Undercover Justice – Granite Falls Book 6
Kara glanced behind her at the encroaching darkness, then inched closer to the fire. Even in the deepest alleys of town, she’d never experienced such complete darkness. She hugged her knees and stared into the crackling flames. The smell of wood smoke permeated her clothes, but she didn’t mind. She was growing accustomed to the place, and she might even be enjoying herself, if it weren’t for one tiny exception. She had to pee something fierce.
She peered again into the all-encompassing dark beyond the fire’s glow. There wasn’t anything out there now that wasn’t there when the sun was up, she told herself firmly. Besides, if she didn’t go soon her bladder would burst, and wouldn’t that be amusing?
She stood and reconnoitered the perimeter for the best direction to follow. She’d faced down Asheville’s worst scum; surely she could handle a few trees, bushes and darkness. Stop being a baby, she scolded herself. Tentatively, she took a step toward the trees behind Nathan’s tent.
“Watch out for the mountain lions,” Nicki called.
Kara hesitated, knowing full well she’d regret it.
“Lions and tigers and bears,” Matt chimed in a high squeaky voice that cracked over the word bears.
“Oh, my!” the rest of the kids said in unison.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
Shocked, she stood there, staring at them. What a bunch of little beasts! Why would anyone want to go anywhere with six of them?
“All right. That’s enough,” Nathan scolded. “Give the poor lady some peace.”
Kara cringed as she heard the restrained laughter in his voice.
Poor lady! She choked over his words. Is that really what they thought of her? Humiliation burned her to the core. The little predators had smelled her fear and moved in for the kill. “Very funny, you guys,” she called, before slipping into the trees behind a tent. The sooner she got away from these people the better.
Lost in her thoughts, it wasn’t long before she’d wandered too far from the fire’s light and became disoriented in the darkness. Why hadn’t she brought a flashlight? She couldn’t see a thing. All she needed was to squat into a Poison Ivy. Wouldn’t that top off her day? Desk duty was looking better and better.
As soon as she’d finished, she made her way back in the direction she’d come, tucking in her shirt and zipping up her jeans as she went. Within a minute of trudging through the bushes, she heard the kids’ voices and trotted back to the camp. The little brats were trying to spook her was all.
She’d seen news reports of bears, torturing the metal of hapless cars while foraging for tortilla chips, but she couldn’t recall anyone ever getting mauled by a mountain lion in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Or even a Black Panther. Weren’t they extinct from North Carolina?
Don’t let the kids get to you, she reminded herself. That would be a fatal mistake. Yet still…what if there were man-eating lions in the vicinity? She took one last look into the darkness before making her way back to the fire’s glow. What she wouldn’t give for Alex’s infrared goggles right now.
She retook her seat in front of Nathan’s tent and caught him scrutinizing her again. Perhaps it was only the shifting light of the flames, but the expression on his face… She turned away, at once uncomfortable.
He stood, poking the fire from several angles, then sat down, positioning himself next to her. “Okay, guys. What do we do if we see a bear?” he asked the kids.
Had she been that easy for him to read? No, stealth and duplicity were her most hard-won skills as an undercover cop. She’d never be able to do her job well without them. She wasn’t transparent, of that she was confident. Except perhaps by him?
Maybe she wasn’t deceiving him at all. Maybe he recognized her. The thought left her shaken. She didn’t like the idea that he thought she was a prostitute.
“Wave your arms above your head,” Lisa yelled, her brown curls bobbing as she waved her arms.
“Pick up a stick,” Matt responded.
“Yeah, a big one,” Kevin added with a grin. He must be the oldest, she judged by his deep voice and thick neck.
“You’re kidding, right?” Kara squeaked. They had to be kidding. “A stick?”
“Yep, and make yourself as large as possible. Works with the bears, along with wolves, and coyotes.” Nathan’s large hand patted her knee, as if to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” What did he think she was, a complete cream puff?
Professional. She had to act professional. Don’t let them smell fear. “Why don’t you and I take turns keeping watch? I’ll be happy to take the first shift,” she suggested. She couldn’t imagine what he’d been thinking bringing six children up here alone. How responsible was that?
Matt, obviously the class clown, laughed out loud, several others muffled snickers. She glared at them. Then again, they weren’t exactly helpless babies, were they? Coyote bait, more like it.
“What for?” Nathan asked, though there was something about the tone of his voice.
Kara turned back to him. His lips contorted as he tried to smother a laugh. “For predators!” she exclaimed outraged.
Losing his battle, Nathan laughed long and hard, sending a rush of burning fury straight to her toes. “Wild animals are not interested in us. Just make sure all the dishes are cleaned and the food is sealed up, and the uh…predators will have no reason to come near here.”
Kara cringed. How had she gotten herself into this situation? Why hadn’t she just booked a hotel room like the captain had suggested? Because she could find them in an hour, no problem, she silently mocked. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
“You can have my tent tonight.” Nathan’s voice cut through her torturous thoughts.
She looked up astonished. “No, I couldn’t do that.” She clamped down on her bottom lip, regretting the words the instant they slipped out of her mouth. Of course, she could. “Where would you sleep?” she asked softly, and berated herself for sounding like the wimp he believed her to be.
“Out here under the stars. I’ll keep watch for the predators.”
