Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Winter, Fire, and Snow



And you, little son, come safely home
Riding the tail of the wind
May you always come this safely home
In winter, fire, and snow.
—Anuna



The endless spread of clouds hung heavy and low, looking like a gray, pregnant army marching across the sky. The wind had that certain crisp smell and bite on the skin that usually signaled imminent snow.

Snow. It would have been beautiful a few minutes ago, the perfect cap to the Noche Buena celebration going on at Sabrina Adelante Donovan’s home without her, where her aunts and her mother were undoubtedly making tamales, per Honduran tradition, and gossiping in rapid-fire Spanish, their hands flying through the air like masa-covered butterflies. They came every Christmas Eve, armed with food and recipes and the good-natured intent of increasing her catracha-to-gringa ratio by speaking to her only in Spanish and feeding her copious amounts of flan and other Latin American treats. All they ever really increased was her waistline, and her Spanish remained functional-yet-clunky from year to year, despite her best intentions. But the food was so amazing, she’d never dare complain. In either language.

But now, the Christmas Eve celebration went on without her, and the impending snow had turned into something deadly hovering over their heads, ready to lull a lost little girl into a sleep from which she might never wake up.

Hurry.

With an impatient flick of her wrist, Sabrina checked her watch again, feeling like her skin was on too tight and the whole world was moving too slowly. “Where’s Alex? He should be here.” She planted the end of her walking stick on the ground with a sharp click and surveyed the parking lot.


“Don’t see his truck.” Beside her, her husband Aaron scanned the dense snarls of green beyond the stretch of blacktop on which they stood. But she knew he wouldn’t see anything—it was never that easy.

The dark rise of Renegade Ridge, the mountain from which the land they were standing on got its name, hulked behind the glass-and-pine cabin that served as Renegade Ridge State Park’s main ranger station. Maddy Perkins was up there somewhere, cold, alone, and so lost, her mother had had to call in the park Search and Rescue team to find her.

Sabrina was the leader of tracking team one, but she couldn’t very well go out looking for Maddy without someone to lead--and to trade off that lead when her eyes grew tired. And that someone would be Alex Gray, tracker two and one of her dearest friends. The other member of her team, Jessie DiCosta, was in Europe on a much-deserved vacation.

Actually, all three of them were technically on vacation. Which made the fact that they’d been called in on Christmas Eve all the more serious.

Hurry.

Savagely biting into her glove, she pulled it off with her teeth and fished her cell phone out of the pocket of her all-weather parka. Flipping it open, she punched in Alex Gray’s number, tempted to throw it across the parking lot when she hit the wrong digit and had to start over. Aaron watched her in silence, his still, gray eyes revealing nothing. But she knew what was behind them—Maddy’s chances grew worse with every second. He knew it, she knew it.

God, she just wanted to move.

With a whoosh, the glass and metal doors to the ranger station flew open, and Alex Gray burst outside. The chorus of Foreigner’s “Urgent” blared from the cell phone he held, and he broke out into his best ’80s hair band falsetto as he grooved toward her. His girlfriend Sophie Brennan trailed behind him, her expression torn between amusement and mortification.

“Not that I need to feed your considerable ego any more, but if ever decide to fire you, you probably could join a Guns N Roses tribute band,” Sabrina shouted over Alex’s wail of “EEEEE-mer-gen-cy!”

“OK, stop!” Red-haired Sophie reached up and placed a mittened hand over her boyfriend’s mouth. With her free hand, she yanked the phone out of his grasp, opening then shutting it again with a snap, mercifully silencing both it and Alex. “Before whoever just got lost goes all hypothermic waiting for you to quit shaking your groove thing and find them.”

Sabrina silently blessed Sophie, who controlled hyperkinetic Alex much better than Sabrina ever could. Sabrina was the worrier on their team--Alex always started off a search convinced he was invincible, the team was unstoppable, and the lost hiker would inevitably be found, safe and whole. “Didn’t see your truck. I thought you were still on your way,” Sabrina said.

