To save his daughter, They must survive the mountain… Whitney Murphy thought leading a youth group hike on Candle Mountain would be fun. Even with Jeremy Moon, uptight single dad, as her coleader. But fun turns to danger when Jeremy’s daughter goes missing. With storm clouds rolling in, Whitney and Jeremy must put aside their differences. Because working together is their only chance of finding young Sam and getting off the mountain alive…
Release date: September 14, 2021
Print pages: 256
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Peril at the Peak
Whitney sat up with a gasp, seeing nothing but the darkness behind her sleep mask. In her dream, her mother was knocking at the back door, having brought Whitney’s favorite traditional birthday lemon cheesecake. But as sleep sloughed away, her heart slowed, and she became more aware of her surroundings. She realized that the lemon cheesecake was just a dream. As was the image of her sweet mother.
But the knocking was very real, and there it was again. Definitely coming from the back door. It was barely dawn. Since it couldn’t be her mother knocking... Well, then, who could it be at this hour? And why wouldn’t they come to the front door?
She shucked off her sleep mask and tossed it onto the pillow, then slowly, as if sneaking up on someone, slithered out of bed. The bay window in her bedroom allowed an unobstructed view of the back door if she peeked just right.
She tiptoed to the window, slid aside the curtain, and squinted into the gray light of morning. But there was nobody there.
Wait. Not nobody. A bird. Black-and-white body. Red crown. Perching on the doorknob, its little head poking forward and striking the wood in a blur. A blur that just happened to match the weird—and now that Whitney thought about it, inhumanly fast—knocking sound.
She’d never seen one in real life, which was strange for someone living in Southern Missouri. Woodpeckers were common here, and if she were looking, she’d quite likely have seen many. But she wasn’t, and she hadn’t. And she’d certainly never heard of one pecking at someone’s back door, as if asking to come in for a cup of tea. Was that even a thing?
“I have a feeling you’re behind this, Mom.” She said this to the ceiling, a new habit she’d formed since her mother’s passing. “A woodpecker for my thirtieth birthday? Funny gift idea, but I would have rather had the cheesecake.”
Then, in spite of herself, she cracked up. Because it was a little funny, thinking she was being awakened by some bogeyman, only to find a three-ounce bird.
“He does look like he’s wearing a little red feather birthday hat, though,” she said, which reminded her that she needed to pack the party hats she’d bought on a whim the evening before.
She put on her robe, made her coffee and watched from the bay window until the sun fully rose and the bird gave up and flew away. Her insides ached with longing for her mother’s birthday traditions—vacation day, coffee, shopping, noodles for lunch at a trendy fusion restaurant, more shopping, an afternoon iced tea, then to Mom’s for dinner, followed by homemade lemon cheesecake. She dreaded the thought of now having to create new traditions, alone.
After the bird had flown and the coffee cup had been emptied, Whitney sighed. “Just get me through the day, God,” she said, peeling herself away from the window. “And give Mom a hug. I’m sure she’s upset that we’re apart on my birthday, too.”
Her phone buzzed. It was her friend Cindy.
“Hey, girl, happy birthday! I have a song for you!” Cindy took a deep breath. “Haaaaaaappy bir—”
Whitney laughed. “No! Thanks, but let’s just let you notsinging be my birthday gift this year.”
“Ouch. Harsh.” Cindy giggled. “But earned.”
Cindy and Whitney had become fast friends years ago, when they started their nursing jobs at the same hospital on the same day. Whitney had soon after invited Cindy to church, and Cindy had taken to it instantly. They’d been youth group coleaders ever since. Cindy was a ray of sunshine, so funny and invaluable in helping Whitney get past the loss of her mother. One of the best things about Cindy was that she could laugh at herself; she never took it personally when people made fun of her singing. Which was, by all accounts, truly horrible.
“Are you ready to hit that trail?” Cindy asked. “I’ve had three of the kids text me already this morning. They’re pumped.”
“Just about,” Whitney said. “Have you talked to the others?”
“Rob is already at the church making sure the bus is good to go. But we both know he’s probably just pacing and looking at his watch every five seconds. He’s beyond excited about this.”
“Whoa,” Whitney laughed. “That’s excited. And what about Jeremy?”