She glared at him, certain he was laughing at her again. She could even see the laughter dancing in his eyes. She ached to punch him.
“Unless of course, you’d rather keep watch. I understand you’re pretty good with your feet.”
“No, that’s quite all right. You’ve seen one star, you’ve seen them all. But, thanks, I’ll take you up on the tent offer.”
“My pleasure.” He leaned close, his warm breath tickling her ear and sending shivers straight down her spine. “Maybe in the morning you’ll tell me exactly what you’re doing here, Blondie.”
Dread sunk to the bottom of her stomach. He knew.
What to do? What to do! “Um, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go to sleep now.” Direct avoidance, a woman’s best tactic. She muffled an oversize yawn. “It’s been quite a day. I’ll see you in the morning.” She got up, took her gear into the tent and zipped it up tight.
Only then did she allow herself to breathe.
She’d get the evidence while he slept, then get out before dawn. With luck, she’d be halfway down the mountain before he even woke and realized she was gone. She arranged her sleeping bag then climbed in, squirming as she tried to find a softer bit of ground. What was under her anyhow, granite? Giving up on comfort, she laid back and stared into the darkness.
After a while, the noises died down, or maybe she just became used to them, and then the kids went into their tents and all fell quiet. Taking a deep breath, she peeked through the tent’s opening. True to his word, Nathan lay sprawled on the ground in front of her, staring up at the sky. How could anyone sleep where bugs and who knew what else could crawl all over you?
He wouldn’t be out there if it weren’t for you. She sighed. He was incredibly handsome, and kind, too. And the first man to set her heart racing in a very long time. And he thought she was a hooker. Oh well, what difference did it make? There wasn’t a man alive who could see through to the real her. Not the cop—underpaid, under appreciated, and misunderstood—or the woman who’d obviously been alone for too long.
Maybe Ben was right; maybe she did need a life. Not that she’d had much luck with men in the past. As soon as they got close, they were trying to change her, control her, and mold her into their idea of the perfect woman. Well, perfect never looked good on her.
At last, his breathing evened. As quietly as possible, she opened the zipper and slipped out of the tent. In the dying glow of the firelight, she methodically searched around his sleeping bag for his jeans, but couldn’t find them. Did he still have them on? She chewed her bottom lip. Of course he did; nothing about this trip was easy. Why should this be any different?
She grabbed the metal tongue of his sleeping bag and, inch by inch, slid the zipper down until the bag was opened to his waist. She glanced up at his face, her heart pounding so hard, she was afraid he might be able to hear it. She slipped her hand inside his bag and felt around. Tentatively, her fingers scraped across denim. Yep, he was definitely still wearing his jeans. She swallowed hard, then moved her hand around to the vicinity of his back pockets. He let out a soft groan.
Terror leaped into her chest.
His eyes opened.
She froze, unable to move, unable to breathe.
His eyes closed, then he rolled onto his side giving her easy access to the pen. She slipped it out of his pocket, and all but threw herself back into the tent. It wasn’t until after she had herself zipped in tight and settled back down, her heart and breathing returning to normal, that she realized she’d forgotten to rezip his sleeping bag.
“Oh, man,” she muttered. There was just no way, no way, she was going back out there to do it again. He was an expert mountain man; he’d just have to take his chances with the lizards and snakes and all the other predators out there. Poor, poor man, Kara thought as she drifted to sleep.
* * *
The next morning, Kara woke to the mouthwatering scent of frying bacon and fresh mountain air. “Oh, no!” She sat straight up in her sleeping bag and bumped her head on the top of her tent. She’d overslept! Quickly, she pulled on her jeans and reassembled her pack, careful to tuck the Pen Cam safely inside, then slipped out the tent.
Nathan stood with his back to her, watching the sunrise and drinking a cup of coffee. She spied the trail leading down the mountain, but was drawn back to the fire pit by the protesting groan of her stomach. The sight of his coffee and the smell of bacon sizzling over an open fire was more temptation than any mere woman could withstand.
She lugged her pack out of the tent’s opening.
“Good morning,” Nathan greeted. His sun-bleached hair, still tousled from sleep, hung boyishly over his brow.
She smiled. “Back at you.”
“You really are too good to be true.”
He grinned, and the sight of it caught her breath. “That’s what I’ve been told.”
She quirked a brow, then took a large swallow from the cup he handed her. “Mmm. Coffee has never tasted so good. I never knew camping could be so civilized.”
“You’ve never been camping with me before.”
He caught her gaze and held it and warmth rushed to her cheeks. “No, I haven’t.” But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t want to. “And it’s been fab, really, but I need to get back to town.”
“So, you got what you came for then?”
Had he felt her searching for the pen? The thought made her squirm. “Fresh air, a little exercise, yep—got it all right.”
“And that was all you are here for?” His blue eyes probed as if she were a bug pinned under a magnifying glass.
She flashed him a bright smile. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve appreciated your hospitality. If you hadn’t found me and taken me in, well, I shudder to think what my night would have been like.”
“In other words, you have no intention of telling me anything, do you, Blondie?”
She was an ingrate, a total worm, and as she stared into the warmth of his eyes, she wanted to tell him. The urge was almost overwhelming. But suddenly, the explanation seemed too complicated. I needed evidence that just happened to be hidden snugly in the back pocket of your jeans. Yep, way too difficult. She couldn’t start going soft now. Not for a handsome man with a nice pair of peepers.
