he was a betting man, he’d guess that was where someone had set up a tent or shelter.

If he thought his adrenaline had kicked in earlier, it was nothing compared to now. The urge to get down there, to find the missing woman, was coursing through his veins, but Rocky forced himself to slow down, to think.

“Hello?” he yelled again. “Bristol Wingham, can you hear me?”

He strained to listen, but all he heard was the wind.

“Damn,” Rocky muttered. But determination swam through him. He was close. The signs were all here. Bristol was here. Or she had been.

It was possible she’d made it back to the trail and someone had found her and gotten her out of the woods…but he didn’t think so. Finding an injured woman on a trail would be something the good people of Fallport wouldn’t be able to resist gossiping about.

Silas, Otto, and Art, the three old coots who hung around outside the post office on the square every single day, would’ve gotten word of something like that, and wouldn’t have been able to resist telling literally everyone with whom they came into contact. No, if Bristol had been the one who’d fallen off the ledge, forced to camp at the bottom of the drop-off, she was still out here. And in need of help. Rocky knew it to the bottom of his boots.

He walked along the top of the small cliff, looking for a way down as he continued to search for signs of the missing woman. It took another couple of minutes, but he finally spied a way down that didn’t look as steep as the rock face behind him. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was hard to track someone from twenty-five feet up. He needed to get down below so he could read any signs more clearly.

Moving slowly, Rocky began the descent of the cliff face. He carefully picked his handholds as he made his way down. His friends would probably call him crazy for the risk he was taking but as each minute passed, urgency pushed at him. He didn’t know why, but he felt a deep-seated need to get to the missing woman.

Admittedly, he always felt that way when he and his team were on the hunt, but this felt…different. Maybe it was because he was by himself. Maybe because Bristol had been out here for three nights already. Maybe it was the way Sandra had spoken about her, with respect and concern. The owner of the diner was sociable, yes, but as far as Rocky knew, she didn’t go out of her way to befriend strangers like she had with Bristol.

Whatever the reason, Rocky knew he needed to find her. Fast.

He made it to the bottom of the cliff face and brushed his hands off on his pants. His palms stung with small cuts from the rock he’d just climbed, but he barely felt the tiny hurts. Studying the terrain, he saw what he’d missed from his vantage point twenty-plus feet up.

Drag marks.

And immediately, fear struck.

It may not have been a legendary creature who’d lured Bristol from the trail…but it could’ve been a flesh-and-blood man. Or woman. Maybe one of the people she’d been hiking with had it out for her and had brought her to the overlook and shoved her off, then gone down to make sure she was dead. He or she could’ve dragged her body, looking for a place to conceal it.

Rocky reflectively reached for his weapon—a weapon he no longer carried because he wasn’t a SEAL any longer. He had a knife, and he was damn good with it, but if someone was out here who wanted to do harm to a hiker, he’d prefer a weapon that would allow him to keep his distance.

Swearing, he studied the area again and saw nothing else out of the ordinary. It wasn’t likely, if someone had hurt Bristol purposely, that he or she was still anywhere nearby, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.

Determination filling him, Rocky followed the marks on the ground. He wasn’t going to yell anymore, just in case someone had hurt her and was still in the area. In that case, he’d need to sneak up on them if he was going to have the upper hand. And he would—there was no doubt about that. He knew these woods better than most people, and he had the training to kill with his bare hands, if necessary.

The thought of having to kill anyone turned his stomach, but Rocky didn’t slow down. He’d do what was necessary to save an innocent life. He might not be a SEAL any longer, but that didn’t mean he’d look the other way when someone needed help.

The longer Rocky followed the drag marks, the more sure he was that whoever had made them wasn’t someone looking to stash a dead body. Mostly because no one in their right mind would drag anyone for so long. He’d already passed plenty of places where someone could’ve hidden a body, including undergrowth and small caves along the cliff wall.

No, whatever path he was following was something else—a very determined and stubborn person, doing whatever they had to do in order to survive. He could see now that the trail he was following wasn’t one person dragging another, but someone scooting along the ground. And the only reason someone would do that was if they were injured and couldn’t walk properly.