“And you thought calling and nagging me would make me get here faster?” Pulling his Seattle Mariners ball cap out of his jacket pocket—which he generally substituted for appropriate winter headgear unless Washington state was officially in the middle of an ice storm—he jammed it backwards on his head and grinned. “Sophie drove us in her Civic. We just got here, so we don’t know anything yet. What’s up?”

Sabrina glanced at Sophie, the expression on her lightly freckled face a mixture of curiosity and mild concern. Alex always insisted his girlfriend was psychic, but Sabrina had yet to witness any evidence of Sophie’s powers. If only….

“Little girl disappeared this morning, while walking with her mother up Black Wolf Run,” Aaron supplied in his deep baritone. “The mother wanted to take some pictures in the snow, near the hot springs.”

Alex’s happy-go-lucky countenance morphed into something uncharacteristically sober. The search coordinator generally only provided details by phone to the team leaders, whom they counted on to brief their trackers, so Alex hadn’t known until this minute how serious this call was. “How old?” he asked.

“Seven,” Sabrina said. Alex swore under his breath as Sabrina’s stomach lurched at the thought of someone so young, lost for so long. She glanced at her watch again as Sophie sighed beside her.

Hurry.

“The SAR teams have been looking for her since around ten a.m,” she said. “They’re pulling fresh teams from the off-duty list, which is why we got called back in.”

Alex’s eyes darted briefly toward the mountain behind them, with the Olympic range beyond it. And she knew what he was thinking—there wasn’t much “rest of the day” left. It would be dark in a few hours, and once darkness fell, temperatures would plummet, putting that lost little girl in even graver danger.

Move. They needed to move. Pushing off with her walking stick, Sabrina headed toward the ranger station doors. “Her name’s Maddy Perkins. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, wearing a pink satin Dora the Explorer winter jacket with white trim and a purple backpack. Skylar said she’s wearing rain boots.” Warm air blasted her in the face as she pushed through the double doors, heading toward Skylar Jones’ office. The search coordinator would have a copy of Maddy’s footprint if one were possible.

Alex cursed again, obviously realizing that rain boots had near-zero traction on the steep temperate rainforest trails, and no traction if it started to snow. The Olympic mountain range could be deadly to seasoned hikers with the best equipment. A small girl with thin-tread rubber boots in near darkness? She didn’t even want to think about it.

Just as Skylar rose from behind her desk to greet them, a pale woman hugging her crumpled navy blue jacket to her chest intercepted them.

“Sabrina? Are you Sabrina Adelante?” Her hand clutched at the air near Sabrina’s elbow, before she pulled it back at the last minute without touching her.

“Yes.” Sabrina knew without being told that this was Maddy’s mother. The details weren't hard to spot--the desperate hope behind her words, the way she clung to her coat like a security blanket.

“They said you were on vacation, that you might not come.” The unshed tears in the woman’s dark blue eyes threatened to spill over. “I prayed that you’d come. I heard about how your team found those teenagers who were lost a few months ago….” The treated fabric of her coat rustled in her grip.

Sabrina tried not to scowl at the thought of this woman considering her presence a sign from above. She’d learned long ago that God didn’t always answer the prayers of every lost hiker. Sure, some were found, hungry and tired, but alive. And some got lucky and wandered in the right direction, finding their own way back. But some took a wrong turn off a precipice or stepped into the river that snaked through and around the trails, or succumbed to the intense cold of a mountain winter, and they came home zipped into a body bag, while their loved ones wept over their still, cold bodies. And some didn’t come home at all, but stayed lost in the deep, emerald green of a forest that would never give up all its secrets. She would have liked to believe that God would spare every lost child, but years of tracking experience had taught her otherwise.

“Find my little girl.” The woman’s breath caught, and she took Sabrina’s hand and pressed something into it. “Can you find my little girl? I’ve been waiting here for ... hours.”

Yes. She so much wanted to say it, to give this grieving mother the promise she wanted to hear. She looked down to see that the woman had given her a school photo, of a girl with tousled brown hair, freckles across the bridge of her nose, and a sweet, gap-toothed smile. “We’ll do everything we can,” she said to Maddy’s picture.