“Maybe I’ll look you up someday. We’ll have coffee….”
“Yeah…sounds good, but I’m afraid I don’t get down to your side of town often.”
Was that a slam? She stared him down. Okay, fine. He thought she was a hooker living in slimeville where his holiness had no intention of ever gracing. She could live with that. “How far are we exactly from the campground at the bottom of the trails?”
“About eight miles.”
She gulped, scalding her throat on the hot liquid. “Eight?” No wonder her feet were a mess.
“Unfortunately, there’s not one trail that will take you all the way down, since we jumped from trail to trail.”
“I see,” she said, at once thankful she’d overslept.
“I’ll draw you a map.”
“I guess it would be too much to hope for that you’ll be heading my way?”
“Sorry, but we’re going north another five miles to the French Broad River where a boat is waiting for us. If you like river rafting, you’re welcome to stay and join us.”
An invitation for Blondie? Surprise arched her brows. She allowed herself to imagine floating down a peaceful river, her fingertips skimming the water’s calm surface as she reclined against the side of the rubber raft. Hmm, sounded nice.
She wouldn’t mind spending another day with a handsome minister who kept her heart thumping and her nerves jumping. She’d never met a man who made her feel so alive. She sighed. Yes, it might be doable.
“I could use another adult to help row,” he added before she could respond. “The person I had lined up got sick and bowed out.”
Her fantasy faltered. “Row?” He didn’t care about her. He just wanted another grown-up body. Too bad she could only manage ten minutes on the rowing machine at the gym. “Sorry,” she muttered. “It sounds fun, really, but I have to get back. Work, you know how it is.”
He nodded and, for a minute, she fancied she read disappointment in his expression, but that couldn’t be. He thought she was a prostitute. The pastor and the prostitute, she could read the headlines now. Wouldn’t that give the captain a coronary? She wrapped a thick layer of gauze around her feet and shoved them into her boots.
“I suppose it’s for the best. Your presence has upset Nicki.”
“She recognized you from… Asheville.”
Kara had already guessed that, but why did the girl consider her a threat? Unless she didn’t want her secret spilled. “I’m not here to bring harm to Nicki, or anyone else.”
“Then why are you here?”
Kara bit her lip. “Like I said, just out for a hike. Imagine the odds of running into each other way out here?”
“Imagine,” he said dryly. He picked up a piece of paper and reached into his back pocket for the Pen Cam.
Oh, boy. Expectantly, she watched his brow crinkle into a frown before he dismissed the thought and went to his pack for another pen. “Tell Nicki she doesn’t have to worry about me,” she piped up. “And if she’s smart, she’ll stay away from Jack Paulson. I know you believe in evil, and he’s as close to evil as I’ve ever seen.”
“Then maybe you should stay away from him, too.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Here.” He handed her a crude map that she couldn’t make heads or tails of.
“Thanks,” she said and hesitated, a little surprised by her reluctance to leave. Was it the trek down the mountain, or the thought of leaving him? “Maybe I’ll see you around?”
“Doubt it. Like I said, I don’t spend a lot of time on your side of town.”
“Right. Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t. It was great to meet you, Nathan.” She offered her hand. Her smile faltered as the warmth of his touch trapped the breath in her throat. Yep, it was definitely the thought of leaving him. What a hunk. She turned and headed down the trail, refusing to glance over her shoulder for one last look.
She could do this, she told herself as the forest enveloped her. She had an excellent sense of direction. Everyone had always said so. A few measly trails wouldn’t confuse her. All she had to do was keep heading downhill. She trotted for a minute, pretending it was her morning run, until a heavy tightness banded her chest. Must be the altitude.
Stopping to catch her breath, she dug into her pack for her compass and cell phone. She’d call Ben and let him know she had the evidence and would be home by dinner. She pushed the power button, then waited. No reception, nothing.
“Man,” she grumbled. “How do people function out here?” In disgust, she dropped the phone in her bag and studied her compass. Northwest. Great. What did that mean? Which direction had she left her car? At the bottom of the hill, dummy. She shoved the compass back in her pack and continued down the trail. All the trails had to lead to the same place, so if she just stayed on this one, she’d get there. Eventually.
After another twenty minutes, her feet began to sting. After forty, they were screaming for mercy. She found a big rock, sat on it, and pulled off her boots. “Eight miles,” she grumbled. Why hadn’t she just camped out at the bottom of the hill and waited for them to come down? Why was she always in such a hurry to get herself into these situations?
Because she was always in a hurry to prove herself, to be the one to bring in the goods, never mind what was sensible. Sensible described Captain Ben, not her. That’s why he was the captain and not a street grunt. She shook the distasteful thought out of her head, and dug into her pack for something to eat. She munched dry granola and cursed herself for not sticking around to eat Nathan’s breakfast. “I bet they even had bagels,” she said to the chipmunk who’d perched in front of her eyeing the granola.
What kind of man took six kids out into the wilderness and brought along makings for a bacon-and-eggs breakfast? A pretty wonderful one, she thought. And the way he played the guitar, all their voices joined in unison, singing from the heart without pause or embarrassment—she’d never experienced anything like that. It was truly wonderful. He was truly wonderful. A very special man.
