Prologue - The Setup
"You want my daughter's safety to depend on the outcome of a hand of poker?" Billy Bowers
whispered to his brother.
John Bowers drained his glass and put it down, adding to the rings on the scarred game table. "Any better ideas? Wes doesn't
have a stake in her welfare. He's got no reason to agree. This'll give him one." John shuffled the cards. "Damn that
Suzanne. She may be my niece but I'll still call her the most bull-headed woman alive."
Billy craned his neck toward the stairs but saw no sign of Wes. "At least she's talkin' to you. She hasn't spoken to me
in ten years."
The two of them turned and raised questioning eyebrows at Conard, Wes' brother-in-law.
"I'll play along," Conard said. He was a round-faced guy with sandy hair and ready wit. Conard sported an Atlanta Braves
t-shirt which he would sooner die than part with, though Wes' sister had threatened to throw it away for years. "He's pulled
a few stunts on me over the years."
Wes returned from the bathroom upstairs and settled in his chair. Tallest and youngest of the four, Wes wore jeans, a faded
Appalachian State University t-shirt and leather work boots. "You guys finish stacking the deck while I was gone?"
"Who us?" Billy said, wiping his hands on his Hawaiian shirt, then realized Wes was kidding about the cards. "Would we
set you up like that?"
"I'm innocent," Conard said.
John dealt the cards, and the four men sat poker-faced playing the hand. Wes added the winings to his meager stack of ones
and finished his Budweiser.
"Have you talked to Suzanne lately?" Billy leaned back from the scarred oak table.
John shifted in his chair. "A few days ago. You know she's been working too hard since that promotion. Sounded like hell."
"Gets that from her mother-- working hard, I mean, obviously not from me." Billy sipped the last of his iced tea and John
continued to shuffle. "I worry about her, you know. Wish I could do something to help her."
Wes glanced between the two older men and shook his head. "You guys are just alike. I don't care how different you look.
Both of you are determined to do all you can for little Miss Independent. From your stories, Suzanne doesn't need or
want your help." Wes shook his empty can. "I've never met the woman but I know more about her than you to do. Leave her alone."
These weekly poker games at Wes' house might be the only way for Billy to catch up on his daughter, but enough was enough.
"That's right Billy," John said. "Beat yourself up for something that happened a long time ago."
"I need a refill." Wes got up from his chair. "Anyone need something to drink?"
"I'll take one." Conard saluted his brother-in-law with his empty can.
"I'll take care of my own." John grabbed his glass and followed Wes upstairs to the kitchen sink. He pulled his own bottle
of single-malt scotch from the cabinet.
Wes took two beers and a pitcher of sweet tea from the refrigerator. "That hard stuff'll kill you, old man."
"Not before my niece gives me a heart attack. She's driving me crazy." John dumped meltwater from his glass. "Now she's
got a crazy idea to use my place for a week's vacation."
"Your place is a mite isolated, isn't it? It's practically inside Pisgah. I mean, it's great for you and your consulting--
anywhere with internet will work-- or for me when I want to get away. What does she plan to do way out there?"
"That's not the half of it. She's only using my place for a jumping off point. She's planning to hike for a week. Get this--
she plans to 'walk the city grime off her body' as she put it. Her therapist told her to get away for a while." He poured
himself a stiff one.
"Who's she going with?"
"Alone? You've got to be kidding."
They returned to the card table, and Wes handed the sweet tea pitcher to Billy and the other beer to Conard.
John continued, "Trouble is, I don't feel comfortable with her being alone in these mountains. Plus, it's harder than she
thinks. Shes can't hike that long -- five days, six to eight hours a day, steep rocky slopes. It's not like a jog around a
"She could fall and break something," Conard volunteered. "Then she'd be up a creek for sure."
"Exactly my point!" John brought down his fist for emphasis causing glasses and cards to jump.
Billy poured tea into his glass. "Her mother was independent -- or started out that way." He put the pitcher down and stared
at the glass in front of him. "She should have left me, you know . . . I'm the reason she died early."
John sipped his drink. "Worrying over that doesnt help now. One day, you and Suzanne'll have to settle your differences.
I'm sick and tired of being in the middle of your father-daughter mess."
Billy shifted in his chair. "She returns my letters unopened. She won't answer my calls, probably has that caller ID gadget.
Doorman keeps me out of her building.You're more of a father to her than I am." He swallowed hard. "But, I still care about
"I'd as soon you dropped that sensitive stuff, Billy," Wes said. "You'll have me cryin' in my beer." He turned to John.
"I don't like being alone on those trails anymore myself. I've got a friend who's a park ranger at Pisgah. I'll ask him to
be on the lookout for her. When's she going?"
"Next month. May is early in the season, so there won't be many hikers out. I'd appreciate the park ranger being on the
lookout. On top of everything else, the week she picked is the one I have to be in London." John played with the cards, absently
cutting them repeatedly. "Didn't know how to say 'no'."