“I didn’t mean to lose her. I told her to stay near me. The snow looked so pretty on this fallen tree, and I just wanted a few pictures.” She broke down into quiet sobs as a man who was probably her husband approached. He took her gently by the shoulders, trying to guide her away from the trackers. “I tried to follow her, but I couldn’t see where she’d gone. I didn’t mean to lose her,” she cried softly, allowing herself to be led away.

Aaron put a steadying arm around Sabrina’s shoulders, and she leaned against him, more grateful for his warm, solid bulk than she could remember.

“Can I see that?” Sophie asked softly beside her, the tip of her mitten brushing against the photo Sabrina still held.

“Sure.” She handed it to Sophie, whose wavy red hair fell forward as she studied the image, a thin line of concentration forming between her eyebrows. If only….

Alex came toward her from the search coordinator's office, holding out a sheet of paper. He'd apparently gotten the rest of the details while she'd been dealing with Mrs. Perkins' grief. “Skylar found a store downtown that carries the type of rain boot Maddy’s wearing. They faxed us a print.”

Just as they’d suspected, the tread of Maddy’s rubber boot was thin and pretty much ineffectual—a series of hair-thin, horizontal lines spaced about a millimeter apart. They’d be no match for slick mountain mud or a sheet of ice.

Maddy could fall in those boots, like Alice down the rabbit hole, down to a place where they’d never find her.

“PLS?” She tucked the paper into her jacket pocket and charged for the door, needing to get out, get going. Now. Alex fell into step beside her, Aaron and Sophie bringing up the rear, well accustomed to getting out of the way when their significant others needed to move.

“Point last seen was about three miles up Black Wolf Run.” Black Wolf was an intermediate, five-mile hiking trail that wound up the first third of Renegade Ridge to the park’s famed hot springs—some hidden, others out in the open. It was one of the more straightforward trails in the park, but it was also a gateway path to the vast weblike network of advanced trails that snaked through the 1,400-square mile park. “There should be a marker.”

When they reached Sabrina’s Jeep, which they’d drive up to the Black Wolf Run trailhead, Sophie handed the photo back to them. Sabrina let Alex take it.

“Anything?” he asked. Sabrina wasn’t in the least surprised when Sophie shook her head.

“Nothing,” Sophie said. “I’m trying, but I’m not getting a thing.”

Alex pulled Sophie away for a quick goodbye, leaving Sabrina somewhat alone on her side of the Jeep with Aaron.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go home?” she asked him. Aaron, a police detective, would be little help here, but she knew even before he answered that he’d insist on staying in the ranger station. He’d keep vigil here—all night if he had to—drinking stale coffee and offering staler reassurances to Mandy Perkins’s mother. Just in case the worst happened and Sabrina needed him when she came down the mountain.

He gave her that crooked smile she loved so well, brushing a stray wisp of black hair that had escaped her ponytail off her forehead, then skimming his fingertips down her cheek. “I’ll be here. Waiting.”

“Love you,” she whispered, her heart full. It was their first Christmas together as a married couple. It should have been wonderful—for them and for the Perkins family. Now, it was a dice roll.

Leaning forward, he brushed his mouth softly across hers, moved up to press another kiss against her cool forehead. “Love you back,” he breathed against her skin.

She leaned into him, just for one more second, watching the wispy tendrils of her breath curl and twist in the cold air. “What if we don’t find her? What if we do and she’s … gone?” It was stupid, but she wanted Aaron to tell her everything would be all right. He couldn’t guarantee it—no one could. Maddy had been gone for way too long. But right now, she had the ridiculous sense that anything was possible, as long as he said it was.

“It’s Christmas Eve," he said. "Miracles happen. And you and Alex are more than a miracle coming to help her.”

She pulled out of his arms, opening the driver’s-side door and shoving her walking stick into the back. “Everyone deserves a miracle, Aaron. But not everyone gets one,” she said to the car’s interior. She turned to face him, feeling suddenly angry, though not at anyone in particular. “With the exception of God, gravity, and tPluto's status as a non-planet, I can’t believe in what I never see. Even on Noche Buena.”

