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Covert Christmas (Echo Mountain) Mass Market Paperback – October 7, 2014
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About the Author
With a degree in journalism, Hope White started her writing career as a reporter but found she wanted to do more than report the facts – she wanted to give readers a happy ending. Now she's thrilled to be combining mystery, adventure and romance in her suspense stories for Steeple Hill.
When not at her computer, you'll find Hope hiking a mountain trail or enjoying a fine cup of tea with. You can find her at: www.hopewhiteauthor.com or facebook.com/hopewhiteauthor
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
They were close, dangerously close.
Scott Becket sprinted up the trail, hoping to disappear in the brush ahead. He wasn't sure how long he could keep up this pace considering the abuse he'd sustained at the hands of his captors. He was lucky to have gotten away, although without his backpack he wouldn't survive long out here in the Cascade Mountains.
Scott needed the perfect spot where he could camouflage himself until they passed, if they passed, because he knew they were nothing if not determined to find Scott and kill him. After they finished what they'd started earlier"persuading" him to admit where he'd hidden the proof of criminal activity that could destroy them all.
As long as he had sole possession of the documentation, Scott would breathe another day or two, long enough to gather the last bit of evidence he needed to end this thing.
Eyeing the trail ahead, he hoped he wouldn't run into innocent civilians out for an afternoon hike. Scott didn't want to put others in jeopardy and wasn't sure how far his pursuers would go to secure the information and eliminate Scott, the only person cynical enough to question their plan.
He winced at the pain of bruised ribs as he gasped to fill his lungs with air. Scott berated himself for not catching on sooner. What a fool. Just like he'd been a fool to think he could get water samples to the EPA without being caught. But then he hadn't been thinking clearly for a while now.
They'd distracted him with the illusion of love and happiness. Christa had been so good, too, an expert at making him feel safe and loved. He should have known better. Sweet, perfect women like Christa did not fall in love with damaged goods like Scott Becket.
They'd also distracted Scott with threats against his boss and veiled threats against Scott's sister. He hoped Emily took his message seriously and got out of town. If anything happened to his baby sister
Crack! He ducked at the sound of a gunshot echoing through the woods. Now they were shooting at him? They wouldn't find zip if they killed him first and asked questions later.
He glanced over his shoulder to see how close they were His boot hit a tree root sticking up from the trail and he slammed chest-first against the ground, air ripping from his lungs.
It couldn't end like this, with Scott dead in the mountains, the notes and emails he'd collected never making it to the proper authorities.
Junior would continue his plan, and eventually ascend to an even more powerful position as a governor or senator. Scott knew if the guy made it into office people would die from his greed.
Scott scrambled to his feet, his hiking boots getting a solid grip on the soft earth. He wouldn't give up the fight until he was, in fact, dead.
With renewed focus he took off, eyeing a switchback up ahead.
"Stop!" a man shouted.
Sure, stop running and die. Not a chance.
Another crack echoed across the mountain range. He hoped someone heard the gunshot and called 9-1-1.
Scott should have called the cops before now, maybe even called his former partner at the Chicago P.D. Right, and have Joe lecture Scott about his screwup with the Domingo kid and subsequent resignation?
Scott didn't have much pull left with law enforcement, which is why being named head of security for Global Resources International had been such a confidence builder.
Or had that been the plan all along, employ a scapegoat like Scott Becket as a fail-safe, someone to take the heat if it all went south?
He hadn't seen it coming.
Approaching another switchback, Scott reached for a tree to steady himself as he made the turn. His momentum put him dangerously close to the edge of the trail overlooking a steep drop. If he could just make it around the corner and out of sight
Pain seared across his upper arm.
He instinctively grabbed it and stumbled, slipping over the edge and skidding down the lush terrain.
Whack! He came to a sudden stop and gasped for breath. His head throbbed, his arm burned and his ribs ached. He blinked, struggling to focus but his vision wouldn't clear. All he could see was a blur of green above him; all he could hear was the sound of angry voices.
A high-pitched ringing cut through the echo of voices. And darkness consumed him.
Breanna McBride dangled her feet from her position twenty feet up in a tree and gazed at the vast mountain range. The air smelled fresh and invigorating, and the Douglas fir and Western Hemlock scattered across the countryside reminded her that Christmas was only weeks away.
She heard what sounded like a gunshot and wondered if it was a blank fired off to signal the end of the training exercise for the Echo Mountain Search and Rescue K9 unit.
Some might accuse Bree of being overly enthusiastic for hiding out up here; others might call her crazy. But Grace Longfellow, the SAR group leader, asked Bree to plan an exceptional challenge for today's candidates and handlers, so she found this camouflaged spot high off the ground in Woods Pass.