Not the kind of man who’d be interested in a streetwise cop from the wrong side of town, that’s for sure.
If he was so special, she thought irritably, then how could he let her leave knowing she had to walk eight miles in the forest without a clue where she was going? What kind of special man did that?
Footsteps crunched the trail rocks behind her. Her heart soared.
“Yes! Thank you!” She stood and turned, unable to quench the wide smile covering her face. “I knew you wouldn’t leave me to suffer—” Her words caught in her throat as a huge bear lumbered toward her.
* * *
Kara’s knees weakened, threatening to buckle.
She screamed. The sound ripping from her chest echoed through the mountain air. Turning, she tore off barefoot down the trail afraid to stop or look back until her insides burned and she was gasping for breath.
Finally, she stopped and bent down, swinging her head between her knees and looked back at the trail behind her. She was alone. No giant grizzly in sight. “Thank, God,” she huffed and took a few more steps before she realized she didn’t have her pack. Oh no.
She had to go back! The ridiculous thought quickened her heart. She tried to catch her breath, but couldn’t. She was hyperventilating! She limped another few steps, wincing as a sharp stone bit into her toe. She couldn’t walk eight miles through the woods barefoot, and she couldn’t go back without that Pen Cam.
“Argh!” she yelled. It didn’t matter if Godzilla himself waited at the top of the trail; she had to go back for that blasted pen!
Kara winced at her dumb luck with every torturous step back up the trail. Boy, she’d run far. She took every turn slowly, peeking around the bend, not sure where the hairy beast would show up next. Maybe he realized his breakfast had run off and moved on to greener pastures.
Then again, maybe not.
She rounded the next turn and stopped, outrage eclipsing all other emotions. Her pack, trampled and torn, laid ripped open. Packaged remains of food items littered the ground. The bear sat amidst the ruins working her tube of toothpaste and smacking his minty paste-covered tongue. Was he actually smiling? And was that her deodorant clumped all over his chest?
“You beast! Why don’t you go up the hill? You can have bacon and eggs up there. And bagels with cream cheese, probably even strawberry cream cheese!”
The bear turned a lazy stare in her direction and continued to lap the tube.
“You don’t look so big and scary. In fact, you look pretty ridiculous with my underwear on your head.”
The bear yawned.
“Go find yourself a nice cave and take a nap. Take the toothpaste with you. It’s all yours.” She gave him a shooing gesture.
The bear dropped the tube, swatted one of her boots, then returned his attention to her pack.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Wasn’t she supposed to act big around bears? Or was that mountain lions? Whichever, did it really matter? Desperation revving confidence, Kara swooped her arms up and down in imitation of a giant pterodactyl and made deep whooping noises while moving closer to the bear.
The dumb beast turned and looked at her, grunted, then gave her a view of his backside before pawing through her pack again.
“Oh, great. A tough audience.” What to do? “Hai yah!” she yelled and thrust out an arm at him, palm forward, fingers curled.
Next she brought up a leg, kicking the air in front of the bear in quick rapid thrusts. “Whaaa chai!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, throwing out every move she could remember from her Tae Boxing class.
If a bear could laugh, he was laughing at her now. She could see it in his dirty-brown eyes. “Oh!” she screamed in frustration and jumped up and down in a tantrum only a two-year-old could appreciate. “Would you just get out of here and leave me alone?” She picked up a stick and threw it, hitting him square in the head. “Bull’s-eye!”
Standing on hind legs and reaching for the sky, the bear bellowed. His growl, rumbling through the forest, struck terror into Kara’s heart. Eyes popping, she screamed, “I’m sorry! Really! I didn’t mean it.”
The bear growled louder.
In a panic, she ran past him as fast as she could, up the trail, and rammed straight into Nathan, knocking him flat to the ground and falling on top of him.
His groan rivaled the bear’s growl. “Is this going to be a daily thing?”
“Hurry,” she insisted. “Before he eats us.”
“I think he’s already had breakfast.”
Looking over her shoulder, Kara saw the beast, her toothpaste smeared in his fur, give them a cursory glance then plod off down the trail and disappear into the woods. She expelled a relieved sigh and dropped her head onto Nathan’s chest. The steady rhythm of his heartbeat quieted her racing nerves. Slowly, her breathing returned to normal.
“You came back for me?” she squeaked, suddenly aware of his body beneath hers—strong and warm.
“Matt wouldn’t leave without you. Said you’d never make it back down the hill alone.”
“Remind me to thank him,” she muttered. She should get off him, knew it was the decent thing to do. She just couldn’t seem to make herself do it.
“You can do that yourself.”
“I can?” She looked up into his face. His lips, mere inches from hers, looked so soft, so inviting.
“When I take you back to camp.”
His words registered through the hazy fog of her thoughts. She sat up, quickly and got to her sore feet. “Back to camp? I can’t go back to camp! I have to get back to my Jeep. Back to Asheville.”
He stood, brushing off his jeans. “And I have to get back to my kids. I’ve left them alone long enough. So, you have a choice. You can pick up what’s left of your stuff and continue the rest of the way on your own, or you can come back to camp with me and spend the next two days in God’s country, floating down a river, communing with nature, and relaxing.”
“Oh,” she moaned.