* * *

Alex and Sabrina made short work of the three miles of steep inclines and switchbacks to the point along Black Wolf Run where Maddy had last been seen. And as promised, the team that had been on Maddy’s trail earlier in the day had left a marker near her footprints in the packed earth—a thin wire stake tied at the top with a wisp of pink tissue paper. Baby girl pink.

How appropriate.

Someone’s baby. Someone’s little girl.

Sabrina knelt down next to the rounded prints, with their too-thin treads made for slick asphalt, not mountain switchbacks. The icy wind picked up as she studied the tracks, the lady ferns lining the trail beside her scissoring in the sharp breeze.

“She puts her weight on the insides of her feet.” She pointed a gloved finger at one of Maddy’s prints, which was more pronounced on the big-toe side. The outside of her print was barely visible in the loose dirt lining the side of the trail.

She looked up at Alex, who smiled sadly. “She’s knock-kneed.”

The image of Maddy’s gap-toothed smile came into sharp focus in her mind, but this time, Sabrina could also picture a little girl’s stout body to go with it, her seven-year-old belly jutting out slightly over knees and toes turned endearingly inward. “Yes.” The word came out on a sigh.

She thought she’d hidden the sharp pang of almost-tears, until Alex broke into her silence. “You want me on point?” He was acting as her flank tracker, scanning the area ahead while she focused on the ground directly under their noses, ensuring that she wouldn’t run into a tree or miss an obvious sign up ahead.

Get a grip, Adelante. You’re no help to anyone if you start bawling. “No, I got it.” She rose from the ground to scan ahead for the next print. it took a moment before she spotted the barest hint of a heel curve in the packed dirt a few feet ahead. Damn those soft, rounded boots, with no sharp edges to dig into the ground and leave something behind.

The dimming light combined with the girl’s light-as-air prints made the going painstakingly slow. Every few steps, they called out Maddy’s name, hoping she’d step out from behind the thick trunk of a western hemlock or a fallen, moss-covered log. But of course she didn’t.

Too slow. Too slow when darkness is coming.

The average adult could cover about five miles in an hour, moving at an average pace. So even if Maddy’s little legs covered less than half that, say two miles an hour, they were still looking at a search area of roughly 300 miles. They’d managed to limit that area through old-fashioned footprint tracking, but even that had gotten them so far beyond the ranger station that they were out of radio and cell phone range. They had to rely on Piper Watkins, a helicopter pilot who was assisting with the search, to relay messages when she happened to fly within range. Sabrina could hear the faint whir of the chopper to the south, and figured it was only a matter of time before Piper checked in with them again.

The only good piece of news had surfaced about an hour earlier, when they had come to a point where the first tracking team’s sign veered off down the mountainside, toward another trail that headed northwest. Sabrina was able to find another, barely visible patch of thin lines indicating that Maddy had gone in a different direction. The first team had lost their way, but maybe, if Alex and Sabrina moved quickly enough….

The humming to the south grew louder, and then, in a burst of static, the radio clipped to Sabrina’s belt came to life.

“Tracking Team One, this is Air Watch RT64Z. Tracking Team One, this is Air Watch Romeo-Tango-Six-Four-Zulu, do you copy, over?” Piper’s Tennessee drawl came in loud and clear, and Sabrina hoped she wasn’t imagining the note of excitement in the pilot’s voice.

“Air Watch, this is Tracking Team One. Do you have news, over?”

“I have a message from base, over.” Piper’s chopper whirred above their heads in a swift arc across the small patch of gray sky visible through the trees.

“Which is what, Piper? We’ve got work to do,” Alex said into his own radio as he craned his neck upward and squinted at the break in the forest canopy. They heard the chopper turn and the hum of its blades grow louder again.

“Al, your Sophie wants to join you, over. Says she thinks she can help, over.”

Alex dropped his gaze and focused his dark eyes on Sabrina, letting the radio fall slack at his side.

“What?” she asked, her thumb off the talk button so Piper couldn’t hear their conversation. The chopper flew off again into the distance.

“What, what?”

She just glared at him. Sometimes, being team leader really sucked.

“I have faith in my girl,” he said, his expression all macho determination. “If she says she can help, she can.”

