Title: WILD WITHIN
Author: Christine Hartmann
Publisher: Limitless Publishing
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Author: Christine Hartmann
Publisher: Limitless Publishing
Genre: Romantic Suspense
A year after a family tragedy, Grace Mori embarks on the journey of a lifetime…
Two thousand, six hundred miles of blistering heat, wilderness, and soul searching—that’s what Grace signed up for when she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s not a voyage for beginners, but with no husband and her family still recovering from her bother’s death, Grace is more alone than ever.
This trail meant something to her brother, and she’ll hike it in his memory, but she can’t do it alone. So with her brother’s gear and a small group, Grace takes the most important first steps of her life.
Grace finds something more than peace and magic on the trail…
When her first day of hiking ends in heat stroke, Grace is rescued by a handsome, red-haired hiker who calls himself Lone Star. Grace has an immediate connection with him, and their brief encounter leaves her fearing her soul mate has slipped through her fingers. Although he vows to keep in touch, Grace doubts she’ll ever see him again.
When fears become reality, the only people Grace can rely on may be killers...
Grace is surprised to find notes left at supply posts along the trail. Lone Star’s eloquent letters keep Grace going, clinging to the hope she’ll find him—and happiness—at the end of her journey. But as the trail becomes more perilous, menace grows within the group. And when Lone Star’s letters mysteriously stop coming, Grace fears the worst.
As tensions flare and a killer emerges, Grace must battle to survive…and reunite with the man she’s sure is her future.
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Early morning sun scorched the grimy car hood and forced its way through the window to burn Grace’s bare arms. She fidgeted as she watched the arid plane of sagebrush and light brown dust roll past. The landscape differed completely from the grassy hills, eucalyptus trees, and fog around her native San Francisco. Occasional yucca plants shouldered their way between low scraggly bushes with more branches than leaves. Small boulders peppered the area, looking like enormous grey cottage cheese curds among rolling, sere hills.
This countryside puts the wild in wilderness.
The car bounced past dry pastures and scruffy woods.
Maybe I should have spent more time reading those trail guides?
A glimpse of the Mexican border made her sit up straight.
Who cares? I’m here.
Grace bounced in her seat with excitement.
This is it.
Grace and her friend Celine were the only people at the five square wooden posts that marked the southern terminus of the 2,665-mile Pacific Crest Trail, a route leading from Mexico to Canada. A few yards away, wind forced its way through the steel border fence like the sound of screeching tires. Celine snapped a few pictures as Grace removed the spiral hiker register from its protective metal box. On the first empty page she wrote: Kenji, you’re with me.
She signed with more bravado than she actually felt.
Grace spurted back to the car. “I want to get going.” But her backpack, resting in the backseat, was in less of a hurry. She coaxed it onto her shoulders with much grunting and straining and stood, slightly bent, for one final snapshot.
“I’ve never lifted anything this heavy. What was I thinking? It’s not a trip to Macy’s where I can throw all the heavy stuff into the trunk.”
“You were thinking you might need some supplies.” Celine surveyed her. “Because you’re going to be in the middle of nowhere. For months.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Grace straightened with effort. “I’ve been waiting almost a year for this. They say your pack gets lighter as you get used to it. So where’s the trail?”
Celine shrugged. Grace searched the monotonous sand and brush.
“I’ve got the map on my cell.”
But the phone wouldn’t turn on. Grace depressed the controls repeatedly. The screen remained as black as its case.
Come on. My paper maps are buried in my pack.
She took a mental inventory of what lay above them: a one-person tent, a sleeping bag and mat, a wide-brimmed sun hat, extra socks, the head of a toothbrush, all-weather matches, a travel-size deodorant stick, her mother’s homemade rice cakes, and Kenji’s apartment key fastened with a twist tie to the zipper of a first aid kit. The idea of spreading everything out at the base of the monument made her ill.
She pushed more buttons.
Don’t die now.
The screen flickered. She fiddled more and the contrast increased.
“Typical me.” Her hands shook a little as she pinched the trail map to zoom in on her location. “I turned down the brightness last night to save energy. For a second there, I thought I was going to faint. That would’ve made a good Facebook post. Grace Mori’s one second thru-hike of the PCT.”
Celine grinned and poked Grace’s arm. “It’s good to get all the mistakes out of the way at the beginning. Now try to make it through the rest of the day without any more.”
Grace stepped into the sparse brush.
“I already miss you as much as I miss your brother,” Celine called after her. But the wind whipped away her words.
On the trail, Grace’s pent up excitement gave wings to her hiking shoes. They floated across baked earth that meandered through scrub and around boulders. She raced securely down descents and sailed up ascents.
This is so easy.
She covered the next two miles in under an hour. Her initial destination was Lake Morena County Park, eighteen miles away. But her thoughts were of the Canadian border.
Twenty miles a day, for the next four months, before the northern mountains become impassable with snow. In this heat, that idea feels like a mirage.
She looked at her watch.
Nine thirty. Ten more hours of daylight. So I’ll get to Lake Morena with time to spare.
At first, the white circle rising in a cloudless blue seemed a happy part of the scenery. But bit by bit, the sun blazed an ever fiercer hole in the sky. Her short black hair melted into her head and burned her fingers when she touched it.
I should never have given up lightening my hair. Apparently blondes do have more fun, even in the desert.
Her legs pistoned in long strides that searched for cover. But nothing afforded shade.
A tree. A bush. A houseplant, for goodness sake. I’ll take anything.
The trail eventually crossed a highway and meandered through a grove of cottonwood trees. There, Grace slung off her pack, dropped beside it, and dug through her gear.
She squashed a cream-colored hat onto her sweaty brow. Her parched lips drained a water bottle. A rough trunk supported her back.
