In the mountain wilderness… They have only one chance to make it home. Taylor Holt was sure she and her rafting group—single dad Will Morgan and his daughter—could make it down the rapids of the Great Smoky Mountains. But when disaster strikes, Will and Taylor must depend on each other to survive. With Taylor’s past still haunting her, can their tentative trust be enough to run a lethal gauntlet of dangers—and survive?
Release date: September 14, 2021
Print pages: 256
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Smoky Mountain Danger
Will Morgan, wrapped around his daughter’s finger from the day she’d been born, had caved in to her requests often over the years...but he’d never agreed to anything as unpredictable or potentially dangerous as a weeklong journey down Tennessee’s wild and scenic Bear’s Tooth River.
“It’s not too late to turn around, you know?” Will palmed the steering wheel of his truck and eased around a steep curve, the engine rumbling louder as the truck ascended the steep mountain. “We could drive back down the mountain, call Jax and tell him we changed our minds. Spend the week at one of the campgrounds we used to go to.” He glanced at his daughter in the passenger’s seat. “You used to love fishing at Badger’s Crossing. We could be there within the hour, if you’d like?”
Andi, staring ahead silently at the bluet wildflowers lining the curving road in front of them, turned her head and locked her brown eyes with his. “I knew you’d try to back out.”
Will flexed his jaw and returned his attention to the road. Drumming his fingers against the steering wheel, he sifted carefully through his thoughts for the right words. “I’m not backing out. I’m merely suggesting—”
“That we back out.”
He stifled a sigh. Since Andi had hit her teens, every conversation with her had become a potential land mine, and when she’d turned seventeen two months ago, prying more than five words from her at a time had become almost impossible. Until Jax Turner, a sixty-year-old river guide and family friend, had mentioned he planned to lead a new tour of the Smokies down the rarely traveled white water of Bear’s Tooth River.
Andi had latched on to the idea and had pleaded with Will for over a month to reserve the two seats still available on the one raft Jax, who ran a small business of river tours, had advertised. Jax’s river trip had been the one and only topic she’d allowed him to broach with her without stoic resistance.
“The last thing I want to do is back out, Andi,” Will said quietly. “I’m just concerned about the river. Jax has only run it a couple times and I’ve never run it at all. It’s risky, and I don’t like the idea of not knowing what lies ahead.”
She continued staring at the road, her mouth barely moving as she spoke. “Then I don’t understand why you agreed to it in the first place.”
That was easy, Will thought, slowing the truck as they reached the mountain’s summit. “Time.” He eased the truck over to a small graveled clearing, parked between a large SUV and a small sedan and cut the engine. A broad river flowed several feet in front of a large boulder that served as a drop-off point. “I wanted to spend time with you—to talk, to laugh, to just enjoy each other’s company again for once.”
Andi’s mouth tightened. “You could have that anytime, if you didn’t work every single day.”
“Someone’s got to pay the bills,” he said quietly. Pay for construction jobs wasn’t steep nowadays, but the gigs were easy to come by and he needed every one he could get to put Andi through college in another year.
“I know. But what good’s a house if no one’s ever in it when you come home?”
Will closed his eyes, a fresh surge of guilt moving through him. “Andi—”
“Besides,” she said, “you don’t always know what lies ahead, anyway.” She looked at him then, her eyes meeting his, then roving over his expression. “You didn’t know Mom would walk out on us, did you? And even when you did, you couldn’t stop her.”
Will drew his head back at the anger flashing in her wounded eyes. It’d been sixteen years since his wife, Heather, had left him and abandoned Andi, and he’d hoped the passage of time would help ease Andi’s pain. Instead, Andi’s anger had only increased—as had her resentment for him, it seemed.
He moved to speak, but there was nothing he could say, so he remained silent and returned her stare.
Andi unsnapped her seat belt, opened her door and got out of the truck. Moments later, the truck’s tailgate lowered with a squeak and bags rustled as Andi lugged them across the bed of the truck.
Will got out of the truck and dragged a hand over the tight knot at the back of his neck. The sound of rushing water filled the rocky clearing and expanse of open sky on either side of the river. It was a surprisingly cool morning for summer in Tennessee, but the fragrant scents of pine, wildflowers and fresh earth filled his lungs and lifted his spirits a bit. Will had grown up in this neck of the woods, so the Smoky Mountains had always felt like home to him.