“It’s up to you.” He held both hands out, moving them up and down, measuring. “Work, vacation? Work, vacation?”
“Some vacation,” she muttered.
He arched a brow.
“Oh, all right, you have me. What choice do I really have? You and I both know I’d never make it down to my Jeep alone.”
“You might, eventually.”
“Yeah, like in a hundred years.”
She gathered her stuff and twenty minutes later they crested the hill and came upon the camp. The kids had everything packed and ready to go. “How’d we get here so fast?” Kara asked amazed.
“We took the most direct route.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That, my dear, means that you were walking in circles.”
“Hey, are you all right?” Matt asked, running to meet them. “We heard a scream.”
“We’re fine,” Nathan answered. “Our friend here had a run-in with a bear.”
“Wow,” Matt said, awed.
“Did she drop into a dead faint?” Nicki asked with an innocent smile. Kara was quickly losing her patience with the child.
“Quite the opposite. You should have seen her fancy moves. Gave that bear a thing or two.”
Kara stared at him in astonishment. “You saw?”
Nathan crouched down, extended an arm, and yelled “Whaaa chai,” kicking out his arms and legs in rapid comedic succession. “The bear never had a chance.”
And neither did she.
The kids erupted into fits of laughter—two rolling on the ground, clutching their stomachs.
Embarrassment burned Kara’s face. Though, she couldn’t help laughing with them. In fact, she laughed so hard tears leaked out the corners of her eyes. “Stop, please,” she begged.
“Well gang, it looks like we have a new addition on our adventure.”
“Yeah,” Matt whooped. The other kids joined in. Everyone, Kara noticed, except for Nicki.
With Kara’s pack held together with duct tape and her feet rebandaged, they set out toward the river. Gradually, she fell behind the troop, listening to the girls’ chatter, watching the boys’ roughhouse each other, and admiring the easy manner in which Nathan dealt with them all.
“Poison Ivy,” Lisa yelled and skirted the green bush that looked to Kara like every other bush in the forest. How could she tell them apart? She walked around the bush, careful not to brush against the leaves, or even breathe until she was safely past. Soon, they made their way through a grove of immense trees towering toward the sky.
“Let’s take a break here,” Nathan announced, and sat at the base of one of the trunks.
Kara stopped and stared. “These are incredible,” she murmured.
“Only God could make something this beautiful,” he said softly, his fingertip tracing the grooves in the bark. “It’s an old grove.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” They stood silent for a moment, paying homage to one of Mother Nature’s finest accomplishments.
“You look good against them.”
Something in his voice tickled Kara’s spine. She turned to him. “Oh. Um…thanks.” Awareness of how close he was grew within her, constricting her breath.
“You should get out of the city more, roughing it looks good on you.”
She grimaced at the thought of how she looked when he first saw her on the strip. “What makes you think I don’t? Get out more.”
His knowing smile prickled her ire.
He knew nothing about her, and yet, at moments like this, was there anything he didn’t know? Well, yes. He didn’t know she was a cop—that was for sure. The man thought she was a prostitute. How off base was that, considering how extremely limited her experiences with men were?
Most men were either intimidated or disgusted by her commitment to the streets. Not one had stuck around long enough to discover who she really was, and why she was so committed to taking down Jack Paulson. The last had just spouted words like vengeance and obsession, but he really hadn’t had a clue. It was about so much more than that; it was about taking back her life.
Nope, Nathan didn’t know a thing about her.
They joined the others in the deep shadows of the forest and sat down on a blanket. Nathan handed her a sandwich. “I made these this morning.”
“How’d you know I’d be along?”
“An educated guess.”
She frowned. She hoped she wasn’t becoming predictable.
“Monica, will you say grace?” he asked.
Kara paused with her sandwich halfway to her mouth.
A small girl with yellow hair and a slew of freckles across her nose bent her head and squinted shut her eyes. Kara couldn’t help but smile at her; such innocence was irresistible.
“Dear God, thank you for this food and this wonderful land with all the beautiful trees and animals. Please bless our families and take special care of our new friend, Kara, that she doesn’t get eaten by a wolf or a bear. That she doesn’t drown in the river, or fall off a cliff, or get bitten by a snake, since she isn’t used to the wilderness. Amen.”
“Amen,” everyone said in unison with laughter glinting in their sweet, young eyes.
And here she was thinking such nice thoughts about the child.
“Thank you,” Kara responded, and was rewarded with a flurry of giggles and six toothy grins.
“I think they like you,” Nathan volunteered, and handed her a water bottle.
“Gee, aren’t I lucky?”
“Believe me, you are. You don’t know how fun camping can be with six prepubescent teens who don’t like you.”
Kara shuddered at the thought. “I can only imagine. Have you done this long? I mean, camping with kids.”
“This is our second annual trip. It’s a great way for me to get to know the kids better—for us to bond with each other and learn to trust. At their age, it’s critical they have someone to talk to who will listen to them. Someone who won’t judge no matter what they’ve done.”
“Like Nicki,” Kara whispered, and glanced at the girl who was deep in conversation with Monica and Lisa.
“Exactly like Nicki. Her dad died last year. Since then, her mom’s been too wrapped up in functioning alone to realize how much Nicki’s needed her. Running away was a cry for help.”
“She’s very lucky to have you.”