Respect bloomed within Rocky, and the farther he walked, the more impressed he got. If this was Bristol, she was a fighter, that was for sure. He hated that she was probably hurt, but he respected her stubbornness and will to get back to civilization.

Without hesitation he lifted his chin and yelled her name once more, no longer worried that someone was out there lying in wait. “Bristol!”

For a moment, all he heard was more silence. He sighed in frustration.

Then he heard something else. A voice in the distance.

“Help! I’m here!”

Holy shit!

He’d done it. He’d found her.

Rocky’s feet were moving before he realized it. He began to jog, following the voice and the marks on the ground.

“Hello?” the female voice called out, sounding extremely stressed.

“I’m coming!” he yelled back. “Hold on!”

It took another few minutes, but when he finally saw Bristol Wingham, he almost tripped over her.

He’d turned a corner, having finally reached the end of the outcropping of rocks where the land began to gain elevation, sloping upward toward the trail once more, and suddenly there she was. Sitting on the ground, her legs pointed downhill, face flushed with exertion, long, tangled black hair in a scrunchie and tears in her eyes.

Rocky practically threw himself to the side to keep himself from stepping on her.

“Bristol?” he asked as he went down on his knees next to her.

Her dark brown eyes were wide and she was breathing way too fast. She nodded in response to his question.

“I’m Rocky. Are you all right?”

She took a deep breath and shook her head.

“What hurts?” It was obvious she was in pain, but Rocky was still impressed. She wasn’t hysterical. His gaze went to her legs before she spoke. The only reason someone would be crawling through the forest was if she couldn’t walk.

A rudimentary splint confirmed his suspicions.

“My leg,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but I’m guessing I broke something. It hurts. Bad.”

That was his thought as well. Bristol had done her best with the splint on her right shin. It was obvious she had no training, but she had the basic principle down. Immobilize the limb. Protect it. Rocky couldn’t see any bones sticking through the pants she was wearing, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have a compound fracture beneath her clothes.

“How did you find me?” she asked quietly.

“Sandra,” Rocky told her.

“The owner of Sunny Side Up?” she asked, clearly surprised.

Rocky was equally surprised she knew who he was talking about. It was his experience that most tourists didn’t bother to remember the names of the locals. It wasn’t as if they were trying to be rude, but with the number of names people heard in their lifetime, it just wasn’t expected.

But just as he’d thought, this woman and Sandra had obviously made a connection. “Yes. She was worried when you didn’t come back to say goodbye. She asked if I would come check things out and look for you.”

Bristol’s brow furrowed. “So you…what…just dropped everything and aimlessly started walking through the woods?”

Rocky chuckled. He was so relieved to have found her, he didn’t even mind the look of disbelief on her face. “Something like that. I’m a member of our local search and rescue team,” he explained. “I know these trails extremely well. That’s why Sandra asked me to see what I could find.”

“Oh. Wow. Okay,” Bristol said. “Well, I’m grateful. More than grateful. Damn ecstatic!” She gave him a small relieved smile.

A zing of something went through Rocky at seeing that smile. She was filthy, smelled a little funky, had a possible broken leg…and despite all that, she still somehow had the ability to feel joy.

Rocky had rescued a lot of people over the years, both as a SEAL and as a member of the SAR team. He’d seen people at their best and worst. When they were found, people had cried, completely freaked out, been scared out of their minds, confused, belligerent, and even irritating. But Rocky got it; they were out of their comfort zone. He never took it personally when someone he rescued was an asshole. His job was to get them out of whatever situation they’d found themselves in, and that was it.

But something about Bristol Wingham, her fortitude, her strength, her…obviously positive personality, drew him.

Mentally, Rocky shook his head. This was no time to be thinking about his own possible connection with the woman. She was hurt. And they were still six miles from the trailhead.

That thought made him scowl.