Sabrina shook her head. “Al—”

“Don’t ‘Ah-uhhhll’ me. She can.”

“What about the time she told me I shouldn't go on a search because I was going to get hurt, and nothing happened? Or the time she said I would win a ton, yes, a ton of money if I just bought $100 in scratch tickets, and all I won was more scratch tickets?" She jabbed her radio at the man who’d been her best friend since high school, wishing for all the world that she could believe in his stupid pipe dream.

Alex winced. "You asked her to predict something for you. She's not good under pressure--"

“And this isn't pressure? What if Sophie’s wrong, Alex? She can’t do her Miss Cleo thing under pressure—which is pretty much any time someone other than yourself is around. What if we find Maddy while Piper is busy picking her up, and those extra minutes we’re waiting for a pickup make the difference between a successful rescue and that little girl dying out here?”

Alex didn’t respond. The first few flakes of snow finally started to fall, light, airy things that danced in the silence between them like tiny fairies.

Her mother, who for some odd reason believed wholeheartedly in Sophie’s hit-or-miss skill, would kill her if she knew Sabrina was refusing to take a chance. “Nena, sometimes it’s not so good to have both feet stuck so firmly on the ground,” she’d say. “You have to leave the door open for los milagros.”

But her feet would always be on the ground, exactly where a tracker’s boots belonged. She had a job to do, and she couldn’t make a possibly life-or-death decision based on someone’s fantasy. Even someone she trusted as much as she did Alex.

“Tracking team one," Piper interrupted as she flew overhead again. "Sophie also said to tell you you’re going to find something blue and wish she was there.”

According to Maddy’s mother, the little girl was wearing a pink coat with a purple backpack, a white shirt with a black penguin on it, and gray pants—she wore nothing blue and carried nothing blue. It was hardly surprising that Sophie had gotten it wrong.

Sabrina brought the radio to her mouth and pressed the talk button. “Air Watch, please stand by in case we need you. Do not, I repeat, do not head back to base, over.”

Alex’s jaw worked angrily, but he didn’t say anything. The look he gave her said it all.

“Affirmative, oh, fearless leader.” Piper’s tone didn’t sound much friendlier, even masked by the crackling static. “Relaying message.”

* * *
Darkness fell, which slowed Sabrina and Alex down to a frustrating crawl. It hadn’t helped that Maddy had abandoned the trail and was making her way through the undergrowth. The rainforest, a thick, near-impenetrable cave of dense green in the daytime, turned into a light-sucking black hole at night, swallowing the beams of their bright flashlights so they could barely illuminate their feet, much less the trail before them. The thick cloud cover allowed no moonlight to break, so the two of them couldn’t see much of a difference when they walked under the forest canopy and when they walked under sky.

The snow fell in earnest now, lightly coating the ground wherever there was a break in the canopy. She could hear the crunch of their hiking boots as they walked, the sharp wind whistling eerily through the trees. The wispy branches of the Douglas firs and western hemlocks rustling against each other as they communicated in the way that trees do. Alex’s measured breathing beside her. The thump of their walking sticks as they hit the ground, then swept in careful arcs before them to keep them from walking into something, or each other.

Then, to her left, she heard Alex’s stick hit the ground, but its thump was muffled. She heard him pull the stick back, and then the unmistakable whirr of its tip running along weatherproof fabric. Both of them whipped their thin flashlight beams toward the direction of the sound.

A small pink coat lay crumpled on the snow. Sophie dropped into a crouch, shining her light around until they rested on a pair of red mittens not two feet ahead.

People in the most advanced stages of hypothermia sometimes felt like they were burning up, even though their bodies were actually freezing to death. If Maddy was shedding her clothes….

Hypothermic. Her little body couldn’t fight the cold any more. And if she was feeling the illusion of warmth, it wouldn’t be long until her seven-year-old heart would stop beating. And Sabrina and Alex would have to bring a body down the mountain, would have to tell a mother on Christmas Eve that her little girl was gone.

She felt Alex crouch down beside her. “Ah, hell,” he said softly.

