hot as sin Page 21

  Or he'd die.

  And then, suddenly, he heard the sharp whirring of helicopter blades breaking through the silence of the forest. Using the last of his strength, Sam clambered up the tall edge of the cliff to try to make himself seen in the nearest clearing.

  But the helicopter flew right past him.

  All out of options, he lit his last flare and dropped it on the dry grasses a few feet away.

  The seconds ticked by, the fire grew hotter, but Sam held his ground. And then, finally, the helicopter headed straight for him, his friend, Will, manning the controls.

  With the open space too tight to land the aircraft, Will dropped the ladder and hovered above the spreading flames. Sam jumped up and grabbed hold of a step, commanding his weakening body to get the fuck up into the helicopter without blacking out.

  Will was on his radio giving the Rocky Mountain hotshots the coordinates for the fires when Sam finally crawled inside. Usually, when wildfires were caught this early, it was only a matter of a couple of bucket drops to put them out. Sam hoped it would be the case this time, too.

  And yet, even if the local authorities threw him in jail for arson, he wouldn't change what he'd done. Not when using the flares had been his only chance to get back to Dianna.

  Will's eyebrows moved up toward his hairline when he put down his radio and saw the wrecked state of Sam's face, arms, and clothes that were soaked with sweat, dirt, and blood.

  "Drink this," he said, handing Sam water.

  As he drained the bottle, Will said, "I got a call from some guy at the commune. He said you and Dianna were heading off on this trail to look for her sister and asked me if I was planning to fly over this area today. What the fuck is happening?"

  "Long story," Sam said, knowing he needed to conserve his energy. "Dianna's in trouble. Big trouble. We've got to find her. I've been following tracks from a dirt bike. How low can you fly?"

  "Low enough."

  "Fly as fast and as low as you can."

  The chopper ate up the distance a hundred times faster than Sam had been able to on foot. A handful of minutes later, the tracks abruptly veered off the road into a thick grove of trees.

  "I can't follow the tracks any farther," Will said.

  "Find a place to drop me in," Sam instructed. "They've got to be close."

  Through the thick tree cover, they looked down into a small trailer park.

  "Damn it," Will said, "I thought all of these trailers had been cleared out last year by the Forest Service."

  Just then, Sam saw a flash of color and movement. Yanking the helicopter's ladder back out, he secured it to the lip of the aircraft. "Get as close as you can. I'm going to jump."

  Will didn't bother telling him he was crazy; he simply got to work positioning the chopper over a small hole between trees.

  But as he prepared to descend, Sam's blood ran cold.

  Dianna was chained to a dirt bike, and the man who'd shoved him down the mountain was holding a gun to her sister's head, only feet away. In the time it took him to get on the ground, both April and Dianna could be killed.

  On the verge of fighting the hardest fight of his life, rage swept through every cell, every nerve.

  He was going to save Dianna, even if he had to die to do it.

  Time seemed to slow down as the man's finger twitched on the trigger. And then, suddenly, sand and dirt and pine needles were whipping into her eyes, and Dianna realized whirring helicopter blades were breaking apart the silence of the forest.

  Without yet seeing him, Dianna felt Sam's presence and she was filled with renewed strength.

  But before she could act, April took advantage of the man's distraction, kicking him hard in the balls, successfully knocking him off balance, the loud bang of a shot going wild and slamming into one of the trailers.

  When keys fell out of his pocket, despite her obvious exhaustion and injuries, her tough little sister managed to grab them with her bound hands. Dashing over to Dianna, she got to work on undoing the chains around her right wrist.

  But all Dianna wanted was for her sister to get away.

  "Give me the keys and run!" she pleaded with April.

  But April's stubborn expression said she wasn't going anywhere. "I'm not leaving you," she said in a gravelly voice.

  But seconds later, seeing that the man was back on his feet, Dianna grabbed the keys with her free hand and tried again.


  This time April started running, but she was too weak to outrun the man with the gun. His face furious, he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the forest.