A self-conscious smile lifted the corners of his lips and she had to catch her breath again.
“Thanks, ma’am,” he said with a bow.
“You’re welcome. You’re really good with them. How’d you learn to do that?”
He smiled. “Did you go to church when you were a kid?”
She shook her head. “My parents didn’t have much time for religion.”
He gave her a knowing nod. “Unfortunately, that’s the case for a lot of parents out there. Asking God into your life is a big commitment, but the best one a person can make.”
She nodded, not knowing how to respond. She didn’t see how going to church on Sundays could possibly improve her life.
“Anyhow, I spent a lot of time in church youth groups growing up. Becoming a youth minister was a natural progression for me. It’s easy to know how to be with the kids, because I’ve always been with them. The key is to never forget what it felt like to be one.”
“Hey, you two, let’s get a move on,” Kevin called from the trail.
“You’re the boss, lead on,” Nathan yelled.
As they continued through the woods, Kara mulled over his words. She had to admit she didn’t remember what it had felt like to be thirteen. She didn’t want to remember; she didn’t want to go back to that time of overwhelming grief, loneliness, and pain.
At last she caught glimpses of the river peeking through the trees. As they approached, sunlight glinted off clear sparkling water. Hundreds of tiny fish swam around the rocks at her feet. She stuck her hands in the water to catch one of the slippery little fish, but they were too quick for her. Laughing, she gave up, scooped the water in both hands, and splashed it across her face.
She felt Nathan watching her, looked up, and gave him a smile. How different would her life have turned out if she’d found someone like him back when her dad had died? Would she have known what it felt like to sleep under the stars and cleanse her face with pure mountain river water? If she had, would she now be able to trust another person with her hopes, secrets, and dreams?
Would she be able to let another person close to her?
A moment of sadness hit her for all she’d lost as a child. All that Jack Paulson had stolen from her when he’d killed her dad. If only Ben had been able to nail him then; if only someone could have done something. How different would her life have been? Maybe she would have even grown into the type of person who would have a chance with someone like Nathan—someone undamaged and happy, someone with a future beyond the darkness of the streets.
“There’s the boat,” Matt called.
Kara shook off the thoughts. She’d managed fine then, and she was managing just fine now. Alone.
Upriver, a rubber raft large enough to fit the eight of them drifted with the current, pulling against its tether.
“There are only seven oars,” Monica yelled.
“Too bad. Looks like there isn’t one for me,” Kara joked.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get a turn. We’ve got to keep up your strength in case we run across any more bears.”
He was laughing at her again. “You really are too charming for words.”
“I wouldn’t want you to miss out on all the fun.”
“Nope, that would be a tragedy. How did the boat get here?” Kara asked.
“I have a friend who brings it up for me,” Nathan replied. “When we reach the bottom of the river he’ll pick us up and drive us back to our van. And you to your Jeep.”
That was the best news she’d heard all day. “When will we reach the rendezvous point?”
“Rendezvous point?” he asked, his head cocked sideways.
“Day after tomorrow.”
“Any way to speed that up?”
“No, and we don’t have any way of contacting him.”
“What if one of the kids got hurt? Fell off a cliff or something,” she said with a pointed look at Monica.
“Then I’d radio a ranger for help.”
“Can you radio a ranger to come get me and take me back to my Jeep?” She asked, the hope clear in her voice.
“No,” he responded, squashing her plans.
“Why not?” Her tone seriously approaching a whine.
“What if someone needed him and he wasn’t able to help because he was stuck playing taxi to a spoiled city girl who couldn’t last two days in the wilderness?”
“Hey now, I am not a spoiled city girl,” she said, taking offense.
“I can tell by those nails.”
Kara studied her perfectly polished red nails. “These are part of my—”
Nathan quirked a brow.
Kara groaned. She’d almost blown it again. What was wrong with her? “Hey, don’t you worry about me. I can keep up with all you die-hard campers, just watch.”
“If that’s the case, why couldn’t you find your way down the mountain?” The venom in Nicki’s words caught Kara off guard. Nathan had said Nicki was afraid of her, but this…perhaps it was time to set the child straight.
“I’m not here to cause you or anyone else any problems.”
The girl glared at her.
“I mean it, Nicki.” Great, now she sounded just like her mother used to.
“Come on, let’s go,” Matt insisted.
They climbed into the boat and paddled in unison, moving quickly down the river. Kara hated to admit it, but she was having fun. The clean air on her face, the magnificent trees, the endless blue sky, she loved it all. She watched Nathan paddling in front of her, his wide shoulders swaying in rhythm as his arms effortlessly pushed the oar against the water. She steadied herself, matching his pace, focusing on his back muscles as they rippled beneath his shirt. Yep, the view out here was beyond words.
“So, Kara, where do you live?” Matt asked from across her on the right side of the boat. He and Kevin matching their rhythm with the paddles.
“What do you do?” he questioned.
She turned to him. “What do you do?”
“Not much,” he challenged.
She smiled. “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I’m going to be an animator,” Matt responded.
“Wow, sounds great. I can’t draw to save my life.”
“It’s not hard, I’ll give you a few pointers tonight around the fire, if you’d like.”
“Sure, sounds fun.” Kara smiled.
Kevin swung his oar and doused Matt with a face full of water. “Isn’t she a little old for you, Matty boy?”