Slowly, she reached down, grasping the pink satin with its cheerful white fur trim in both of her gloved hands. Bringing it to eye level, she buried her face in the soft fabric. It smelled like baby shampoo and bubble gum.

It was the smell that finally got to her.

“Please.” The word came out on a sob, quiet but still harsh. Tears squeezed out from under her eyelids, turning icy in the merciless black wind. Eight years she’d been a search and rescue tracker, and this was the first time she’d lost it on the job. “Please, God, don’t make me tell that mother—”

“Jeez, Bree.” Alex reached out and grasped her arm with a warm, gloved hand. He was trying to comfort her, but she’d heard his voice break when he’d said her name.

Unable to finish her sentence, Sabrina lowered the little coat, tried to focus on the snow-covered ground. A frantic urgency crawled up her chest, clasped icy fingers around her throat and clung there. She scanned the ground visible in her flashlight’s moving beam of light, once, again, willing an indentation to appear in the ground—a heel curve, a tiny zigzag of rubber boot tread, a flat spot in the snow.

But the snow was new, and it covered what she wanted to see.

Little girls didn’t just vanish. But it was so dark, and Sabrina couldn’t see a thing. Stupid, stupid, damn Christmas snow. “Alex,” she pleaded as he moved up beside her. Before she could even turn to look at him, she sensed him shaking his head.

“I can’t see anything, Bree.”

The jacket weighed heavy in her hands.

She’s cold. So small, and cold.

She might be dying. And I could take an hour to find the next print, the next sign of Maddy.

It’s Christmas Eve. Her husband’s words came back to her, and then her mother’s. It’s not good to keep your feet stuck so firmly on the ground all the time.

Sabrina clutched the jacket tighter. This time, she felt a hard, round shape inside its softness. Jamming her flashlight between her shoulder and cheek like a phone, she felt around until she found the coat pockets. Her hand scrabbled inside the first, then the second, where she finally felt a lumpy, cool shape she couldn’t identify by touch.

Pulling it out, she moved it into the flashlight beam to examine it.

It was a clay ornament in the shape of a lumpy star, lovingly fashioned by clumsy, seven-year-old hands.

Maddy had painted it blue.

She turned toward Alex, shining his light in his direction, though her vision had blurred so much she couldn’t even make him out. The whirr of a chopper sounded overhead, distant, but close enough.

Hurry.

“Call Piper, Alex. I need a miracle.”

* * *

“Give me her coat,” Sophie said.

Sabrina was glad Sophie couldn’t see her expression. “Will it help?”

Sophie made a confused noise that sounded something like Ayuhnoh. “Can’t hurt, right?”

God, she hoped she’d done the right thing, wasting precious minutes waiting for Piper to fetch Sophie, then waiting for a break in the clouds so the pilot had enough moonlight to land and drop her off at the nearest clearing.

“What the hell is up with those shoes, Brennan?” Alex shone his light on the trendy black boots Sophie wore, their stacked heels and undoubtedly miniscule tread hardly appropriate for near-blind mountain climbing.

“You were in a hurry when we left. I thought these would be okay,” she said lamely.

“Okay to do your little turn on the catwalk, Ms. I’m-too-sexy-for-real-boots, but not up here,” Alex retorted.

“Excuse me,” Sabrina interrupted, more sharply than she’d intended, “but I need Ms. Cleo to do her thing. Now.”

She whirled on the vaguely Sophie-shaped patch of darkness in front of her, shining her flashlight just under the woman’s face. “Soph, it’s taking us half an hour just to go from one foot print to the next. We’re losing her.” Dammit, she felt the tears welling up and inflating her throat, cutting off her ability to talk like a team leader shoulod. So she just spoke like the desperate woman she was.

“I know you don’t work well under pressure, but we’ve got to find her. Help me find her.” She swiped a gloved hand across her cheekbone. The forest she knew like she knew her own face had never made her feel this small. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Sophie’s great green eyes looked at her with a mixture of pity and fear. Alex moved into Sophie’s space, resting a possessive hand against the small of her back. He’d stepped into Sabrina’s light beam, and she could see that he continued to glare at his girlfriend’s shoes.