  Oh God. Dianna needed to get the final locks undone so that she could run after them and save her sister, but she could barely get her numb fingers to work.

  And then, miraculously, Sam was beside her.

  "He's taken her into the woods. We've got to save her."

  Taking the keys from her and quickly undoing the locks around her left wrist and ankles, he untangled her chains with a steady hand.

  "Run toward the clearing behind you and wait in the helicopter for us."

  Without waiting for her agreement, he sprinted into the forest, following the two sets of footprints.

  Dianna's limbs shook as she lifted one leg over the seat and held herself up against the handlebars. She trusted Sam to do everything he could to save April, and she knew he wanted her to be safe in the helicopter--just as she'd wanted April to run to safety--but there was no way she could sit back and wait in the wings while he faced down a truly crazed man.

  Not when the lives of the two people who mattered most to her were on the line.

  Moving as fast as she could on partially numb legs, she prayed with every step that April was still alive. Running past the last trailer, into the thick grove of trees, her heart raced from a combination of panic and exertion. But what she saw in front of her made her heart nearly stop.

  The man had shoved April to the ground, one boot on her skull.

  But his gun was pointing straight at Sam.

  Looking down the barrel of the gun, Sam knew he had only seconds to act, when he suddenly heard a familiar sizzle.

  A flare.

  He should have been furious that Dianna hadn't listened to him when he'd told her to get in the goddamned helicopter, but how could he be anything but amazed by her quick thinking? She'd always been the smartest person he knew.

  The lit fuse flew past Sam's shoulder, nailing the man's chest dead center. The man's shirt caught on fire and he stumbled back.

  Screaming in pain, the man jumped around the forest, leaving April wide open. Both Sam and Dianna dove for her, but Dianna was faster. Pulling her sister up off the forest floor, Dianna sank to the ground, cradling her sister's body in her arms.

  Sam turned his focus back to the man who had almost taken everything from him, just in time to see the gun pointing at them. On a roar, just as a shot rang out, Sam launched himself at the man.

  There was a sharp tug in his thigh, but he'd already been ignoring brutal pain for more than an hour. The new wound barely registered.

  Tackling the man, they rolled over each other, the slope growing steeper and more precarious every few feet. Taking a quick glance at the forest, Sam realized they were on the edge of a precipice and picking up speed.

  At the last possible second, he let go of his hold on the stranger, reached out with his good arm, gripped a narrow tree trunk, and held on for everything he was worth.

  The man's hands slipped from around Sam's shoulders, his eyes widening with the sudden knowledge that he was going to die. Down, down, down he went, his screams for help echoing through the forest.

  And then, his cries were suddenly broken by the sound of his gun going off.

  Everything went silent.

  It wasn't the first time Sam had seen someone die in the mountains. But it was the first time he wasn't going to head in to drag the body out.

  Blood dripping from his arm, from his face, but mostly from his thi
gh, Sam knew he needed to pull himself up to safety. His vision starting to go, he hoisted himself onto a thick shrub he hoped would hold his weight.

  He looked up the mountain to where Dianna was still sitting holding her sister, tears streaming down her cheeks.

  She was safe. His job was done.

  His brain and body could finally shut down.


  THE HELICOPTER landed on the roof of the hospital, and Dianna watched helplessly as Sam and April, both still unconscious, were rushed inside.

  Desperate to stay with each of them--and to hear what the doctors had to say about their conditions--she was reluctant to submit to her own rounds of tests. No question, she was tired and scraped up. But mostly, she was afraid. Had the man hurt April during her three days of captivity? What were the extent of Sam's bleeding and injuries? After years of brutal firefighting, had he finally pushed his body too far?

  The short helicopter flight had seemed endless as she'd tried to stop the bleeding in Sam's thigh by pressing one clean bandage after another against the open gunshot wound. But the bandages filled with blood almost as soon as she applied them.

