Jake West chose duty over love once before. He doesn’t plan to make the same mistake twice. But will he get the chance for a do-over with Chelsea?
Jake’s long-buried feelings for Chelsea bubbled to the surface when they were trapped in the woods together, and, in the moment, she felt the same. But now that they’re back to their ordinary lives, she wants to take things slowly. He’ll proceed at any speed she wants. The problem is, Chelsea’s not returning his calls.
She’s not returning any calls, because she’s been abducted.
What Jake and Chelsea found in the woods stirred a hornet’s nest, and now she’s in grave danger. While Jake’s trusted team and Chelsea’s closest friends hunt for her, Chelsea herself plays a high-stakes game with her captor to stay alive.
The slow-burn romance and fast-paced action continue in the fifth book in USA Today bestselling author Melissa F. Miller’s Shenandoah Shadows series.
Release date: October 31, 2021
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Print pages: 152
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) entertaining story (1) plot twists (1) realistic characters (1) strong heroine (1)
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Melissa F. Miller
Somewhere in the Shenandoah Wilderness
Between the mountains and the river
8:00 AM Tuesday
Chelsea crouched alongside the large boulder, her lips creased into a deep frown. Her throat threatened to close as she peered at the bright orange communicator resting on the flat-topped rock. After a long moment, she reached out a shaking hand to pick up the device. As she cradled it in her right hand, her left hand snaked around to her back and found her long braid. She wound the plait around her fingers in an absent-minded gesture—a nervous habit that dated back to her girlhood.
She thumbed through the icons on the device’s screen until she reached the outgoing messages. Her chest tightened, and so did her grip on her braid. The last message Vance Asher had sent was the last one she’d received on Saturday evening: Making camp. All is well.
Sixty-two hours had passed without another word. The message included a link to the site where Vance and the client had camped—a clearing some two miles back. She’d already searched the campsite for signs of the missing party and come up empty. Vance and Royce Reynolds had followed the time-honored principle of backcountry camping and left no trace. Usually, she’d be pleased. Today, she wished they’d left some trash, some marker, something that would hint at where they’d gone.
She rocked back on her heels and pressed the communicator to her chest as if the hard plastic might slow her racing heartbeat. Think. She scanned the woods behind her. The dense, dark trees soared toward the clouds. Close together and tall, they blocked out the early morning light as if they were keeping the forest’s secrets. She shivered. A cold finger of fear and foreboding snaked down her back, and she jerked her head back toward the bank and the Shenandoah River that rushed by below it—fast, loud, and wild. The water churned, and foamy white spray rose as the river careened over the rocks.
Vance didn’t get into the canoe without the communicator. He wouldn’t.
To do so would be a breach of Chelsea’s company protocol, and a fireable offense. But more importantly, it would be careless, even reckless. And Vance was one of the most careful guides she’d ever hired. Responsible, thorough, and diligent—occasionally to the point of being humorless—Vance simply wouldn’t traipse off and leave the security device behind. In fact, he was so security-conscious, that when he hadn’t checked in on Sunday night, she hadn’t worried. She assumed the satellite signal had failed.
It happened—rarely, but it did happen. And the stretch of woods where Vance and Royce had planned to make camp on Sunday evening was known to be sketchy when it came to satellite coverage. So she hadn’t been concerned. Not then. Not until Monday came and went with no check-in.
With almost any other guide, she’d have already called Search and Rescue. Most of her employees were young—college-aged or in their early twenties. For many, working as a river guide was the summer equivalent of their winter ski bum gig. They just wanted to be outside. The money was gravy.
Vance was different. He was older, almost thirty, and serious. He never came to work late or hungover. He was as interested in the business end of running an outfitter as he was in leading expeditions and tours. He dreamed of someday owning his own place. He’d even brought in clients every so often.
Royce Reynolds was one of them. He was a partner in some sort of financial firm—an angel investing fund, maybe? She wasn’t sure of the specifics, but one thing was certain: Reynolds had lots of money to throw around, had spared no expense. Vance was proud, justifiably so, of landing such a big client. He’d wanted everything to be just right, down to the smallest detail.
But something was not right; something was wrong. Seriously wrong.
So call Search and Rescue.
Her finger hovered over the SOS button. With her other hand, she tugged on her braid. Once she rang this bell, she couldn’t unring it. But Vance and his client were missing. Why was she dithering?
If she called for help, River Falls Outfitters would forever be the company that lost a client and a guide. Even if it turned out that Vance and Royce had gone off on some easily explained lark, she would have to explain it over and over again. It would follow her and stain her company’s reputation going forward.
Really, Chelsea? You’re worried about the optics?
No, she wasn’t, not really. So what was holding her back? Was it the knowledge that every time the members of a Search and Rescue went into the woods, they risked their lives? She gnawed on her lower lip. That was part of it. That, and the fact that once she mobilized a team to look for Vance and Royce Reynolds, those responders wouldn’t be available if someone fell in the river or had a heart attack down in the gulch.