Cindy paused. Their newest coleader had been a source of frustration for Cindy. Having only recently moved from leading the kids’ group to the teens’ in order to follow his daughter, he was, as Cindy once said in hushed tones, “nothing but the word no.” The kids sometimes called him Mr. No-No when he wasn’t around, something that Cindy and Whitney discouraged, but didn’t exactly argue with. Because it was true. Jeremy watched over his daughter like a hawk and vetoed any activity that had them doing much more than sitting on the old, saggy couches in the church basement rec room. Even then, he didn’t exactly look like someone who wanted to be there, and Whitney often found herself wondering why he was.
“I doubt he’s too excited,” Cindy finally said.
“Is he staying behind?” Whitney asked, unsure which way she wanted her friend to answer. Jeremy was vigilant, but he wasn’t unkind. He was also handsome, with carefully combed brown hair, a strong jaw and pensive brown eyes. There was a tidiness to him—he looked like he chose his clothing carefully—and he left a faint trail of cologne behind him when he walked through a room. But, despite the fastidiousness, he was muscular and tan enough to suggest that he wasn’t afraid to tackle the outdoors when it was called for. Sometimes when Whitney regarded Jeremy, the phrase “still waters run deep” ran through her thoughts. But there was something about him that felt more than still—there was an unmistakable hint of loneliness behind that stillness. Fellowship during a long hike might do him some real good.
“Oh, he’s going,” Cindy said.
“Well, I’m glad,” Whitney said. “I think it will be good for Sam. She’s starting to really click with some of the other kids.”
“I suppose. It’ll be good for her if he lets her have any fun.”
“Well, we will just have to make sure he does,” Whitney said. “We can put him in charge of another group. It’ll drive him crazy, but Sam will have a great time.”
“Uh-huh, and how do you know she will? What if she’s afraid of her own shadow just like her dad?”
“Because, silly. It’s my birthday. Everyone’s going to have a great time.”
This, truly, was her birthday wish. She doubted that, without her mother, she would have a great time, exactly. Candle Mountain would never be lemon cheesecake and fusion noodles. But maybe it would be a good distraction that could pose as a great time.
For a little while, at least.
An hour later, they were all on a bus, driving the hour-long trip to Glowing Pines Trail—the trail that led up Candle Mountain. Early fall in the Ozarks was mild, with warm glowing days and nights that were crisp rather than cold. The sun took on a golden hue, pulling back from the intensity of summer. While there was little as spectacular to look at as dogwood and redbud flowers prancing up and down the mountains in the spring, Whitney always thought the fiery colors of turning maple and white oak leaves against the green backdrop of the shortleaf pines was a sight that could nearly stop your breath. Sometimes, if you caught the seasons just right, the view across the hills of the Ozarks looked like a multicolored carpet, one that Whitney felt compelled to take off her shoes and sink her bare toes into, if only she could.
The kids were singing camp songs, led by Cindy, in the back of the bus, of course. Rob wore a gung ho smile, full of confidence and energy as he drove, and Whitney sat sideways in her seat, studying Jeremy, who was across the aisle, silently staring out the window at the passing scenery. She wondered if he, too, was imagining himself trotting across the tops of the trees. Probably not. He didn’t really seem the trotting type.
He sat ramrod straight and was wearing recently pressed hiking shorts with a moisture-wicking tee. He couldn’t have been more different from Rob, who wore a half-marathon T-shirt with the sleeves messily hacked off, and a pair of shorts that looked like they’d been worn and discarded onto a bedroom floor multiple times. Whitney couldn’t help pondering if Jeremy was always this uptight, or if it was something about the youth group that put him on edge. Maybe he was the kind of person who needed someone else to be the conversation starter.
That was it. She needed to take the first step.
“I have cupcakes,” she said.
Startled, he turned away from the window. “I’m sorry?”
She grinned, hoping her smile would be contagious. “For the party. On the peak? I brought cupcakes. Lemon.” And, without knowing why she wanted to share this information with him, “It’s my birthday.”
“She’s thirty. Old lady!” one of the kids—Stella—said from the seat behind Jeremy’s. Whitney crossed her eyes at Stella and stuck out her tongue. Stella laughed uproariously. “Just kidding. About the old lady part. Not about the thirty part, though.” She then went back to gabbing with the girl sharing her seat.
Whitney rolled her eyes playfully. Teens, am I right? But Jeremy seemed to miss the cue.