Wes gulped from his beer. "You going to deal those cards or make love to them?"
John dealt slowly but kept talking. "She only visited a few times and doesn't know the mountains. It's so like her to go
to extremes. Her therapist suggested some time off, and she decided on a solo hike. She went on and on about the great maps
she'd downloaded-- as if maps are going to save her."
They picked up their cards and John sized up his brother, cleared his throat, then asked Wes, "Where are you going while
they finish changing your barn into offices?"
Wes considered his cards. "I'll stay here for the barn changes, they start next week. I'll spend a few days helping Conard
here and Mary do some work on their house and hit a hotel for a few more days when they start on this place. The contractor
swears he can do the kitchen and baths in two weeks. Can't stay here then, well, I guess I could bunk down here." Wes glanced
around at the basement game room. It had been added to his family's home in the early 80s and was the one part of the house
not involved in the remodeling. "But there's no bath, I can't get any work done while the computer equipment is being installed,
it would drive me nuts to hang around and just watch."
John tossed his ante into the middle. "Why don't you stay at my cabin?" He maintained perfect deadpan as Billy and Conard
watched, fascinated. "Plenty of room. Better yet, you could go hiking with Suzanne. The timing's right."
Wes yelped and slapped down his cards. "Oh, no, you don't. Kindly leave me out of this. The way you tell it, she's not
fun, always has a schedule, and has definite opinions on all subjects. Not my type at all. I'd rather stay longer with my
sisters. No thank you."
"Suit yourself." John shrugged, rearranging a card in his hand. "Still, it seems like you'd be willing to help out with
something this important. Since you're not doing anything that week anyway."
"It would only be a few days, and you like to hike." Billy chimed in.
John added, "Suzanne's not unpleasant, exactly, just prefers computers to people. She wouldn't be bad company. I've seen
you with your three sisters. You know how to gentle and kid women to get your way."
Wes groaned. "Don't ask me to do this. She aims to go by herself, she doesn't want company, she doesn't like you interfering
in her life."
"You're right. We'll have to make it look accidental." John's face lit up as he warmed to the idea. "You'll just happen
to be there at the same time. She won't have a chance to say 'no'."
"Yea, that's a super idea," Wes muttered. "Hi, Suzanne. I just happen to be here, so let's go camping together! Yeah, she'll
"It could work," Billy said.
"Forget it guys. Get somebody else to . . . Suzanne-sit. I'm out of it."
"Who else could I get?" John said. "You know your way around the mountains. You've that southern respect for women. I trust
"That's not what I meant. She won't like it no matter how you put it. Right, Conard?" Wes looked to his brother-in-law
for support. "Right, Conard?"
"Un. . . . Sure." Conard glanced from one man's face to another. Then he inspected the tabletop in front of him. " Of course,
she might come to be glad you're there. I mean if she gets in trouble." He snuck a glance at Wes who glowered at him.
"Ive got it!" John's eyebrows shot up. He squinted at the younger man across the table from him. "Let me sweeten the pot
a little. Double or nothing. You win, I pay you double. You lose, and you take a hike."
"The pot's not that big." Wes squirmed in his chair. He wanted none of this. "Look, I understand both her need for independence
and your desire to protect her. But . . ."
John dealt the cards. "At the end of the week, you could bring her to your Mother's Day cookout. Billy will be there. You
could help pull them together."
"I haven't agreed to anything. You're trying to push me the same way you do Suzanne. No wonder she doesn't like it." Wes
took in Billy's hopeful expression and smothered a groan.
"It's a good way to re-introduce them," John continued. "You could talk to her during the hike and smooth the way. Great
idea! Glad I thought of it." John grinned at Wes. "Place your bets, boys."
Chapter 1 - The Best Laid Plans
Suzanne unloaded the groceries, checking each bag as she hung the plastic handles over her hand. She snagged the Mast General
Store bag from the trunk of her Accord and surveyed her uncle's cabin.
A rampant wisteria vine, heavy with purple blooms, was trying to devour the porch, and giant rhododendrons loaded with
fat pink buds threatened to take over the entire property. Though it was springtime, and everything was fresh and green, there
was something creepy about the place. Anything or anyone could be concealed in all that mess. It really was a burglary waiting
to happen. She listened but heard only soft forest sounds. She was being silly. It was just the constant fog that made the
forest seem forbidding, that made the surrounding mountains seem to loom threateningly on all sides. Still, this place needed
the civilizing influence of a chain saw and weed whacker.
Just another depressing day in paradise.
She stuck her nose in the Mast Store bag and inhaled the rich odor of new leather then tramped up the steps to the porch.
The beginning of success is having the proper equipment. Her new hiking boots were almost two hundred dollars, but
cross trainers wouldn't give her feet enough support for a five-day hike. Might as well be pampered since she was following
doctor's orders. Mid-weight Italian boots with Perwanger leather upper.