But that wasn’t it, either. Not entirely. Her full-body, physical reaction—the wave of queasiness that broke over her, the tightness in her chest, and the erratic beat of her pulse—told her there was more to it. Something bad had happened—not a broken ankle, not a misread map, not a run in with a bear or a bobcat—something deliberate and human caused Vance to stop communicating with her. She’d woken up this morning certain of it, and the neon orange communicator perched on a rock like it had been waiting for her confirmed it.
She nodded to herself and slipped the communicator into her pack, then stood and brushed off her hands. She needed help, but not from Search and Rescue. Her gut was telling her she needed a different kind of help. The kind of help she could get from Potomac Private Services. But going to Potomac might mean running into Jake West. Her stomach twisted at the prospect.
Calm down, she ordered herself. Potomac’s a big place. You don’t have to see Jake. You probably won’t. Olivia can help you. Or Trent or one of the others. Jake’s probably so busy running the company, he won’t even know you were there. Besides, so what if you see him? He’s ancient history. Barely a scar. You can do this. You have to do this.
She set her chin and she hiked back to her car, repeating the pep talk in a loop in her mind. But no matter how many times she told herself it was no big deal, that Jake had no effect on her, she couldn’t quite manage to convince herself that it was true. Most likely because it wasn’t.
Potomac Private Services Training Facility
Unmapped location on the border of Virginia and West Virginia
10:30 AM Tuesday
Jake stood at the window and studied the blue and purple mountains. Wispy, white, low-lying clouds kissed the ridge like smoke tendrils. It should have been a serene image. And yet. His jaw was clenched, and his hands were fisted as if he were awaiting a blow. He frowned and raised his mug of coffee to his lips, searching his mind for the reason for his unease. He came up empty.
So he turned away from the majestic view and crossed the cramped office to consult his desk calendar. No meetings with politicians, the handlers of movie stars, or other power brokers to explain the tension in his shoulders and the foreboding that settled over him like the clouds over the mountains. He shook his head.
Trent’s rumbling voice cut through Jake’s thoughts, and he jerked his head toward the open door. His chief defensive driving instructor leaned against the doorframe and quirked an eyebrow at him.
“You’re glaring at your calendar like you want to murder it.”
Jake shrugged. In most organizations, the CEO wouldn’t give voice to an indistinct bad feeling. But Potomac wasn’t most organizations. It was his baby, and he’d built it for men and women like him—people who had seen the darkest side of humanity and come out intact. Well, mostly intact. Former special forces operators, undercover law enforcement agents, and intelligence specialists tended to trust their guts. Sometimes a person knew they were in the soup before they knew it. Call it instinct, call it a hunch, call it what you will, Jake respected that feeling. Shoot, Uncle Sam respected it, too. The Department of Defense had a whole program devoted to developing premonition and precognition.
“My spidey senses are tingling,” Jake told him.
Trent bobbed his head, accepting the explanation without question. “Any idea what case?”
Trent’s eyes drifted to the security feed playing on one of Jake’s three monitors. He jutted his chin, and Jake turned to see what caught his attention. The middle display revealed a mud-splattered Forester speeding past the turnoff for the racing club and barreling toward Potomac’s lot.
“Isn’t that Chelsea’s ride?”
Jake blinked and leaned forward. He clicked the mouse to zoom in on the driver’s heart-shaped face. The high-definition camera captured her features down to the smattering of freckles across her cheekbones. There was no mistaking her. It was definitely Chelsea Bishop.
Chelsea owned an outfitter and adventure tour company in a nearby town. Her cousin, Olivia Santos, also worked for Jake and happened to be Trent’s fiancée. There were plenty of good reasons for Chelsea to show up on Potomac’s campus, but that didn’t stop Jake’s breath from catching in his throat. A lifetime ago, Chelsea had stomped all over his heart.
Trent’s heavy hand clamped down on Jake’s shoulder. “I guess we know what you were sensing, huh?”
Jake coughed. “I better go see what she wants.”
“She’s probably just meeting Olivia for lunch or something.”
“This isn’t a social club,” he growled.
Trent squinted at him. After a few seconds, he cleared his throat. “Sure. And anyway, Liv’s on assignment, remember? I can deal with Chelsea if you want.”
Jake shook his head. “No. I’ll do it.”
He strode toward the door, ignoring the flutter of anticipation that coursed through him at the prospect of seeing Chelsea again. Trent trailed a few feet behind.
Jake turned and eyed him. “I said I’ve got this.”
Trent frowned and gave him a long, appraising look. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” Jake bit off the words and instantly regretted losing his cool.
Trent raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, sorry.” Then he turned and loped off toward the Security and Investigations wing of the building.