“Hey,” Matt protested, and retaliated with the same. The boat rocked precariously, and in the scuffle, they tromped all over Kara’s pack that was barely held together with one of her long-sleeved shirts tied in knots around it. Some of its contents spilled onto the bottom of the boat.
“Hey, you guys, calm down,” she shouted, and struggled to secure everything back in the pack. Covertly, she moved her hand over the Pen Cam making sure it was still in its place.
Nathan threw her the roll of duct tape. She peeled off long strips, and wrapped them around the pack, holding its ripped sides together.
“Here, let me help,” Charles stated, and took the roll.
“Sorry, Kara,” Matt said.
“It’s fine. No reason to be sorry.”
“What about the rest of you?” Nathan asked. “What do you all want to be when you leave the bosom of your parents’ home and embrace the cold, cruel world?”
“Oh, man,” Charles protested. “That was bad.”
“Yeah, bosom?” Matt asked.
“How about you, Nicki?” Nathan asked.
Nicki glared at Kara. “I think I’ll be a hooker in Asheville and make so much money I’ll never have to answer to anyone again, just like my friend here, Blondie.”
Kara sat stunned amidst the gasps in the boat.
“Get out,” Kevin exclaimed, his mouth wide opened in a grin.
“Yeah, as if,” Matt responded. His doubt thick in her voice.
“Come on, Blondie. Admit it,” Nicki challenged.
“Nicki, I’m not a hooker,” Kara responded, but didn’t offer an explanation for her presence at Jack’s apartment building.
“You’re a liar. You’ve done nothing but lie since you got here.”
Kara cringed. What could she say? The girl had a point.
Concern filled Nathan’s face. She could only imagine what was racing through his mind. How would all those uptight Granite Falls parishioners react when they discover their youth minister invited a hooker along on their young’uns camping trip? Yep, she’d be concerned, too.
She could jump overboard and make her way downriver along the water’s edge. She glanced into the trees lining the shore. But then what would she do once the sun went down? Cuddle up next to a bear to stay warm? Dumb idea. Besides, if she jumped into the water with this monolithic pack, she’d drown for sure. The thing was the equivalent of cement shoes.
“Well?” Nicki demanded.
“Nicki, that’s enough,” Nathan ordered, and placed a hand on her shoulder.
He might be able to stop her words, but he couldn’t do anything about what they all must be thinking. “Listen, you guys,” Kara started. “I’d like to tell you a story about a brave man, a good man—the best dad anyone could ever have, and he was mine.”
Nicki feigned a bored expression and looked away.
“He was shot dead in an alley when I was twelve. Murdered. Just like that—” she snapped her fingers “—he was gone. I know you suffered a devastating loss, too, Nicki.”
Nicki’s stare burned anger and defiance. “Don’t pretend you know anything about me,” she snapped.
“You’re right. I don’t know anything about you and your life, but for me, I couldn’t get over it. I have devoted every second of the last fifteen years devising a way to make his killer pay. That’s what I was doing downtown when you saw me.”
“Cool,” Matt muttered.
“Awesome,” Charles agreed.
Kara rolled her eyes in disgust. It wasn’t cool or awesome; it was war. And she needed to get back to the battlefield and stop wasting her time with a bunch of kids who thought she was some kind of crusader. They chattered excitedly among themselves about good guys and bad guys, and their favorite TV shows.
Not Nicki; she sat in a cloud of resentment. And not Nathan; his look was quiet and speculative. She knew her explanation had appeased the kids, but it still hadn’t explained how she coincidentally ended up in his lap…so to speak. Kara dropped a foot over her pack and pulled it closer to her. It wouldn’t do to have the evidence wind up in the river.
“The Bible says to forgive your enemies. The Lord will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity,” Monica said, softly.
“I wish I was a strong enough person to do that, Monica. But I’m not. I don’t believe in divine justice. I don’t believe God was there with my father the night he was mercilessly gunned down, and I don’t believe He’s been with me since.”
Monica and the others’ wide-eyed stares were her first clue that perhaps she’d come on a little too strong. She gently patted the girl’s shoulder. “I only hope God will always be there for you, and that your faith will remain as strong and unwavering as it is today.”
“And I hope you will find yours again.”
Kara smiled wanly, and was surprised to find her eyes misting. Quickly, she turned away. No, God had abandoned her long ago. Like Santa Claus, He was a dream of happiness and hope that was best left to the youth.
* * *
Nathan sat stunned. Of course. Why hadn’t he figured it out sooner? Kara was a cop. That’s why he was having such a hard time getting a handle on her. She was a cop whose sole focus boiled down to vengeance for her father’s death. She’d turned her back on God just when she’d needed Him the most.
Sadness besieged him. Here was a woman who made him laugh and had him constantly wondering what she would say and do next. She was strong and courageous and perfectly capable of taking care of herself. But he didn’t think he’d ever run across anyone who needed his help and God’s love more.
“Let’s stop up ahead at the clearing beyond that granite slab. We’ll make camp there for the night,” he announced. They tethered the boat to the shore, then unloaded their supplies. “Head out in pairs to gather wood. Remember to watch for snakes.”
“Yeah, Lisa. Watch out for snakes,” Kevin teased.