Her gaze still locked on Sabrina, Sophie pressed the pink coat into Alex’s chest, and he grasped it. “Can I borrow your walking stick?” she asked.

He handed it to her. “You got something?”

“Trust me?”

Alex didn’t miss a beat. “Do your thing, honey.”

Sophie took off into the darkness, moving as fast as her stack-heeled boots would take her.

If only….

* * *

Sabrina was the first one out after Piper landed the chopper in the ranger station parking lot. The blades still whipped overhead, even though the engine powering them had been shut down, the considerable downdraft causing Sabrina’s hair to break free of its ponytail and whip into her face, now that she'd shucked her hat.

Her eyes landed on Aaron, and her stiff, cold body moved almost involuntarily in his direction. But her heart lurched when she saw Maddy’s mother burst through the station’s double doors behind her husband.

Piper’s radio had inexplicably died just as the pilot was relaying the message that they were returning. Mrs. Perkins had no idea what the outcome was, whether Sabrina would make her Christmas or break her heart.

A thin siren wailed in the distance growing louder with every step Sabrina took away from the helicopter. Aaron would have called an ambulance to the scene, even though he had no idea what his wife was bringing back.

“She’s alive,” Sabrina shouted.

A shudder moved through Mrs. Perkins’ thin body, and she closed her eyes, swaying against Aaron, who placed a steadying arm around her shoulders.

The ambulance pulled into the parking lot, and Alex practically jumped into its path as he directed it toward the helicopter.

“She’s suffering from advanced hypothermia, so we still have to be really careful with her,” Sabrina explained, able to use a more normal tone of voice now that the chopper was powering down. Mrs. Perkins had opened her eyes again and was clasping Sabrina’s elbows like a lifeline. “Moving her could cause her to go into cardiac arrest, so she’s not out of danger yet.”

“God won’t let her die now. Not after all you’ve been through to get her.” Mrs. Perkins reached out and wrapped her arms around Sabrina, her grip a lot tighter than she would have expected from a woman so small and pale. “Thank you. So much.”

And then she took off running toward the helicopter, where the EMTs were carefully strapping Maddy’s tiny body onto a stretcher.

“Nice work, babe.” Aaron bent down to kiss her softly.

She put a hand on his chest, suddenly overcome by an exhaustion that went down to her bones, grateful to have him there to lean against. “Actually, it was Sophie who found her. She was amazing.”

Her husband pulled back to look down at her. “Seriously? Huh. Good for her.”

“Seriously. She took off running, in near-pitch darkness. And when she stopped, the moon broke through the clouds, and there was this perfect footprint in the snow right beneath her feet.” With a sigh, Sabrina lay her head on Aaron’s broad shoulder, watching the ambulance as it drove off and disappeared behind a stand of trees lining the road back to Port Renegade.

“So then what?”

“Alex and I followed ten perfect boot prints to where that little girl was lying against a tree trunk, just about asleep.” She didn’t want to think about what could have happened if they’d found her any later. “She’s severely hypothermic. We had to be so careful moving her.”

She felt Aaron nod. “"So her heart wouldn't stop.”

“I was so scared,” Sabrina said. “But you know Piper is trained as an EMT, so she helped us get Maddy in the chopper and secure her. And here we are.” She paused, listening to the sirens grow fainter and fainter. “You think she’ll make it?”

A low rumble of a laugh sounded deep in Aaron’s chest. “It’s Christmas Eve. You’re not going to get a half-assed miracle tonight.”

She didn't know why, but she had the strongest sense that Aaron was right.

As if on cue, Alex and Sophie walked up right at that moment. “So, was that the best Christmas ever, or what?” Sophie asked, clearly riding the high of a successful search.

“Really? Best Christmas ever?” Alex asked, one hand draped over Sophie’s shoulder and the other stuffed in the pocket of his parka.

“You two saved that little girl,” she said. "How could it not be?"

“You saved her,” Sabrina broke in. “I will never, ever doubt your powers again, Miss Cleo.”

Sophie laughed, a light, sparkling sound. “Oh, go ahead and doubt them. I suck as a psychic. Just not tonight.”