“What?” she asked, noticing the change in his demeanor. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Rocky forced himself to say lightly. He wasn’t about to tell her that, while he might have found her, they still had a hell of a hard road ahead of them to get her to a hospital. Like an idiot, he hadn’t called Raiden to tell him what he was doing. No one knew he was out here on a possible rescue except for Sandra, and she wasn’t likely to call Raid.

He didn’t know when Ethan and the others would be back from the Eagle Point Tower, and while he had a phone, the cell service in the woods sucked. For the thousandth time, he wished the town had the resources to get the satellite phones Ethan kept saying they needed in order to communicate with each other and Doc Snow, Fallport’s local doctor.

Pushing those thoughts away—now was no time to think about things he didn’t have, or hadn’t done—Rocky shrugged off his pack. “I need to get a look at that leg, see what we’re working with. Then I’ll get it splinted properly. Good news is that I’ve got some painkillers for you to take the edge off while we’re getting out of here.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t know how to do it right.”

Her soft words brought Rocky’s eyes back to hers. “What?”

“My leg. I wasn’t sure exactly how to splint it, so I just tried to mimic what I’ve seen on TV shows and movies and stuff. I used the cords from my tent to tie the sticks to my leg, but I obviously didn’t know what I was doing.”

“You did good,” Rocky reassured her.

She snorted.

“Seriously. I’m impressed.” And he was. “You have no idea how many people I’ve come across who haven’t been able to do anything to help themselves. You not only did what you could to take care of your injury, you’ve been out here for three nights by yourself. I’m guessing you stayed in your tent for a while before deciding your better bet was to try to get to the trail, instead of staying put. And despite your injury, you painstakingly dragged yourself to this point. I don’t know many people who could or would have done what you did.”

Her eyes filled with tears once more, but she closed them before any could escape. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“No. Thank you for not giving up,” Rocky replied. “For being strong. For holding on until I could find you.”

“How did you find me, anyway? It’s not like I’m on the beaten path or anything.”

Rocky pulled out a pair of shears from his pack and motioned to her leg. “I’m going to need to cut your pants to see what we’re working with. That okay?”

“Of course,” she said without hesitation.

It was a small request, but she’d probably be surprised to learn how many people bitched about their clothes being cut when they were found. Rocky understood; hiking gear wasn’t exactly cheap. But if he was trying to find and treat injuries, it got old when people were pissy over a pair of pants.

As he carefully removed the splint she’d tied to her leg and began to slice the material of her khakis so he could see her shin, he explained how he’d noticed where she’d gone off the main trail, then about finding the spot where she’d slipped over the edge of the cliff. Finally, he mentioned the spot where she’d set up her tent, and clarified how, once he’d climbed down the rocks, he’d seen the clear trail created by her drag marks.

“I’d thought for a minute that maybe someone had pushed you and was dragging your dead body,” he said without thinking. And then kicked himself for being so blunt. The last thing she needed to hear was him talking about her demise. But she surprised him once again by laughing.

“I hadn’t even thought of that, but I’ve watched enough of those true crime shows to know you were spot-on with that line of thought. I can’t believe you were able to follow my trail so easily. I had to pee,” she admitted sheepishly. “Then when I was done, I thought I heard something and went to check it out. It was stupid. I know better. I didn’t even notice the damn cliff until I was already sliding down. I remember throwing up and passing out, but not much else…other than the pain.”

“You don’t remember?” Rocky asked sharply.


“Does your head hurt? Did you hit it?”

“It’s killing me,” she said as nonchalantly as if she was discussing the weather.

Rocky’s respect for her grew. “You could have a concussion,” he said.

“I’m sure I do,” she said with a small shrug. “I was throwing up for the first couple of days after I fell. The nausea’s better now, but the headache is still there.”

He frowned. None of that was good. But it had been three days since she’d fallen off the rocks. There wasn’t much he could do about the concussion now. Studying her leg, he was relieved not to see any bones breaking through her skin. “No compound fracture,” he said softly.

“That’s good,” Bristol said, watching as he examined her.

He probed her leg, taking note when she winced and where the pain seemed to be the worst. He wasn’t a doctor, but he’d seen plenty of broken bones in his life. “It’s definitely fractured. Won’t know for sure how bad it is until you get an x-ray,” he said as he began to wrap her leg tightly and re-splint it.