  Even when she'd watched the man push Sam off the trail, she'd been certain that he was still alive. But seeing all that blood, noting how empty of color his face was, how cold his skin, was the first time she'd ever been afraid that the man she loved was going to die.

  If she could have, she would have given her life for his, stepped in front of that bullet and let it take her down. Instead, she'd watched from a distance, helpless in the background as she held on to her sister.

  An hour after arriving at the hospital, the doctor attending to her held out a small white paper cup with four pills. Despite the unproblematic results of her scans and X-rays, he looked extremely concerned.

  "Your body has had quite a lot to deal with this week, Ms. Kelley. It's time to give it some rest. These pills will help."

  Dianna didn't take the cup. "What are they?"

  "Anti-inflammatories and something to help you relax."

  "No," she said firmly. "I don't want any sedatives."

  She couldn't check out, even if exhaustion was coming at her from every angle. Not when the two people she loved most in the world were injured and unconscious.

  The doctor frowned. "I'm going to leave them with your nurse in the hopes that you'll reconsider, which I strongly urge you to do."

  But Dianna had no intention of taking the pills. After the doctor had left the room, she got up off the bed and went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on her face.

  For the second time in a week, looking in the mirror was like looking at a stranger. Who was this woman with wild eyes and tangled hair?

  And yet, again, the longer she stared, the more familiar the woman became. She'd buried herself beneath her "perfect" re-creation of Dianna Kelley for long enough. And even though she wasn't a wild woman, regardless of what she currently looked like, her journey through the Rockies with Sam had convinced her not to waste any more time playing it safe.

  Life was precious. From here on out, she was going to risk everything.

  Especially her heart.

  Stripping off her hospital gown, she turned on the faucet in the small shower and quickly scrubbed herself, head to toe. She could have lived with the dirt and mud, with the tangles in her hair, but she desperately wanted to wash away her memories of the man who'd abducted her sister, of the way he'd pressed against her on the dirt bike, the feel of his hands around her neck, yanking her hair.

  The standard hospital pump soap was as sweet smelling to her as any of the luxury brands she'd used over the years. It made her fresh cuts sting, but she was glad for it because it meant she was still alive.

  Quickly toweling off, she finger-combed her hair as best she could. Her clothes were wrecked, but they were all she had, so she put the ripped and dirty khaki pants and shirt back on along with her socks and boots.

  Three days ago she'd been in this same position, getting out of a hospital bed and getting dressed despite doctor's orders to rest. There was no way she could have predicted her reunion with Sam or their newfound love.

  Moving back into the room, she picked up the phone and dialed a number she hoped was still in service. Thankfully, the warm voice she remembered picked up the phone.

  "Connor, it's Dianna." Her heart was pounding hard at the news she was about to give Sam's brother. "Sam's been shot. I think you should come."

  "Where is he?"

  There was no hint of fear in her almost-brother-in-law's voice, but the MacKenzie brothers hid their emotions well beneath a nearly impenetrable armor of self-control.

  "Vail General Hospital. The wound is in his right thigh." Her voice broke. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have agreed to let him help me find my sister."

  She realized that she wasn't making sense, that Connor didn't know about April's disappearance, but she couldn't find the words to explain. Not yet.

  "I tried to talk him out of going to Colorado," Connor said. "I tried to tell him it was a bad idea to see you again."

  She sucked in a shaky breath. Of course he would have cautioned Sam about coming here. Connor had been there to pick up the pieces. She hadn't.

  "I didn't know that," she admitted. "But I understand why you did it."

  "Forget about me. The only reason I'm saying any of this is to let you know that Sam wanted to go to Vail despite all of my good reasons to stay the hell away. He wanted to be with you, Dianna. Simple as that."

  She was amazed to realize that it really was that simple. She and Sam were two people who wanted to be together. Who belonged together. Sure, it was messy. But it was real. And pure.

  "I'm sure I'll find out what's happened soon enough," Connor added, "but the one thing I know for sure is that if Sam wants to do something, if he wants to help somebody, there isn't anything anyone can do to stop him. Even if we think he'd be better off going on without us."