“’Bout time y’all made it.” Jax, standing by a large raft anchored by the boulder, sauntered over and thrust out his hand. “I was beginning to think you’d changed your mind.”
“He tried to,” Andi bit out. She strolled by, a bag slung over her shoulder as she headed for the raft.
Jax winced and one corner of his mouth tipped up in a slight smile. “She giving you trouble already?”
Will pinned a smile in place—one he’d had to dredge up more often than not lately—and shook Jax’s hand. “Seems that way.” He strolled to the truck bed and retrieved a couple of bags of supplies. “Thanks for saving the last two seats on the raft for us. If nothing else, I hope a week trapped together on a raft will give me some time with her.”
Time to try to get Andi to understand how much he loved her and, hopefully, bridge the distance between them. A distance that grew wider and more impassable each day.
Jax grabbed a bag, too. “Come on. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the group.”
Will followed Jax over to the smooth boulder where a young man and woman stood, shrugging on life jackets.
“Meet Beth and Martin Hill,” Jax said, sweeping his arm toward the couple. “Recently married. Came up from Florida for their first family vacation this year.”
Will smiled, a sincere one this time, and held out his hand. “Congratulations.”
Martin shook his hand firmly, a wide grin appearing as he glanced at his wife. “Thanks. Couldn’t be happier, or more eager to hit the river, huh, honey?”
Beth nodded. “I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. We’ve been on a few rafting trips before but never one as exciting as this one promises to be.” She fastened the last buckle on her life jacket and raised her brows at Jax. “Are the views along this stretch as impressive as they say?”
Jax laughed. “Oh, don’t nothing compare to the sunsets out here, and after we camp the first night and run the second set of rapids, there’s a waterfall that’ll take your breath away.” He glanced at Will. “Course, we’ll need to put the raft to shore at Hawk’s Landing so we don’t head over the falls downriver.”
Will nodded, his smile dimming. “That’s a definite.”
“Speaking of the falls,” Jax said, motioning toward a woman who stood several feet away, her back to them as she studied the landscape ahead. “We got a guest who’s looking especially forward to those. Taylor? Come on over and meet your rowing partner.” Jax glanced at Will and grinned, speaking in low tones. “Andi told me on the phone when y’all booked the trip that she preferred a seat up front, so I figured you needed a partner, and I think Taylor will be a good one.”
Will frowned, squinting against the sharp rays of the morning sun as the woman strolled across the rocks toward him, stopping when she reached his side. Blond hair, dark blue eyes and a wary expression met his.
“Taylor’s a photographer,” Jax said. “She’s eager to get the perfect picture of the Smokies.”
She smiled slightly. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as perfect, but something close to it would do.”
Will studied the camera she held with both hands, her graceful fingers curled tightly around the edges. “I’m Will—” he motioned toward Andi, who eyed them closely “—and that’s my daughter, Andi. You and I are rowing partners, it seems.” He lifted his hand in invitation. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Taylor studied his hand, her eyes moving from his palm and up his arm to his face. Her gaze—strangely vulnerable and apprehensive—darted away from his as she lifted the camera with a rueful smile, seeming to motion that her hands were full. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”
“Well.” Jax rubbed his hands together briskly. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Will lowered his hand and watched as Taylor joined Beth and Martin as they secured bags into the raft. Andi eyed Will from the other side of the boulder, then walked to the raft, hopped in and took her seat at the helm.
Will shook his head and trudged toward the raft, the uncomfortable churn in his gut reminding him the opportunity to back out had passed.
Taylor Holt had braved dangerous paths before, but the fierce churn of white water below the bank of Tennessee’s Bear’s Tooth River shot ice through her veins—especially since the first day of rafting had been relatively calm and uneventful.
“Glad you don’t run ’em blind.”
She tore her attention from the violent currents and focused on the man towering by her side on the rough-hewn overlook. “What?”
“The rapids.” He dragged a broad hand through his dark hair, his toned biceps flexing below the short sleeves of his damp T-shirt with the movement, and pinned his dark gaze to hers. “Some people don’t scout. They dive headfirst down these waters and don’t give a thought to what lies ahead. Good to see you’re not one of them.”