It could happen, Bree mused. A hiker could fall from a trail up above and land in a tree, maybe. Bree figured they should be ready for anything. Today was the final test, the graduation for three more dogs hoping to join the SAR K9 team.
She waited. Turned up the volume on her radio so she wouldn't miss the announcement. The exercise wouldn't have ended until the dogs found Bree, right?
A second shot echoed across the mountains and she ripped her radio off her belt. "This is Bree. Has the training exercise ended, over?"
"We're still looking for you and one other victim, over," Grace answered.
"But I heard" Sudden movement caught her eye. A body tumbled onto the trail below, landing maybe twenty feet from her tree. "I think we have a real victim, over."
"He's gotta be down there!" a man's voice called from the distance.
Bree raised her lightweight binoculars and spotted two men heading down the trail.
One of them was carrying a gun.
Her heart raced as her mind clicked off possible reasons why a man would be carrying a handgun in the national park. Hunting was illegal here, and the last time someone was shot in the park it was a private investigator shot by a criminal involved in a theft ring.
Bree's eyes darted from the two armed men to the unconscious one on the trail. She was torn between staying concealed and safe or helping him. Maybe if someone would have helped her when she was with her ex-boyfriend Thomas .
"Don't be foolish," she whispered. How could she possibly defend herself and an injured man against two men with guns?
"Grace, I've got a situation here," she said into the radio. "We may need the police. There are two assailants, one is carrying a handgun, and a third man who is wounded, over."
Bree gave her the coordinates. "I'm turning down the radio so they don't hear you."
"Stay hidden," Grace ordered. "Copy that."
Bree took a slow, deep breath to calm her frantic heartbeat. She hadn't felt this kind of adrenaline rush, this kind of fear since
"Thomas," she hushed.
No, she'd left that behind when she'd fled Seattle, returned to Echo Mountain and rebooted her life. She thought she'd erased the fear and trepidation from her mind. From her soul.
The wounded man groaned and managed to stand up.
And that's when she saw the blood seeping between his fingers as he gripped his upper arm.
She glanced to her right. The gunmen were heading straight for him. She snapped her attention to the wounded man. He stumbled a few feet .
In the direction of the gunmen!
Her gaze snapped back and forth from the gunmen to the wounded man back to the gunmen. With a groan, the man fell to his knees and collapsed on the ground. Unconscious, exposed and so utterly vulnerable.
"No." She flung her leg over the branch and climbed down from the tree, unable to sit here and watch a man be brutalized. She had to help him.
She must be out of her mind.
Hitting the ground, she called in. "Grace, the gunmen are headed my way. I need to help the wounded man, over."
"I can't watch them kill the guy, over."
She turned down the volume on the radio and rushed to the man's side. He was in his thirties with brown hair and a slight beard, and wasn't carrying a backpack. His shirt was ripped in spots and she noticed a nasty gash above his right eye.
She felt for a pulse. Strong and steady.
Now what? The man was solidly built and probably weighed close to two hundred pounds. His pursuers were five, maybe six minutes away.
"Sir, we have to move. Sir?" She gave him a gentle shake.
He opened his eyes. They were a dulled shade of blue that she suspected were more vivid on a normal day.
"I Emily?" He blinked a confused expression at her.
"Come on, you're not safe here."
She encouraged him to get up and put his arm around her shoulder. Although worried about his blood loss, she couldn't take the time to dress the wound until they were safely out of sight. Bree led him to the edge of the trail where she'd seen a plateau maybe five feet below. She'd noticed it from her spot in the tree, and made a mental note that it would serve as good cover if someone got caught out here in a storm.
She didn't imagine using it to save a man's life.
"We're going to climb down there." She pointed. "Think you can do it?"
He glanced down below, but didn't answer. He seemed out of it. She touched his cheek and his gaze drifted to her eyes.
"Watch me." She shifted onto her belly and grabbed a tree root. "Hold on to this and edge your way down. It's not far."
She dropped onto the plateau and motioned to him. "Your turn."
At first he didn't move. Instead, his gaze drifted across the lush forest in the distance.
"Hey, Blue Eyes." She clapped her hands.
He looked at her.
"Come on, buddy. Please?"
He sat down and for a second she thought he'd given up. Instead, he shifted onto his stomach.
"That's it, now grab the tree root"
He dropped down and wavered. She grabbed his jacket, yanking him away from the ledge.
"Good job," she said, releasing him and taking off her pack.
He leaned against the mountainside and sat down, his eyes half closed, his breathing quick and shallow. She wondered if he were going into shock.