As he pushed open the glass doors that led out of the building, Jake belatedly realized he’d never asked Trent what he needed in the first place. Well, it would have to wait now because a beautiful, if befuddled, visitor stood in the middle of the parking lot trying to get her bearings.
The Potomac campus was designed to confuse its visitors. In Jake’s line of business, being easy to find wasn’t an advantage. He watched as she turned in a slow half-circle and studied the various buildings in an effort to divine which one she wanted. When she pulled out her phone—no doubt to call her cousin and ask for directions—he took pity on her and stepped forward, calling her name.
She looked up from her screen with an expectant expression. When she saw who was calling her, her green eyes clouded and her face fell.
“Oh. Hi, Jake.”
Her disappointment stung more than he cared to admit. “Can I help you?”
She walked toward him, stowing the phone in her beaten-up backpack. “I’m looking for Olivia.”
“It’s a little early for lunch, isn’t it?”
She wrinkled her forehead. “Lunch? Oh, no … I need … her help with something.”
As if his legs had a mind of their own, Jake found himself closing the distance between them. He stood so close to her, he could see the sunlight glinting off her honey-colored hair. He could also see the strain in her face. The tension in her posture. Something was wrong, seriously wrong. At the sight of her palpable distress, his heart squeezed in his chest cavity.
“She’s out on assignment.”
“Oh … um …,” Chelsea hesitated, unsure what to do. Then she brightened. “Maybe Trent could help me?”
“Help you with what?” Jake demanded.
She frowned. “I want to hire Potomac to help me find someone. That’s something you all do, right?”
“Sure, we locate people—digitally and in flesh and blood. Who are you looking for?” He eyed her while he waited for her answer.
Please don’t say an old boyfriend or some guy you ran into at the coffee shop.
His internal monologue surprised and irritated him. Why should he care who she wanted to find, or why? She was a potential client. Take her information, offer her a friends and family discount, and send her on her way.
Yeah, it’s a guy.
He ignored the stab of jealousy that twisted his stomach and faked a smile. “Why don’t you come inside and give me the background?”
He gestured toward the door, but she shook her head, her braid bobbing. “No. This is urgent. I don’t have time for a big intake meeting. Please, can you call Trent down here?”
Her insistence—and the slight quaver in her voice—made him give her a closer look. She was trembling. He resisted the urge to reach for her arm, pat her on the shoulder, soothe her somehow.
“What’s this about?”
“Jake, I’m serious. We’re wasting time. One of my employees is missing in the Shenandoah Wilderness. He hasn’t checked in since Saturday night.”
“You haven’t heard from him for over forty-eight hours?”
“Right.” She swung the knapsack around and plucked an emergency satellite communicator from one of the mesh side pockets. Her hands shook. “I pinged his communicator and got a location. I went out there this morning. The communicator was there, but he wasn’t. He’s vanished—along with a client.”
“He didn’t activate the beacon?” Jake was familiar with the brand of communicators that Chelsea’s company used. The device had a prominent SOS button. One click, and a call for help would go out.
“No,” she said thickly. “So, please, get Trent on this as soon as you can. I can pay—”
He waved her words away with a brusque gesture. “No.”
“No?” She stared at him. Her large green eyes were bright against her pale skin.
“No. C’mon, Chelsea. Trent? He’s a driving expert.”
She gnawed at her lower lip. “Okay, then Omar. Or Marielle.”
“An undercover guy? A data geek? Do you want to find these people or not?” His voice was a growl.
He knew he sounded unhinged, but he couldn’t tamp down his disbelief. He was the best person—the only person—for this job.
Understanding sparked in her eyes. “No, Jake, I can’t ask you—”
“You’re not. In fact, you’ve made a point of very deliberately not asking me. But we both know I’m the one who should go out into the woods and find these people. I’m the pararescue specialist.”
A red flush crept up her neck and cheeks. “I didn’t mean … you’re the boss. You need to stay and run your company.”
“I do go out in the field from time to time.”
She screwed up her face. “But I’ll need to go into the woods, too. To show you where I found the communicator. I don’t think it’s a good idea for us, to … you know … work together.”
He waited until she’d finished stammering out the words, her blush deepening as she spoke.
“You and I worked together to help Olivia and Trent.”
Her only answer was a short head bob.
He went on, “And we made a good team.”
“We did. But …”
“But nothing. Let me make this easy for you. Potomac Private Services prides itself on assigning the best man or woman to every client matter we take on. We have specialists for a reason. And it would be false modesty for me to pretend I’m not the right person for this job. So if you want Potomac’s help, it’s me or nobody.”
He held her green eyes with a steady gaze and waited to see what she’d say. The fire in his voice was real. He wouldn’t let ancient history jeopardize the correct operational decision. If she couldn’t accept that, if she couldn’t put their past aside, then she’d have to find someone else to help her.
After a long moment, she let out a shaky breath and squared her shoulders. She flashed him a weak smile. “Then I guess we’d better get started.”
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