My shoulders ache. My feet hurt. And this pack weighs a ton. Why did I throw in everything I thought might come in handy? Pre-moistened body wipes? Am I really going to need those out here?
The previous night, she and Celine had discussed her strategy. “I read somewhere a person hiking in direct sun needs at least a gallon of water for every ten miles.” Grace laid out her water containers on the hotel bed. “But one gallon weighs eight pounds. I’ve got a two-gallon collapsible water container and two one-liter bottles. Do you think I should fill them all? That’s close to twenty extra pounds.”
“I think you should follow the rules.”
“That’s a lot of extra weight.” Grace hefted a container from the hotel sink. “Maybe I’ll fill two bottles and leave my larger container partially empty. I’ll drink a lot before I start. And Hauser Creek is on the trail. I can get more water there.”
Celine pursed her lips contemplatively and tossed an empty bottle to Grace. “What if there’s no water in the creek?”
“Then they wouldn’t call it a creek.” Grace chucked the bottle back at her. “It’ll be fine. Like I said, I’ll hydrate like crazy before we set out.”
In the morning, after a brief rest under cottonwoods, Grace continued her hike. She chased lazy clouds in search of shade. They vaporized before she reached them.
Why did I wear pants?
She longed for the hiking skirt in her pack. Then the trail narrowed, and waist-high chaparral brush clung and tore as she battled through. Rough, aggressive limbs and thick, unforgiving leaves pulled at her hiking poles. Grace held them above her head, unable to see her feet. After five minutes of struggle, she reached the other side. Her face dripped with sweat. She looked down.
I love you, pants.
Grace drained her second water bottle as she climbed. At the top of the hill, she paused. Perspiration dripped into her eyes and mouth, but she was too hot to care. In the distance, the border wall and Mexican mountains were still clearly visible. She thought of fishing out her phone for a picture.
Too much effort.
The path leveled out. Her pace slowed. The heat irritated her.
I should have had my hat on from the beginning. Why didn’t I start hiking earlier in the day? Where the heck is Hauser Creek? I need more water.
She wiped a hot tear from her cheek.
What a mess. But there’s no point in crying. Come on Grace.
Grace was the kind of person who prided herself on being someone people could count on. When her mother’s first attempt at baked Alaska set the kitchen window curtains aflame, teenage Grace doused the inferno in chocolate syrup, then helped her mother take down the gooey mess.
“People in Alaska originally lived in igloos. They probably didn’t have window curtains.” She wiped the counter with a Lysol-soaked dishrag. “Some desserts don’t translate well across climate zones.”
As an adult, Grace volunteered her services as a psychologist for the Friday overnight shift at the Berkeley women’s crisis hotline. There, she comforted agonized rape victims, beaten girlfriends, and conflicted housewives with a sympathetic ear, sensible advice, and a list of referrals she’d personally vetted.
“You’re ready to move out? Don’t forget to take his Rolex. He owes you big time.”
And when tragedy struck her family a year ago, it was Grace who negotiated with the funeral home and the florist. Phoned relatives in San Diego, New Brunswick, and Tokyo. Late at night, in bed alone, she lay exhausted but sleepless.
“How am I going to get through this by myself?”
That blistering day on the trail, she began to lose faith. The merciless, prodding sun became her enemy. It evaporated her enthusiasm, diminished her stamina, and gnawed at her judgment. Her feet dragged along the sandy path without any of their initial eagerness. She refilled her water bottles from the large container in her pack and ignored the voice that told her she would soon run out of fluids.
After another mile, the trail merged with a Jeep road. In the distance, Grace saw a disappearing cloud of dust.
That was a car. I could have asked them for a ride. Maybe they had air conditioning. Some extra water. Maybe they were on their way back to San Diego and would have taken me to a hotel. I could have started the trail again in a few days, when it’s cooler.
She checked the phone’s GPS. Four miles to Hauser Creek.
I’ll make it if I ration my water.
By the time the trail dove into Hauser Canyon’s shaded grove of oaks and sycamores, Grace hated the sun more than she’d ever hated anything. She squinted at the wooded valley. But the only hint that a creek had ever flowed across the parched land was a strip of slightly darker sand meandering through a pile of rocks. Grace’s knees wobbled.
Even in the shade, sweat poured down her face.
It’s past noon. I should eat.
She felt nauseous. Her head pulsed like molten lava in a live volcano crater.
I need to rest.
Her shoulders shrugged out of the pack straps and she sank to the ground. Before thinking better of it, she drank the rest of her water. A small Japanese folding fan, the parting gift from her sister, offered some relief. The hot desert air drew out the fan’s sandalwood scent. The breeze evaporated her perspiration.
She kicked off her shoes and socks, then changed into her skirt. But after thirty minutes of inertia, sweat still dripped from her chin. Sitting made her dizzy, so she lay down. The violent sun tortured her through the leaves, shafts branding her face and body like flames.
I need more water. Have to keep going. A road’s not far ahead. If I lie down in the middle, somebody will find me.
But the idea of crawling out of the partial shade into the glaring sun was too much.
Bees droned near her head.
What’s that? Airplane? Maybe they can see me down here. Call in a rescue.
Her mind drifted up, into the sparse tree branches. It hung there briefly. Then ascended into the smoldering, cloudless sky.
Later, another idea broke through her confusion.
I’m going to die. On my first day on the trail. Kind of a waste. All this equipment. All that money. Geez, I could have spent it on those cell phone-operated blinds for the living room instead. There was that coupon in the Saturday clipper magazine…
Her tongue ran along dry lips.
Hmm. I’m licking a lizard. I wonder if he’ll lick back.
Then Grace thought of nothing.