Inside the front door, she hung a left to the kitchen and set the bags on her uncle's kitchen table. Carefully selected
groceries for the hike included freeze-dried entrees, trail mix, instant coffee --Ugh --pancake mix, instant oatmeal, granola,
hot cocoa mix, whole wheat bread, peanut butter and zipper baggies. She glanced around the spacious kitchen with its pine
cabinets. No need to put most of this stuff away as it was going into her backpack.
Suzanne froze. What was that noise? Had she left the radio on?
A chill traveled the length of her frame. A quick look around the kitchen revealed nothing unusual.
Waiting for another sound, she held her breath. The spring wind whistled through the trees. There were bound to be noises
she wasn't used to hearing in her apartment in Baltimore. Probably just all those bushes brushing against the house. After
all, she hadn't spent time alone in this house before, this way-back-in-the-woods place. Day two by herself and already she
was jumpy. No doubt about it, she needed a vacation. Some independent woman you are.
She took the brown boots from their box and lifted one to her face to inhale the tangy aroma. The leather felt cool against
her cheek. She set the boots side by side on the table admiring their sturdy stylishness, and unloaded her other bags. There
was a backpacker's camp stove, a compact cooking set with utensils and flame-resistant potholders, flashlights with extra
batteries, waterproof matches, water purification tablets, ultralight women's backpack with a quick-assembly tent and tarpaulin,
first aid kit, compass and her cell phone.
While assembling the groceries for her hike, she decided tonight she'd splurge before heading out for the unknown by having
frozen pizza with extra veggies, two imported beers and a chocolate eclair for dessert. She removed one frozen eclair and
stood on tiptoes to put the rest of the box in the freezer. She really should get around to reorganizing that before she left.
Uncle John would be able to find things better if they were stacked in categories rather than just piled in a heap.
Suzanne stopped and listened. . . . Something wasn't quite right in the house. Absently, she picked up the boot. She rubbed
the smooth leather with her thumb.
It was not her imagination. Something in the living room. Boot gripped tightly in her hand, she crept to the archway and
peeked around the corner.
Was that a foot hanging over the arm of the sofa? The sofa faced the fireplace, its back toward the kitchen. If only there
were a mirror over the mantle. She held her breath and inched to the back of the sofa, careful not to trip on the braided
throw rug, peered over and gasped. A man lay there, sleeping.
I should call the police. But the house was deep in the mountains. It would take too long for them to get here. She
could be dead or worse by then.
I'll get in my car and drive away. But he could steal all her new stuff and who knows what else. And he'd be gone
in the woods by the time she returned with the police. She'd have to figure out how to handle this by herself.
Does Uncle John have a gun? But what would I do if I had one? I've never handled a gun, and if this guy's really dangerous,
he'll only take it away and kill me.
I'm being silly, a dangerous burglar doesn't go to sleep in a house he's robbing.
Looking around, she saw a large pair of leather work boots and a ratty plaid flannel shirt draped over a chair. No guns
or knives in sight, but no knapsack or car keys either. How had he gotten here? It didn't make sense.
He must be a homeless wanderer. His build suggested a laborer. His faded, stained jeans stretched over muscular thighs.
A steak of dirt marked his biceps -- arms as big as those of the self-absorbed body builders at the gym. His chest rose and
fell rhythmically in sleep, naked except for a dusting of light brown hair. Dark stubble covered his square jaw and his shaggy
brown hair needed cutting. He must be in his early thirties, about her own age. He was tall -- too long for the six-foot sofa.
He would wake up with a pain in his neck if he stayed in that position too long.
She told herself to move farther away. Maybe if she fed him, he would leave peacefully. A thief wouldn't still be here,
but she didn't have time or patience to coddle some homeless housebreaker.
He mumbled something.
Armed with her boot, Suzanne leaned over closer to figure out what he was saying. The rug slipped under her feet.
"Ah!" Suzanne lost her balance, toppled over the back of the sofa -- right on top of him.
"Umph!" He wrapped his arms around her, trapping her arms between their bodies. Her weapon clunked to the floor. She struggled
to free herself.
Her lips brushed his.
Help! What's this? She pushed against him with no effect. The part of her mind still functioning told her she wasn't
afraid of him --just indignant. Think! What had she learned in self-defense class? Watch for an opening.
She arched away from him, pinched him hard with both sets of fingers.
"Ow! You little she-devil!" He released her just as she pushed against him.
Losing balance, she tumbled off the sofa and crashed to the floor. All dignity was gone, but at least she was out of his
"Thank you, Darlin', I appreciate the welcome."
"Welcome!" she sputtered. "How dare you? You kissed me-- that's assault."
"Whoa! Who jumped on who here?" He rubbed his scruffy beard with the back of his hand.
"I fell. It was an accident." She stood up and glared at him.