“Stuff it, Kevin.”
“Oh, Lisa is getting mad,” he bantered.
They scampered off into the woods, their voices becoming faint echoes.
Once they were alone, Nathan turned to Kara before she could disappear, too. “Are you a cop?”
She bit her lip, then seeming to make up her mind, looked him square in the eye. “Yes.”
“And you’re after Jack Paulson?”
“That’s the plan.”
“So, what’s that have to do with us? Why are you here?”
Her mouth opened, ready to spill some preplanned story, but he stepped forward, placing his hands on her shoulders, his face inches from hers. “The truth.”
Uncertainty played across her expression.
Kara bent down, dug into her pack and pulled out a pen. “I came for this.”
Nathan stared at it. “A pen?”
“I slipped it into your pocket after I knocked you down on the sidewalk yesterday morning.”
Nathan rubbed his shoulder at the memory.
“Inside is a video recording of Jack enticing Nicki to stay and work for him. With this evidence, we can nail him for harboring a runaway at the least, and child prostitution at the worst.”
The full implication of her words sunk in. This would hit the news. Everyone would know what Nicki had done. “I don’t want Nicki’s life ruined. I don’t want her to have to testify.”
Kara’s eyes hardened.
“Please. She doesn’t need the people in her life to know what she’s done, the mistakes she’s made…it could set her back.”
“I realize that, Nathan, but we have to do whatever it takes to get a conviction. She might be embarrassed, but nothing happened. You got to her in time.”
Her words hung suspended between them. Had he? He’d made that mistake once before, thinking he’d reached Dawn in time, but he’d been wrong. “I’m sorry, but I can’t take that chance. Not with Nicki. She’s too young and too vulnerable.”
“Even if it means Paulson walks?”
He wanted Jack Paulson put away as badly as she did, and all those like him who preyed on children. “Let’s hope you’re a good enough cop that you’ll be able to lock him up without her.”
Her chin lifted, her gaze steady as she met his challenge.
“I’m inclined to think you’ll be able to do just that,” he added.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but with this case, I need all the help I can get.”
“Help with what?” Charles asked, appearing on the path behind them.
“Gathering wood for a fire,” Nathan answered.
Kara smiled sweetly at the boy and, once again, Nathan was struck by the different facets to her—tough yet vulnerable, kind yet there was an unwavering layer of defense that refused to reveal her soft spot.
After a few moments, Charles trotted off happy to have a job. Kara touched Nathan’s arm. “I know why you’re protecting Nicki.”
“I admire the way you’re helping her cope with her loss. It’s wonderful.”
“Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not wonderful. It’s just what I do. Who I am. These kids are on the brink, old enough that the decisions they make now will shape their entire futures, yet young enough to not always use sound judgment.”
She nodded. “Like I said on the boat, I lost my dad when I was Nicki’s age. I know what she’s feeling, the abandonment and the fear of being alone.” She sat on a large boulder.
“He was a police officer, too?”
“The best. What about you, how did you become a youth minister?”
“I guess you could say I followed in my father’s footsteps, too. He’s the head pastor at the New Hope Church in Asheville.”
The affluent side of town, far away from where she lived. “All in the family, huh?”
“My father wouldn’t have had it any other way.” A bubble of resentment expanded inside him. He pushed it back down. “But all the same, I’m pleased with the work that I do, and the impact I’m able to have on the children. Reminding them that God is always there for them, guiding them, if they’d only quiet their hearts and listen.”
“It’s a nice sentiment.”
He could see the shutters dropping over her eyes. “But…”
“But it doesn’t work for me. I’m afraid God has never been there for me, and most likely never will.”
Sadness swept through him at her words. “I think God’s been trying to reach you for a long time, but you haven’t slowed down enough to listen.”
Her smirk didn’t deter him. “He can’t reach you if you won’t let Him.”
“Sorry, Reverend, but I’m too old and jaded for your special type of magic. I’ve seen too many bad things, too much horror to believe if there was God, he’d let so many good people be hurt.”
“Please don’t tell me that God works in mysterious ways because I don’t have any more patience for that than I do for the Jack Paulsons in the world.”
Her bitterness shouldn’t have surprised him. She’d allowed herself to become too pessimistic, too resentful from spending too much time on the streets with people who were lost—people who needed help the most. He remembered their struggle very well from his days at the Sun Valley.
He hoped he’d made life a little easier for some of them. Just like he hoped he could help Kara. She deserved to understand that God loved her and was with her all the time. She deserved peace of mind. He just hoped she would do right by Nicki, because as much as Kara needed him, Nicki needed him more.
They heard the panicky voice seconds before the trampling of the underbrush. Matt broke into the clearing, red-faced and winded.
With one look at the wide-eyed fear on Matt’s scared face, fear seized Nathan’s heart. “What is it?”
“It’s Nicki. She’s—” Matt bent over, trying to catch his breath.
Nathan swallowed the tennis-ball-size lump in his throat.
“—she’s been taken.”
“What do you mean, ‘taken?’” Nathan stood dumbstruck. “There isn’t anyone around here for miles.”
“Paulson,” Kara choked under her breath.
“But how? How could he know were were up here?” Nathan demanded.
Distress filled her eyes. “The same way I did.”
This couldn’t be happening. Not here. Not again. Not Nicki.