Taylor tried to smile, but her mouth tightened into a thin line instead. She studied the kindness in his brown eyes, the soft contours of his lips and relaxed posture. During the initial twelve miles of their rafting journey and one peaceful night of camping by the river with the rest of the group, she’d picked up additional bits of comforting information about Will Morgan. The single father approached rapids with caution, admired peaks of the Smoky Mountains along calm stretches of water and patiently tried to engage his teenage daughter in conversation despite her uninterested glances and monotone responses. All of this should’ve eased the tension tightening Taylor’s grip on her camera.
But the hardest lesson Taylor had learned in her thirty-five years of life was that a handsome face and welcoming expression could mask an insatiable desire to inflict pain, and not only had this led her to refuse Will’s polite handshake yesterday, but it’d also led her to keep a healthy distance between them at all times.
She lifted her camera, adjusted the aperture for a greater depth of field and snapped pictures of white water boiling around bone-splintering boulders. “I like to see what I’m getting into.”
Especially since she hadn’t seen the danger coming with her late husband. On the surface, Preston Holt had been a successful real-estate agent, selling beautiful homes to hopeful families while seeking to establish one of his own. But beneath his calm exterior, he’d hidden a resentful nature and violent temper. Both had become increasingly evident after he and Taylor had married. Until the morning she...
Hands shaking, Taylor lowered the camera and pointed toward one side of the rapids. “There’s a hole on the right. And we’ll need to steer clear of—”
“You’re joking, right?” Will tipped his head back and narrowed his eyes at the gray clouds hovering low among the mountain range. “It rained five out of seven days last week and showered for an hour after our raft hit the river this morning. That water’s gotta be hitting three by now.”
“What’s hitting three?” Andi, Will’s daughter, climbed the slippery overlook in their direction, her rafting helmet in one hand.
“The water,” Will said absently, cupping Andi’s elbow and steadying her. “It’s running three thousand cubic feet per second. Maybe more.”
“All the better for an exciting ride.” She shrugged off his touch, walked past him and stood beside Taylor. “Whatcha think, Taylor? It’s at least a Class IV, ain’t it?”
Taylor nodded. “At least.”
“It’s pushing Class V.” Will’s tone hardened. “The water’s fast and high. Too high.”
“Not for you.” Andi peered up at Taylor, excitement in her brown eyes, and smiled. “Or Taylor. You’ve run Class V rapids before, haven’t you?”
Taylor studied the teen’s hopeful expression. Andi’s smile, the first Taylor had seen her flash on the trip, was sincere and brightened her expression. The defiant look she’d given Will yesterday had vanished a bit more with each mile they’d traveled downriver. Andi was much more approachable when she let down her guard.
Taylor smiled back. “Yeah. A few.”
“You’re not afraid,” Andi announced, facing the rapids. The humid summer breeze tugged a long strand of brown hair free of her braid as she studied the river. “You’re itching to run ’em.”
Taylor tensed, realizing Andi was half-right. She did long to run the rapids—but not because she wasn’t afraid. The swift currents crushing against carved earth terrified her, but feeling anything other than the numb despair she’d carried for five years would be a welcome relief. And navigating the roaring waters would drown out the thoughts needling the back of her mind...at least for a while.
“I’d like to take on the challenge,” Taylor said. “But not just for the action. I’m a travel photographer, and Wild Journey magazine only buys photos of the most impressive, rarely traveled trails. From what I’ve heard, they’re after shots of this river in particular.” She pointed downriver at a bend where steep green mountains converged, swallowing the rapids and obscuring the view. “According to Jax, the best falls are miles ahead and I need the shots.” She wagged her camera in the air. “Otherwise, I can’t make a sale.”
“And if we don’t hightail it over these rapids soon, we won’t make it to the next campsite by nightfall. We just got to be sure to shore up at Hawk’s Landing before we hit the falls.” Jax, their gray-bearded river guide, ambled up onto the overlook, propped his hands on his lean hips and grinned. “Ain’t nothing like pushing through one last set of chaos before resting peaceful under the stars.”
Taylor smiled. Jax’s easygoing nature and good sense of humor made it hard not to like him. He looked to be in his early sixties, had a deep appreciation for nature and reminded her a lot of her first foster father, Kyle. She’d lived for three months with Kyle and his wife as a teen during a time when she used to dream of finding a family of her own.
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