"What's your name?" she whispered, joining him.
"My name," he said, his eyes drifting shut.
Voices echoed across the canyon. She plastered herself as close to the mountain wall as possible to stay out of sight. The stranger leaned against Bree's shoulder. Concerned that the men above might be able to see his legs sticking out, she encouraged Blue Eyes to sit parallel to the mountain wall, hidden from view. She sat cross-legged, and eased him back to cradle his head in her lap.
She stroked his hairline, assessing his head wound, trying to block out the fear and panic of being discovered.
It was at that moment she realized neither her friends nor police would make it here in time to save them. A familiar knot of helplessness coiled in her stomach.
She was the only one she could depend on, the only one this wounded man could depend on.
No, that wasn't totally true.
Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name, she thought, reciting the Lord's Prayer in her head to calm the anxiety threatening to take hold.
This all seemed so surreal, like she was watching someone else go through the motions of climbing out of a safe spot in a tree to help a stranger.
"I won't " the man whispered. "I won't let them hurt you, Emily."
"Shh," she soothed. She needed him to stay quiet, yet she wondered if the pain from his arm wound or head injury was making him agitated.
"He's here! I know he's here!" a man's voice echoed. They were getting close.
The gravity of her situation suddenly hit her. The wounded man had been shot in a public park in the middle of the day. These men were brutal killers undeterred by anything or anyone.
Her mind started down that terrifying road, the one that led to panic, so she took a slow deep breath and counted to five. Then exhaled, also counting to five. This wasn't just about Bree protecting herself anymore. This was about a wounded man being hunted like an animal.
With her free hand she fingered the silver locket she had bought with her first check as groundskeeper for Echo Mountain Resort. To Bree the dove engraved on the front not only represented the Holy Spirit, but also freedom, freedom to live her life without the cloak of fear clouding her mind, fear of being hurt, fear of making a mistake.
She hoped this wasn't her biggest mistake, she thought, stroking the blue-eyed man's hair to keep him calm.
"You can't run forever!" a man threatened from above.
Bree stilled. Held her breath.
"He's probably dead," another man with a husky voice said.
"We need proof."
"Forget it. We don't have proper gear to go climbing down mountains."
"Then we'll get gear and come back."
"Are you nuts?" the husky voice challenged. "By tomorrow his body will be torn apart by wild animals. Done."
"He's gonna want proof."
"Wait, what's this?"
Her breath caught in her throat. Had they found something that exposed Bree's hiding place? "Blood," the husky-voiced man said. "I told you I nailed him."
"There, it leads over the side."
"You think he's down there?"
Bree closed her eyes and prayed they weren't looking directly down at the plateau. She couldn't be sure that she and Mr. Blue Eyes were completely hidden from view.
"Look down there."
Bree's mind cataloged everything she had in her backpack: water, snacks, compass, map, fire starter, extra clothes and first-aid kit. Wasn't there something she could use to defend herself?
"I don't see anything," the husky voice said.
Blue Eyes groaned, gripping his injured arm.
"Shh," she soothed as best she could, considering the terror filling her chest.
"Did you hear that?"
Silence rang in Bree's ears. She waited. Patted the wounded man's forehead, hoping her touch would soothe him, quiet him.
"You're imagining things," the husky voice said.
"I'm not imagining that blood."
"He went over the edge and hit bottom."
"Or he's right down there."
Bree stilled. They'd figured it out.
With unusual calm, she dug quietly in her pack, her hands searching for something, anything she could use as a weapon.
Rely on yourself and only yourself. That had been her mantra for at least six months following her breakup with Thomas. It had been an isolated existence, but good training for emergency situations.
Like this one.
"You want to go down there and check?" the husky voice said. "Go ahead. I didn't hear anything."
"Then you need to get your hearing checked."
Bree's fingers grazed across her snack bag and water bottle, then brushed across the canister of pepper spray she'd purchased after the mugging.
It was dumb luck that she'd forgotten to take it out of her backpack after moving back to the country. She slipped it out and put her finger on the button.
Calmed her breathing.
Prepared herself for the worst. Although she had martial arts training, this small area wasn't the ideal space to spar with a violent man.
"You got rope?" a male voice said.
"It's not that far," Husky countered. "But I think you're wasting your time."
Bree's pulse sped up. Her heart pounded against her chest.
She could do this. She could defend herself and Mr. Blue Eyes from his attackers.
You naive little country girl, Thomas's words haunted her.
"Emily," Blue Eyes whispered.
"I heard it," Husky said. "Go get him."
Bree held her breath and prayed.
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