“Happy birthday,” he said. A sharp laugh distracted his attention. He swiveled to find the source, then settled back into his original pose.
“Thanks!” Whitney said. “I brought candles, too. And party hats. It’s going to be a real celebration.”
He squinted. “How long do you plan to be up there?”
“Not long. A cupcake, a few pictures in party hats, maybe a song. Here’s a pro tip, though—cover your ears if Cindy starts singing. It’s bad. She already tried to song-bomb me once today.” She laughed, but he didn’t join her. Jeremy was a seriously tough crowd.
“But there’s a storm in the forecast.”
Whitney waved the thought away. “The storm isn’t supposed to get here until this evening. We’ve got tons of time. We’ll be off the mountain before the first clouds roll in. Rob planned it out carefully. Right, Rob?”
“You betcha!” Rob yelled, never tearing his eyes away from the road. “We’ve even got some wiggle room.”
“See? Wiggle room,” she repeated, turning her palms up in a shrug, as if to say, Who can argue with wiggle room?
“If they’re right about when the storm’s going to get here,” Jeremy said. “Meteorology is a tricky science. It could come early.”
“If it does, we’ll eat cupcakes on the bus,” Whitney said, trying not to sound as deflated as she was starting to feel. She was beginning to understand Cindy’s frustration. There was careful, and there was Mr. No-No. “But even if we’re eating them on the bus, you still have to wear the hat. I insist.”
The glimmer of a grin that finally tipped up the corners of Jeremy’s mouth warmed her. He sure made a person work to get a smile, but when he did, the payoff was worth the wait. He was even more handsome when he smiled. And he was a thinker. She could practically see him mentally working out the timeline, running through all the possible scenarios. She could see him make the decision to relax... Or at least to appear relaxed.
“I’ll wear it,” he said. “But it may take two cupcakes to get me to agree.”
“It’s a deal,” Whitney said, holding a hand out across the aisle. Jeremy looked at it with surprise, then reached out and shook it. Whitney sank back into her seat. “Don’t think I’ll forget, either, mister. You’re part of the party now, whether you want to be or not.”
Jeremy decidedly did not want to be part of the party.
It wasn’t anything personal. Whitney seemed like a perfectly nice person. Fun, even. She probably liked to dance and she probably told charming jokes and she probably ate the icing off of her cupcake before eating the cake. She had an open, warm face, with big green eyes and an easy smile. A sweetheart face, his mom would have called it, meaning heart shaped. There was something about Whitney that was just so natural. She probably looked forward to occasions that would necessitate a party hat. And she probably looked cute in one, with her honey-brown braids snaking out from under it.
But there was a storm coming.
In fact, as far as Jeremy was concerned, these youth group leaders were crazy for even thinking about going up that mountain, much less taking a couple dozen teenagers with them. Had they not seen the forecast? Reckless. That was really the only word he could think of for their decisions. And he couldn’t believe he’d agreed to go with them. And to take his daughter, Sam, up with him. As an insurance risk assessor, he knew exactly what could happen and why they should have delayed the trip.
But as a dad, he wasn’t surprised at all that he was sitting on this bus agreeing to be part of the party. Sam begged; he caved. Story of his life.
It was those dimples of hers. They reminded him so much of Laura. He’d said it the very day Sam was born—she has your dimples. But she didn’t. Not technically. Sam had Sam’s dimples, and Laura had Laura’s dimples. And Laura’s dimples were gone. Those dimples had been in the ground for three years now, and he would never coax them out with a corny joke again. Sam’s dimples were merely a beautiful consolation. Yes, he loved to see them bloom on her cheeks nearly as much as he’d loved to see them on Laura’s. But it wasn’t the same. Not exactly.
Three years. That made Sam twelve, and Jeremy the most unsure single father who had ever lived. No exaggeration. The fear he’d felt when she was nine and he was all she had left was nothing compared to what he was feeling now that she was poised to embark on her journey into her teens. What if she became surly? What if—no, make that when—she had questions that only a mother could answer? What would he do?
He would get the job done, that’s what. He would research and he would channel Laura and he would make it happen, because his job was to take care of that baby—er, young lady—the way that Laura had intended to. It was a job he took very, very seriously. And if that made him a serious man—a not-part-of-the-party man—he was okay with it.
Those early days after Laura’s death were the hardest of his life.
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