  She quickly realized he wasn't simply talking about all Sam had done to help her find April. He was also referencing what Sam had done to save Connor's life in Desolation Wilderness the previous summer.

  "I'll take the next plane out." Their connection went dead.

  Hanging up, as she stepped into the hall, her brain took her back ten years, to the day that she'd told Sam she was pregnant and he'd quickly proposed.

  "I've never done anything because I have to" was what he'd told her then. "From the moment I saw you, I wanted you."

  She knew that Connor was right. Sam took care of people. Strangers. Family. Her. He would never change. And she didn't want him to. She loved him just the way he was.

  Slowly walking over to the nurses' station, she finally started to notice how bruised and beaten her limbs felt.

  Knowing she should be friendly and polite to the extremely helpful hospital staff, but not having an ounce of extra energy for a smile, she said, "I need to see April Kelley and Sam MacKenzie."

  "Of course, Ms. Kelley," the woman said, obviously recognizing her despite her current au naturel look. "I'll take you to your sister," the petite woman said, standing up and coming out into the waiting room.

  "I need to see Sam, too," Dianna insisted. "I need to know how he's doing, if he's going to be all right."

  "I'm sorry, Ms. Kelley," the nurse said, "but I'm afraid I can't speak to you about his case."

  "I know I'm not his wife," Dianna pleaded, putting her hand on the woman's arm, "but I have to be with him. He needs me."

  The woman's brown eyes were full of empathy. "I can't guarantee anything, but after I take you to your sister I'll contact his surgeon and see if we can set up a visit."

  "Surgeon?" The one word was hollow with fear.

  She'd known he'd been hit by the bullet, but she'd hoped it had merely grazed the skin. Had his injuries been worse than any of them knew, especially given his terrible fall off the cliff?

  Suddenly, she could hardly breathe.

sp; The nurse took her arm. "I think you should rest, Ms. Kelley."

  Knowing she had to pull it together or she'd be sent off for more tests, Dianna said, "I'm fine" in a steady voice. "And I appreciate your help."

  The nurse pressed her lips together, clearly disagreeing with Dianna's self-assessment, but she continued to lead the way to April's room.

  "You'll be glad to hear that your sister is doing very well. She was extremely dehydrated and a bit bruised on her face, but it looks like she'll be just fine."

  "Thank you," Dianna told the woman once they arrived at April's door. "I'll wait here for news of Sam."

  Nodding, the nurse walked back to her station. Stepping inside April's room, she saw her sister lying on the bed beneath a thick white blanket, her skin pale, her eyes closed. She looked so tiny in the hospital bed that Dianna's throat clogged with tears as she looked at the little sister she loved so much.

  Moving to her side, Dianna covered April's hand with her own and was surprised when she opened her eyes.

  "Hi," April croaked.

  Dianna picked up the cup of water beside the bed and put it to her sister's lips. After she'd drained the cup, she had to ask, "Did he hurt you?"

  "Only right here, with his gun," April said, touching her cheekbone. "That was his big move, I guess," she said, looking at Dianna's matching bruises. "But I think he was waiting for you to really do something."

  "Thank God," Dianna said, glad at least that the man hadn't raped her sister. "Don't ever scare me like that again, okay?"

  "I hope I never do," April replied, her lips curving up in a small smile.

  Her baby sister was beautiful, Dianna thought. A gorgeous young woman with her whole life ahead of her. She could do anything. Be anything. If only she'd believe in herself the way Dianna believed in her.

  April sucked on her lower lip, just like she used to as a toddler. "Thank you for coming for me."

  Dianna shook her head. "Are you kidding? Nothing could have kept me from coming to get you. Nothing."

  April closed her eyes, the dark smudges beneath them mirroring the ones Dianna had seen beneath her own eyes in the bathroom mirror. Still holding April's hand, Dianna sat down on the chair beside the bed, planning to stay with her for as long as the nurses would let her.