Bristol nodded but didn’t reply. It wasn’t until he was finished immobilizing her leg as best he could that Rocky looked up again. Her eyes were closed and her teeth were clenched. One hand was behind her, propping herself up, and the other was curled into a tight fist close to her side.

Once more, Rocky wanted to kick his own ass. He’d been so focused on wrapping her leg that he hadn’t even thought to give her the painkillers before he’d started. When he was with his team, one of the other guys usually took care of that while he looked over the patient.

Another reason to regret not calling Raiden. His friend would’ve dropped everything to come out here with him, and Rocky really needed a partner right about now. Someone who could head back to the trailhead to contact the doctor, maybe call LifeFlight so they could get Bristol evacuated by air to Roanoke to be looked over.

But instead, he was on his own. And his fuckery was causing her pain.

“Shit,” he said as he reached for his pack once more.

Her eyes opened at his curse. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, I’m just an idiot,” he told her honestly. “Here,” he said, shaking out two pills and holding them out to her.

She simply looked at them in confusion.

“They’re painkillers. I’m so sorry, I should’ve given these to you before I started poking and prodding at your leg. I could put in an IV, but honestly, I have no way of setting up the rig and getting you out of here at the same time. I’d rather do a scoop-and-go, and get you to a doctor as soon as possible.” He was talking too fast and overexplaining, but Rocky couldn’t stop himself.

“I fucked up,” he admitted. “I know better than to go on a search by myself, but I honestly didn’t think you were out here. I hoped you’d just forgotten to say goodbye to Sandra and were sitting at home, safe and sound. Getting out of here isn’t going to be easy. It’s gonna suck, in fact. Big time. And I’m kicking my own ass for that now. There’s no cell reception out here, and I can’t leave you to go back to the trailhead to my car to get more help.”

Bristol blinked. “Why not?” she asked as she took the pills and swallowed them down with water from the canteen she had strapped around her chest.

Rocky didn’t know whether to be relieved she trusted him enough to not even ask what the pills were, or pissed that she hadn’t. It was a weird sensation, a feeling he’d never had with anyone else he’d rescued. He couldn’t figure out why he was so off-kilter with this woman, and decided he’d worry about it later. “Why not what?” he asked.

“Why can’t you leave me? Now that you know I’m here, I wouldn’t be scared. Except, of course, if you got hurt on your way back to the trailhead. Or got in an accident while you were going for help. That would suck.” She gave him a small smile.

“I’m not leaving you,” Rocky said firmly. She was right, it would probably be faster if he ran back to the trailhead to get help, but just the thought of leaving her alone again wasn’t something he was willing to entertain. It had been drilled into his head time after time that you didn’t leave a victim. Ever. He’d seen people who looked perfectly healthy go downhill in a matter of minutes. And the last thing he wanted was to have found Bristol, only to lose her because of his boneheaded decision to search for her without help.

“So, what’s the plan?” she asked with a tilt of her head. “I mean, I could keep dragging myself to the trail, but I’m not sure I can make it the whole six miles to the parking lot.”

Rocky rolled his eyes. “As if I’d let you. I’m going to carry you.”

 Her eyes widened. “You can’t do that!” she exclaimed.

“Why not?”


It was Rocky’s turn to chuckle. “I assure you, I won’t drop you. You’re what…five feet tall?”

“Four-eleven,” Bristol mumbled.

“Right. I’m thinking some of the packs I carried when I was in the Navy probably weighed more than you. But it’s not going to be comfortable,” he warned.

“Like dragging myself was?” Bristol asked with a small eye roll as she held her hands palms out for him to see.

Once more, Rocky wanted to kick his own ass. He’d been so worried about her leg, he hadn’t even thought about what pulling herself over the rough terrain would’ve done to her palms. He gently grabbed hold of her wrists and leaned over to get a better look at the scrapes and tears on the palms of her hands.

“Don’t move,” he ordered, as he reached for his pack once more.


Searching for Bristol

Nov 15, 2022