“On the best Christmas ever,” Alex interjected.

“What?” Sophie turned on him, lightly thwacking him in the chest. “Clearly, you are annoyed about something.”

He flashed his trademark up-to-something grin at her. “Not annoyed. I’m just disappointed that you won’t need this.” Pulling a small object out of his pocket, he tossed it in the air. “Seeing as you’re already having the best Christmas ever.” He caught the square, velvet box one-handed.

Sophie froze. Alex tossed the box in the air again and caught it once more.

“Is that for me?” she asked carefully.

“Nope.”

Sabrina and Aaron went completely still. Sabrina hoped that if they stayed quiet, their presence wouldn’t keep what she what pretty sure was happening from happening. Which was always a threat when hyperkinetic Alex and his short attention span was involved.

“That’s so totally for me.” Sophie lunged for the box as it flew into the air again, but Alex was too fast for her, snapping his fist around the box from above like a striking cobra.

“Gimme that!” Sophie clasped Alex around the elbows, then gripped his shoulder and started jumping up and down, trying to reach the object he now held high over her head. “Mine!” Laughing, the two of them continued their bizarre little dance until Sophie unexpectedly yanked his arm downward, finally claiming her prize.

Turning her body away from Alex and hunching over the box in case he tried to take it from her, she opened it. “Oh, Alex,” she sighed.

Sabrina could see the sparkling diamond even from several feet away.

Alex moved up behind his girlfriend, who continued to stare at the ring, one hand pressed against her cheek. “You like it?”

She turned around. “Of course. Even though it came with a truly unromantic proposal.” But Sophie’s heart was in her eyes, so they all knew she far from upset about it.

All the same, Alex gently pried the box out of Sophie’s hands and sank down on one knee, the snow on the ground undoubtedly soaking through his cargo pants. “Marry me, Soph.”

Sabrina didn’t think she’d ever seen Alex look as happy as he did when Sophie wrapped her arms around his neck and dissolved into happy tears. She felt Aaron’s hand on the small of her back and let him lead her toward the ranger station, giving their friends some privacy.

“Best Christmas ever,” she said.

“Give a guy a chance,” Aaron said, pulling her against his side as they walked. “When we get home, I’ll run you a bath.” He dipped his head to nuzzle her neck. “Wrap you up in blankets, and carry you to bed. And then we’ll see who has the best Christmas ever.”

They’d been together for more than two years, and the guy could still make her melt with just a look or a word. Or, in this case, a very lovely promise. “I adore you, you know that?”

The smile he gave her was pure heat, mixed with something deeper. And the kiss he gave her rocked her cold and tired world. “Then my Christmas is already the best. … although I might have to amend that if your aunts waited up for us….”

11 comments:

kce1976 said...

Great story for any time of the year, but especially Christmas. Never underestimate our 'other' senses!

Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks, KCE! I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was kind of difficult to think cold when I'm living in Florida at the moment, but I managed. : )

Caridad Pineiro said...

Awesome story, amiga! I so loved the ending.

Also, many thanks for the recipes.

My grandma made corn starch pudding in a very similar way. My favorite was the chocolate version and licking the spoon and pot she had made it in!

Tracy Montoya said...

There's a chocolate version? DUDE! Although if I ask my mom, she'll probably tell me to just dump in some chocolate and wing it....

Mayra Calvani said...

Great story, Tracy! I love its mood, perfect for this time of year. I didn't know you were also Margo Candela!
best,
Mayra

Mayra Calvani said...

It's me again! I just realized I read one of your books earlier this year--Underneath It All. I feel like an idiot! LOL I loved the book.

Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks for stopping by, Mayra. But I'm NOT Margo Candela! I agree, though--Underneath It All was a great book.

LaraRios said...

Great story, Tracy. Love it!
Merry Christmas!

Sharron McClellan said...

Loved the story--and on a lot of levels. You always impress me!

Sharron

Crafty Chica said...

You rocked it, great job!!! I'm looking forward to buying your books!! Peace, love and glitter to you!
Kathy :-)

Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, Lara, Sharron, and Kathy!

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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